Roker Pier and Lighthouse

Project Profile

Project Gallery 

Roker lighthouse exterior   Original drawing by Henry Hay Wake  
The tunnel under construction   View along tunnel looking east  
Original gas lamp preserved in the pier tunnel   Latern  


Roker Pier and Lighthouse

Protecting Sunderland's Maritime Past

For over a hundred years, Roker pier and lighthouse has protected the entrance into Sunderland harbour; its beacon a welcome site for many a weary ship's crew returning home. The curving sweep of the pier, and distinctive red and grey granite stripes of the lighthouse, has become a much loved coastal landmark. However, a century of winter storms and buffeting waves have taken their toll on the Victorian superstructure, placing it at considerable risk. Sunderland City Council are currently seeking Heritage Lottery Funding to undertake a progamme of conservation works to restore the complex to its former glory and improve public accessibility for the pleasure and enjoyment of all.


In preparation of the bid we are looking at what makes Roker pier and lighthouse special to the local community. How often do you visit the site? What makes it important to you? What would you do to improve things? Would you like to be more actively involved in the running of the site? Please take a few minutes to note down your thoughts, or fill in one of our site questionnaires - available from the the Sunderland City Council website - and return to , or post to Penny Middleton at Northern Archaeological Associates Ltd, Durham Office, 12 Millhouse Court, Gilesgate, Durham, DH1 2JJ. Alternatively, if you would prefer, you can call Penny direct on 0191 3750943.

Roker Pier and Lighthouse

Built between 1885 and 1903, the Grade II Listed pier and lighthouse complex was hailed when it first opened as a true 'triumph of engineering'; no mean feat in an era which had seen the construction of Brunel's Clifton Suspension Bridge and Paxton's Crystal Palace, not to mention the network of canals and railways which criss-crossed the land. The complex was the brainchild of one man, Henry Hay Wake, chief engineer of the River Wear Commissioners (RWC), an elected committee of local coalowners, landowners, merchants and shipowners, who controlled and financed the development of the docks and harbour until the creation of the Port of Sunderland Authority in 1973.

By the end of the 19th century, Sunderland harbour had grown from a small and treacherous natural inlet to one of the largest coal shipping ports in the UK, with an estimated 15,000 tons of coal being transported each day. However, much of the original harbour fabric was already nearly 100 years old and had fallen victim to the constant onslaught of the elements. The proposed solution was to erect a new outer harbour, with two curving piers which would encompass the river mouth and the existing old harbour fabric, creating 125 acres of protected water for shipping. Roker pier - the north arm of the outer harbour - was the first to be built, the foundation stone being laid on the 14th September 1885.

The construction of the pier was a huge undertaking and posed a mind boggling array of logistical problems, which Wake solved by designing and patenting a range of ingenious new engineering techniques and equipment. The pier was to extend 2000ft (609.60m) out to sea, necessitating the sinking of massive foundations to bear the weight of the superstructure. In preparation, sand from the seabed was cleared away from the bedrock to create a stable base. This was achieved by the use of a specially constructed steel vessel, christened 'The Sandrail', which was principally a huge suction pump, capable of lifting 800 tons of sand per hour. Once the sand was removed, enormous bags of concrete were lowered into place and moved into position by the 'Concrete', a depositing barge, also patented by Wake. The Concrete was capable of carrying and depositing two 56ton or 116ton bags of concrete in each trip. Dropped dry, these reacted with the seawater and solidified once in position.

The pier itself was built of granite faced blocks, each weighing up to 45 tons. The blocks were constructed on the shore in an area which is known even today as the blockyard. Concrete was poured into huge wooden moulds, and when dry maneuvered into place by a vast radial crane, set on a wooden goliath cradle, both of which were designed and built be Wake. It was driven by two 20 horse power gas engines, supplied by cast iron gas pipes running along a specially designed tunnel which ran the entire length of the pier. This was later used by the keeper to reach the lighthouse in bad weather, when the waves would have been crashing over the deck. Still visible today along the pier deck are circular brass plates where the gas pipes once vented up to connect with the crane. You can also see the iron rails for the steam locomotive which ran back and forth along the pier, delivering the concrete blocks to the crane.

The lighthouse itself was begun in 1902, and stands 138ft (42.06m) high. It is constructed of grey and red Aberdeen granite, an ingenuous way of incorporating the traditional red and white lighthouse stripes without incurring the additional long term costs of re-painting and maintenance. The original lantern was gas powered and emitted a 45,000 candlepower reflected beam which was reputedly visible for over 15 miles out to sea.

The whole complex took over 18 years to complete and in all that time not one workman was killed or seriously injured. The complex was opened on the 23rd September 1903 amid much pomp and ceremony. Since then Roker has become a much loved local landmark and a symbol of Sunderland's industrial and maritime prowess.

Many of the piers original fixtures and fittings are preserved including railings, lamp standards, surfaces, rails and dedication stones. A wonderful range of original features are also preserved within the lighthouse interior, including tidal gauge, parquet flooring, blue Stoke-on-Trent tiles and wooden panelling; although sadly a bronze handrail which once ran the whole height of the building was recently stolen.

However, after 110 years of continual use, Roker pier is beginning to show its age. Most of the railings have been replaced - either eroded beyond repair or removed for scrap during the war - with rather drab utilitarian posts which do not reflect the pride and investment that went into the original fixtures. The pier surface, specially designed to look like stone setts, has been patched and repaired too many times to mention, and the lighthouse interior is in urgent need of restoration and conservation.

In order to ensure that this piece of Sunderland's industrial and maritime past is preserved for the enjoyment of future generation, Sunderland City Council is in the process of putting together a Heritage Lottery Fund bid for a programme of works to restore the pier and lighthouse complex. Central to the bid are plans to improve public accessibility and the educational potential of the site. A range of possible options are currently being considered including opening the tunnel and lighthouse up for public tours; a downloadable audio commentary; a dedicated Roker pier website; teaching packs; live web feed; links with other sites on the North East Heritage Coast, and possibly a heritage and resource centre.

Keep watching the Sunderland City Council website for further updates as the project progresses, including details of public consultation meetings.

Roker Pier and Lighthouse