Port history

Port of Sunderland history

The modern Port of Sunderland owes its existence to the River Wear Commission and Board of Commissioners (which were formed in 1717 to preside over the growing prosperity of Sunderland as a port) and a succession of eminent engineers, who transformed the harbour from its natural state by the construction of a series of major civil engineering works that created the harbour into the estate it is now.

As the years progressed, the port saw major improvements in navigation and trade as new piers, docks, lighthouses, warehouses, quays, bridges, railways and coal shipping facilities were built. Equally important was the progressive deepening of the harbour and river, which allowed longer and deeper vessels to use the port.

The River Wear’s development can be attributed to the need to transport coal from the Durham coalfield, which led ultimately to Sunderland becoming one of the UK’s leading coal and agriculture exporting ports and then achieving the proud distinction of being the largest shipbuilding town in the world.

Sunderland City Council took over responsibility as the Statutory Harbour Authority in 1972 at a time of great change in the maritime and mining sectors as both these giants of industry went into terminal decline in the UK. The last coal shipments left the port in 1986 and the final ship was built on the River Wear in 1988 bringing an end to the great industrial powerhouses that drove the port’s growth.

As the direct successor to the River Wear Commission, Port of Sunderland has celebrated its 300th anniversary of its formal establishment as a harbour authority.

Although shipbuilding and coal exports have long disappeared, the port is striving to meet the challenges of the 21st century and demonstrate that it is still a key asset to the City of Sunderland. In 2010 the owners decided on a new direction for the port appointing an experienced Port Director and Port Board that would lead the port forward.

With an expanding portfolio, including a world-leading subsea engineering and construction company, the port continues to maintain its reputation for delivering a high quality service to businesses and clients. The port hosted the Tall Ships Races in 2018, an event that attracted over one million tourists to Sunderland. Despite being more than 300 years old, it is clear the port continues to make its impact in the city – and will do for many more years to come.