Dunston Coal Staiths

Viewed from Keelman's Way NCN 14 at Staithes South Bank development

The impressive large pier like structure is the Dunston Coal Staiths which is reputedly the largest wooden structure in Europe and was the last working wooden staith on the Tyne.

It was constructed in 1890 by the North Eastern Railway Company in two stages; the first staith with three berths was opened in 1983. A second similar staith was opened in 1903 immediately to the south and a basin was dug out of the riverbank to service it. This set was taken down to the piles tops in 1970s and further dismantled in the 1980s. However the majority of the structure survives intact and has been restored.

The staiths are constructed of 13" x 13" pitch pine, jointed with bolts and straps. The structure is in 3 parts, a substructure of piles driven into the riverbed on which are superimposed trestles braced in both directions creating 98 frames at about 5.3mtr centres. Above this is a run of double thickness longitudinal timbers supporting the deck and track beams. The deck slopes down toward the landward end at 1 in 96.

For the purpose of loading north Durham coal into ships, the staiths protrude into the River Tyne for 1709 feet and run parallel to the river bank forming a large tidal basin in which ships once moored. Several railway lines ran along the top of the coal staiths from the river bank and rose at a gradient of 1 in 96 from the western to the eastern end of the staiths. This enabled locomotives to shunt coal wagon's to an appropriate height for loading ships anchored alongside the staithes.

Coal wagon's fitted with trapdoors were shunted along the staiths and lined up with hoppers in the staiths floor. Gangs of men called Teemers would then release these trapdoors and "teem" the coal into the hoppers. This was not an easy task as often the coal would jam or freeze in the wagon or hopper so that men would have to jump in to free the coal and run the risk of falling through. Sometimes accidents of this nature would happen and the men could sustain serious injuries.

The hoppers in the staiths were linked to coal chutes called spouts and the teemers had the task of adjusting these spouts according to the height of the ships they were loading. The spouts were adjusted by means of a hand windlass and can still be seen on the staiths along with conveyor belts added at a later date, which were used on occasions when the ships were too high for the spouts to reach. Once coal or coke had been loaded from the chute into the holds of the ships, gangs of men called Trimmers were set to work to level out the coal in the ships for stability.

At the peak of its career in the 1920s Dunston Staiths were shipping an average of 140,000 tons of coal per week on vessels bound for both London and the continent but by the 1970s this figure had fallen to 3000. In 1980 the staiths were finally closed. They remain today as a listed building and as the most important monument to the once busy days of the Coaly Tyne.

In 1990 the staiths formed part of the Gateshead Garden Festival site, but today the area behind the staiths is being developed for housing and will once again be accessible to the public - NCN 14 is planned to run along the new river frontage here

On November 20th 2003, the staithes suffered a major fire, believed to have been
maliciously started, requiring over 70 firemen before it was brought under control.

A substantial portion of the middle section collapsed and more may have
to be demolished in order to make the remaining structure safe.

Supply of the Jahhara wood used for the river piles to build the staithes is now unobtainable.
Its export is banned by Australia, leaving in doubt if the staithes can be restored.