Sinking feeling of dock disaster

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For all the engineering brilliance of the Victorians, they didn’t get it right every time and one gloriously catastrophic event overtook Sutton Bridge in 1881 when the newly opened dock basin collapsed.

The new dock, part of the Port of Wisbech, was conceived in 1875 at a meeting of local business men at The Bull Hotel in Long Sutton. A public company was subsequently formed and an Act of Parliament sought to allow the dock to be built.

Work started on January 1, 1878, the new installation taking just over three years to build. The dock area was some 13 acres and 600,000 cubic yards of earth were dug out to make the basin, which measured 400 feet (122m) by 1,415 feet (431m). There was a lock connecting the permanently flooded basin to the River Nene, the current channel for which had been newly dug only 40 years earlier.

One-and-a-half-million red and blue bricks were used in the construction of the dock, which had 3,630 feet (1,106m) of quays, a 750-foot (228m) timber jetty and a coal wharf with hydraulic machinery. A railway spur was installed to bring trains onto the dock from the nearby Great Northern and Midland Railway line.

The first ship to enter the near complete dock was The Garland on May 14, 1881.

Dredging had not yet been completed, so a third of its 1,200-ton cargo had to be offloaded before it could be steered into the dock by two tugs. Crowds looked on and the vicar offered prayers.

The grand opening was set for the end of June and four other vessels loaded with coal, ballast and maize visited during the next few weeks.

Then, on Sunday June 9, 1881, disaster struck. Two pumping engines sank 10 feet into the ground and inspections showed that subsidence had occurred in the silt behind the dock retaining walls. A long hole 12 feet deep and 20-30 feet wide opened up within half-an-hour around the lock. Disaster tourism was as rife then as now and train loads of sightseers were arriving from Lynn, Wisbech, Long Sutton, Holbeach and Spalding to gawp and no doubt offer their solutions.

The builders tried to affect emergency repairs, but the silt ‘flowed’ from the lock construction into the channel.

Gangs of navvies and hundreds of tons of material were brought in to try to prevent further collapse, but to no avail. By the end of the following week it appears the dock was a write-off.

What should have been a major boost to the area’s economy became a financial disaster before its grand opening. Now it’s a golf course, though parts of the old dock installations can still be seen.

If you would like to see the remains of the old Sutton Bridge dock and the site of a First World War POW camp on its former quay you can join a walk across the course on the afternoon of Sunday September 10, when the Civic Society is holding an exhibition ‘Sutton Bridge at War’ at Sutton Bridge Golf Club, New Road, Sutton Bridge.

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