I think we can safely say that building vessels on the Wear started with boats not ships.  


From the 4000 year old primitive dug out canoe found at Hylton, through evidence of roman slipways again at Hylton, to the well known coble, Sunderland has a massive boatbuilding history.


While the working boats of the fishermen, pilots, tugboats, ferries, lifeboats, keelboats and foymen may have reduced if not disappeared alltogether, the volunteers at Sunderland Maritime Heritage are determined to keep the skills of making and repairing these beautiful vessels alive.

Sunderland had its own boatbuilding company for many years, The Wearside Boatbuilding Company Ltd.  Their workshops and slipways were at the Potato Garth near the North Dock.  Two of Sunderland Maritimes former volunteers used to work there and were featured in an article by the Sunderland Echo.  The article is reproduced below.  Sadly, since the article was written Bill Reeves has passed away.


Sunderland Echo website Wednesday 06 June 2007

Two Sunderland Maritime Heritage (SMH) stalwarts are helping to keep Sunderland's boatbuilding tradition alive through skills learnt as apprentices half a century ago.


Derek Rowell, 69, and Bill Reeves, 70, first met in 1953 at North Shore-based Wearside Boatbuilding Co Ltd, where they completed their apprenticeships, before being called up for National Service in 1958.


After demob, Derek and Bill worked briefly as boatbuilders in the South, eventually meeting up again years later through SMH, where they are now involved in boatbuilding and restoration projects.


Derek said: "Everything I know about tools was learnt in the boatyard. It was a fantastic place to work, the men were great and the managing director was like a father figure. Boatbuilders were jacks of all trades and master of most, I would be delighted to use my skills in helping to restore the City of Adelaide."


After well over 100 years in business, Wearside Boatbuilding announced its closure in November, 1963 as increased use of glass-fibre ships' lifeboats and other small craft had reduced demand for conventional wooden craft.


Retiring managing director, Major Norman Dugdale, said: "To have continued in business, we would have had to convert the works into a modern factory, producing glass-fibre lifeboats.  As the capital cost of building such a factory, equipped with air conditioning, was beyond our means, we had no choice but to wind up the business."


During the Second World War, despite air raids, the boatyard made a major contribution to the war-effort, building 50 whalers for the Admiralty, along with many motor boats and special mine countermeasures craft. Hundreds of lifeboats were assembled for the Merchant Navy and 20 fast motor tugs were built for crossing the Rhine after D-Day.  Two slipways were continually occupied by Admiralty and War Department craft undergoing repairs.  For many years, lifeboats were constructed for most Wear-built ships, while most of the RNLI's lifeboats from the Humber to Dunbar visited the yard for overhaul. As well as being ladder, block and master makers, the company also built cabin cruisers and launches.


Employing more than 30 men at its peak, the yard's workforce had fallen to only six by the time it closed. Part of its premises comprised the former joiners' shop of John Blumer's North Dock shipyard, which shut down in 1927.


Although one of the Wear's lesser-known industries, the loss of Wearside Boatbuilding's expertise became another sad step in the river's decline. JL Thompson and Sons later acquired the site for shipyard expansion.


One surviving vessel built by the boatyard is the ex-police launch, Patrol, delivered to the River Wear Watch in 1947, which can still be seen in North Dock.


Sunshine is a Sunderland Foy Boat, known locally as a coble. The distinctive hull shape of these clinker built beach boats has been traditional along a stretch of the north east coast of Britain from Spurn Head in Yorkshire to the Farne Islands in Northumberland.

Cobles were developed as beach boats for launching into surf, and they met this purpose extremely well. Like most working boats of highly individual form they sailed and rowed very well in the hands of their expert owners.

Despite the flat run of planking and a lack of any deep or drop keel they could sail very well to windward, due to the long sharp forefoot and the addition of a very long rudder blade. With a sharp high bow and very flat sections in the stern the coble anticipated some modern motor boat practices.

Cobles were almost invariably clinker built and equipped with a tall narrow dipping lug sail. When rowed the oars were fitted with an iron ring which was located over a single thole pin, making it possible to let go of the oars without losing them over the side. Cobles can be built from about 12ft up to 42ft or even longer; some are fitted with engines.

The Museum’s boat Sunshine was built in Sunderland c1880 and is a small version of the type known as a half coble, developed specially for pilotage and tender duties. Boats employed in this way are known as Foy boats. They have less sheer forward than their larger relatives and the transoms are heavily raked to give them stability when towed behind or alongside ships stern first. This extreme shape makes the type one of the most distinctive and beautifully shaped local working boats in Britain.

Perhaps the most famous coble is the one used by Grace Darling and her father in the rescue of the Forfarshire’s crew in 1838.

A foyboat or coble was a small rowboat used for decades on the Wear.  When steamboats came into usage, the role of the foyboats became to assist in the mooring & unmooring of vessels, at coal staiths or at docks, mooring buoys, quays etc.  Manned by two sturdy men, the rowed vessels would carry the vessel's heavy hauser in fulfilling this function.

I find it amazing to learn that in the days of sail, such tiny boats would meet incoming sailing vessels in the North Sea, strike a bargain with the captain, get a rope on board & tow it back to the harbour.  With the assistance of the tide, a number of foyboats would work together to tow the ship into the river to it's berth & assist with the mooring ropes.  They could only attempt to tow the small sailing colliers, which were only 80 ft. or so long.  With the coming of paddle tugs, this stopped. With the coming of steam colliers, the foyboats were stationed near the harbour entrance & once the collier entered the harbour the foyboatmen would get the foyboat alongside, 'catch on' to the collier with a large hook, and be towed stern first up river to where the collier was to be moored. 

Another astonishing role was to carry ships' 'light weight' anchors known as kedge anchors a distance away from the ship & drop it to the sea or river bed.  The vessel would then haul on the anchor & gain distance towards its objective.  The foyboat was then given a second kedge anchor to move & drop before the first one was pulled up. The process, known as 'kedging' would be repeated many times.  The anchors were incidentally hung over the stern of the foyboat by a short length of rope, they were never put inside the boat 

All hard physical work, often performed at night & in bad weather, an occupation most dangerous.


For more about the Sunderlands current foyboatmen and their history, please visit 

© Sunderland Maritime Heritage, registered charity in England and Wales (1089465)