The tip of the South Gare from the River Tees.
Much of the stone here is black, betraying
its ironworks origins
Braving the weather on the Redcar Bay side of the Gare
A vessel passing into the River Tees, just south of the Redcar Ore Terminal, assisted by the tug on her port side.
Chris Scott Wilson Writer
The South Gare
A version of this article was previously published in Cleveland’s History under the pen-name John Scott
Paddy's Hole, looking South into the River Tees. To the left stand the giant unloaders of Redcar Ore Terminal (1980s)
The river Tees slices through the heart of Cleveland. It has been the area's lifeline to the world for centuries. At the river mouth, the man-made South Gare stands out into the North Sea like a protective arm. Often windswept and cruel in winter, the gare can provide a pleasant walk and interesting views on a summer's day when the wind blows off the land. With mammoth ships from all over the globe gliding past, the river reflects sunlight like a glittering array of polished metal plates. On the other side of the breakwater the sea laps lazily at the foot of the lighthouse, breaking onto a band of golden sand that garnishes the coast eastwards to Huntcliff seven miles away.
North-westerly, the resort of Seaton Carew merges with Hartlepool. Beyond Paddy's Hole where a flotilla of fishing boats huddle inshore, looking south, a concentration of heavy industry lines the river Tees. In the foreground the giant unloaders of Redcar Ore Terminal stand rigid as though afraid of getting their feet wet. Originally built by British Steel which was later rebranded Corus, they passed into Tata Steel’s hands and will perhaps find yet another owner in the Thai company SSI. The attached iron-making plant reaches out eastward, the largest blast furnace in Europe dominating the skyline. This, like the variety of chemical works and oil refineries that lay on both banks of the river, was built on reclaimed land. Heavy industry can hold an appeal all of its own, symmetrical towers, chimneys and cranes in silhouette against a dying sun in a raw cloud-streaked sky.
For thousands of years the ninety-eight mile river was left to its own devices, meandering in numerous switchbacks before eventually opening out into an estuary three miles wide where it reached the sea. There, the channels changed daily as the pattern of sandbanks shifted with the vagaries of wind and tide. The estuary bore a harvest of oysters, cockles and mussels, reaped by flocks of gulls and migratory birds while shoals of cod, plaice, sole and dab sated the appetites of a large seal colony that inhabited the rocks and sands. On the Durham side of the river the flats have been known as Seal Sands as long as man can remember, and long dark shapes can be seen basking there today. Many species of birds still visit the marshland on the Yorkshire side, now declared a wildlife sanctuary, and during the late evening or early morning numerous rabbits and the occasional stoat or weasel giving chase can be seen, although foxes are far more common. It is interesting to note the area of Redcar Golf course and the site of the now mostly demolished Warrenby was originally known as the Rabbit Warren, then Warren Town, hence the village's later name.
While wildlife flourished at the river mouth, each year brought increased hazards to the mariners who sailed upriver to Portrick (Portrack), Stockton and Yarm. Although Stockton lay only thirteen miles inland, outward bound ships could often take the best part of a week to reach the open sea. In 1762 at low water, the depth at the bar (where the river meets the sea) was only seven feet. The main channel, only a few hundred feet wide, ran between treacherous shoals which the wind altered and which caused strong currents around the headlands. Once inside the river, captains were reliant on pilots' skill and a fair wind. Caught in the narrow channel, it was often difficult to tack and not unusual for vessels to drop anchor and wait for the wind to change.
Above Portrack the Tees narrowed. Tight bends where silt built up were arduous to negotiate, men and horses frequently hired to tow ships upstream. This problem was aggravated by heavy winter rain causing flooding, or summer drought which narrowed channels impossibly. On one bend pilots had to drive the bows of the vessel into the soft mud of the river bank to enable the stern to be swung clear. Skippers on their first visit to the Tees viewed this manoeuvre with suspicion and in some cases absolute horror. As the river gradually worsened over the years, cargo bound for Stockton was often transferred to keel boats or pannier ponies for the remainder of the inland journey, especially produce that rotted quickly. Although merchants complained about the river's condition from an early date, even suggesting improvements, not until 1808 were positive steps taken. The Tees Navigation Company was formed and in 1809 began a programme of cuts and jetty building, but their progress was always hampered by lack of finance and difficulties of collecting dues.
Stockton's hopes of becoming a major U.K. port diminished in 1828 when the board of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, encouraged by Joseph Pease, decided to extend their tracks to Middlesbrough Farm where they could build staithes to ship coal from the Durham collieries. Simultaneously, Joseph Pease formed a company called the Owners of The Middlesbrough Estate who bought an initial 488 acres on which to build a new town to house workers employed at the coal drops. The first decade of the new town's existence saw only a slow increase in population, but the opening of Bolckow & Vaughan's ironworks and the subsequent discovery of the Main Seam of Cleveland ironstone at Eston produced meteoric growth. This was reflected in the number of vessels using the River Tees.
In 1851, dissatisfaction with the administration of the river led to the Stockton & Darlington Railway lobbying parliament to wrest control from the foundering Tees Navigation Company. This was achieved the following year and the new Tees Conservancy Commissioners made immediate plans for improvements. Within a year they had bought the river's first dredger and soon embarked on erecting training walls built from slag acquired from local ironworks. By 1878, after 7 million tons of silt had been dredged from the riverbed it was claimed the Tees could take as large a vessel as any other port in England.
The North Yorkshire coast was renowned as a graveyard for sailing ships during sudden storms, there being no safe port. Although a breakwater at the mouth of the Tees had been discussed in 1855, it took a violent storm in 1861 when some fifty or sixty vessels were driven ashore in Tees Bay to push the project forward. On 3rd November 1863 Isaac Wilson of the Conservancy Commissioners, later to be M.P. for be M.P. for Middlesbrough, laid the foundation stone of the South Gare Breakwater. Local ironmasters paid the Commissioners 4d (2p) per ton to remove slag from the works which was carried by rail to the gare. On completion in 1880 the breakwater was two and a half miles long and had cost £220,000. The first Lord of the Treasury, W. H. Smith, performed the opening ceremony.
The lighthouse was added shortly afterwards, the wick lit on 3rd November 1884, the Commissioners taking to the river to admire the new addition. When electricity became viable, a new revolving flashing light was installed, visible for ten miles. The new breakwater fulfilled its intention. Contained and guided, the river scoured its own bed. Coupled with a steady dredging programme, the depth at the mouth increased dramatically.
After 115 years of continued improvement the Tees Conservancy Commissioners were dissolved in 1967 when the Tees & Hartlepools Port Authority took over administration. They continued the dredging programme, further deepening the river, also constantly reclaiming land to snatch back almost 6,000 acres which have been put to good use. A measure of the Authority's success can be gauged by remembering those early days when 100 or 200 ton ships struggled to navigate the river, when today 150,000 tonne bulk carriers regularly berth at the Redcar Ore terminal. Now, (at the time of writing) under the management of PD Ports, the Tees is maintained at some 14 meters deep at the entrance, and over 15 meters at the Fairway buoy, river traffic amounting to over 40 million tonnes of cargo a year.
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