Relatives of Roker Pier engineer take a step back in family history

Australian visitor to Sunderland takes a tour of Roker Pier which was built by engineer ancestor Henry Hay Wake

L-R Carmen Higgs, Marilyn Stalton and Geoff Higgs (Carmen's Dad) at Roker Pier and Lighthouse in Sunderland, that was built by their relative Henry Wake
L-R Carmen Higgs, Marilyn Stalton and Geoff Higgs (Carmen's Dad) at Roker Pier and Lighthouse in Sunderland, that was built by their relative Henry Wake.

A walk along a North East pier meant a step back in family history for a couple of visitors today.

Carmen Higgs, from Brisbane in Australia, is the great-great-grandaughter of engineer Henry Hay Wake who built the listed Roker Pier in Sunderland.

In a tunnel under the pier, she came face to face with the initials carved into a plaque to mark her great-grandfather’s Mervyn’s first visit there as a child in 1891. He had been born in 1884.

The pier was built between 1885 and 1903 and Henry had the initials of at least three of his children placed on plaques on the walls of the tunnel to commemorate their visits between 1891 and 1898.

It is hoped that as work progresses more names will be uncovered.


And Sunderland born and bred Marilyn Stalton also walked the tunnel to see the name of Henry’s youngest child - her grandmother Enid - on another plaque.

Carmen and Marilyn also met up for the first time to exchange family stories.

One was that Marilyn’s great grandmother had placed a gold sovereign in the pier, either under its foundation stone or behind Enid’s plaque.

“It has been a fascinating trip and now we will be catching up on the family history,” said Marilyn.

Carmen said: “ It has been quite moving. The pier is magnificent and I didn’t realise how big a structure it was.”

The visit involved a guided tour of the tunnel and lighthouse and also the recently restored lantern house. Sunderland City Council is part way through a £1.35m restoration of the pier.

Following completion of the lantern house last November, work to completely resurface the pier is due to start in June.

Should the council be successful in its bid for Heritage Lottery Funding, this will be followed by the restoration of the lighthouse and tunnel, with a view to opening them for public tours.

The council is currently developing a detailed bid for HLF funding after receiving a development grant last September.

It is appealing for people to come forward with old photographs, family stories or other memorabilia relating to the pier which could be used to support the bid.

Deputy council leader Henry Trueman said: “It’s fantastic to have Carmen visiting the pier and I’m really looking forward to hearing her share her family’s stories.

“A lot of families pass down stories, photos and other memorabilia through the generations and we’re very keen to hear from anyone who can help us tell the story of the pier through its 129-year history.

“It might be that their great-great-grandad was involved in helping build the pier or was a lighthouse keeper, or they might just have happy memories of visiting the pier as a child and photos from their visits when they were younger.

“There have also been a fair few people rescued through the pier tunnel over the years after becoming trapped on the pier so it would be good to hear their stories too. Being able to tell the story of the pier is a really important part of the bid.”

A giant crane called Goliath, which was used to build the pier, was driven by gas engines, supplied by gas pipes running along the specially designed tunnel which ran the entire length of the structure.

This was later used by the keeper to reach the lighthouse in bad weather, when the waves would have been crashing over the deck.

Henry Hay Wake was born in Sunderland in 1844 and at the age of 25 was appointed as engineer to the River Wear Commissioners.

The Roker Harbour works were built to his designs and he also drew up the plans for providing Sunderland with a complete system of wet and graving docks, including the installation of coal staithes and warehouses.


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