SOUTH GARE is a two-mile long manmade finger of land that stretches arthritically out into the North Sea as if it is beckoning travellers to its lighthouse at the very end of the world.

It is an extraordinary engineering feat. It took 25 years to complete, with 22 miles of slag walls built to pen in the River Tees from Stockton to the tip of the finger on the edge of Redcar.

Construction required 5m tonnes of slag from the blast furnaces of Teesside, and 18,000 tonnes of concrete.

At times, there were more than 600 men at work, plus locomotives and horses, on the finger as it reached into the North Sea, battling against what Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, the chairman of the Tees Conservancy Commission which carried out the project, called the “monster power” of nature. With men only able to work at low tide, construction was a race against time, and some days, the tide came rushing in and ripped away everything that had just been put in place.

The Northern Echo: South Gare on Sunday, by Andy Howard, as the snowstorm began to sweep in with the tide

The South Gare lighthouse lost to the sea last winter, photographed by Andy Howard of The Northern Echo Camera Club

On opening day in 1888, The Northern Echo described how the builders had fought against apocalyptic forces: “On a dark stormy night, the gloom heightened rather than dispersed by lurid flares here and there, in whose glow the swart workers seemed like demons, the howling of the wind and the dash of the water fitfully broken by the hoarse cries of men and the shrieking and snorting of the busy locomotives, combined to produce a weird effect.”

Under nature’s original plan, the mouth of the Tees was a wide, sprawling, shallow estuary stretching from Seaton Carew down to Coatham and Redcar. At low tide, there were places where it was no more than 3½ft deep.


When the Stockton & Darlington Railway brought south Durham’s coal down to its new docks at Port Darlington – now known as Middlesbrough – it increased demands for the Tees to be dredged so that large ships could reach the docks.

The railway was then extended so that it followed the southern bank of the Tees to the fishing and farming hamlet of Warrenby – it apparently gets its name because of the large rabbit population – before turning south and following the coast down to Redcar.

The Northern Echo: Joseph Whitwell Pease.

Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease, chair of the Tees Conservancy Commission, who lived at Hutton Hall near Guisborough and in The Woodlands, in Woodland Road, Darlington

In 1852, the Tees Conservancy Commission was formed under the chairmanship of Sir Joseph, to take charge of dredging and also to formulate a plan to build a pier from Tod Point near Warrenby 12,800ft out across the sandflats and marshes of the estuary. A second pier 6,000ft long on the northern bank was also planned.

The piers and the walls would stop the river meandering and would also create a “scour” effect whereby the retreating tides would suck out sand from the riverbed.

Raising the money for the project was initially difficult until February 1860 when a terrible gale blew up, wrecking 60 ships within sight of Hartlepool harbour – the piers, it was now argued, could create a safe haven in time of storm and save lives.

William Fallows – known by some as “the father of the Tees” – then had a game-changing idea. The ironmasters of Teesside produced two tons of slag for every one ton of iron, and were paying shipmen to dump the slag at sea. He suggested they instead pay the commissioners to take the slag away and turn it into foundations for the pier.

With the money question eased, and with the government backing the new safe haven, construction work began in 1861, and on January 3, 1863, Isaac Wilson – he was related to the Darlington Peases and started one of the first businesses, a pottery, in Middlesbrough before becoming the town’s mayor and MP – laid the foundation stone on top of 70,000 tons of slagballs.

The Northern Echo: SUNSET: South Gare. Paddy's Hole, Picture: CAROLINE CHARLTON.

Sunset at Paddy's Hole by Carol Charlton, of The Northern Echo Camera Club. The hole is a refuge on the river side of the South Gare pier. It apparently gets its name because many of the workmen who built the pier were Irish

The railway was crucial to the work. Its engineer, John Fowler, did the design work, and as the finger stretched out into the sea, so tracks were laid on top of it so men and materials could reach the tip of the finger. Often they were not moved by steam or horsepower but by windpower – sails were attached to wagons so that they could be blown along the tracks of this blustery outpost.


And so, said The Northern Echo, the Tees was converted “from a shallow, winding, insignificant stream into a commercial river of the first importance constituting also a safe and conveniently placed harbour of refuge, with every essential for the establishment of a first class naval coaling station”.

The Northern Echo: The cafe is the white building on the left of the boatyard

Above and below: The South Gare Marine Club occupies the site of the Tees Submarine Mining Establishment which, from opening day, detonated underwater obstacles

The Northern Echo: South Gare Marine Club, which is on the site of the Tees Submarine Mining establishment

The cost of South Gare was put at £219,393, although the cost of the whole project was said to be £1.06m (much more than £100m in today’s values). For that the commissioners got the slag walls up to Stockton, and 2,523 acres of reclaimed land behind the walls – including much of the land that Teesworks, Europe’s largest brownfield site, currently stands on.

They also got a river that was navigable by the largest ships that were then on the planet – 25m tons of sand had been dug out and dumped far out between 1854 and 1888, and 120,000 cubic yards of underwater rock had been blasted to bits. The activity had deepened the low water depth of the river to 20ft from just 3½ft in 1863.

And, at the very tip of the finger, they got England’s only private lighthouse, 18 metres tall, fitted with the latest “holophotal” apparatus and standing on unshiftable blocks of concrete that weighed 300 tonnes each.

The Northern Echo: South Gare lighthouse, at the very end of the world, in March 1931, when the railway still ran up to it. Two lighthousekeepers lived on the Gare to look after it

South Gare lighthouse, at the very end of the world, in March 1931, when the railway still ran up to it. Two lighthousekeepers lived on the Gare to look after it

The Northern Echo: William Henry Smith, the newsagent who, as First Lord of the Treasury, opened South Gare in 1888

Opening day was October 25, 1888, with WH Smith (above) the guest of honour – he was the son of the founder of the newsagent and was a Liberal politician who was invited in his capacity as the First Lord of the Treasury.

He stayed with Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease at his country mansion of Hutton Hall, Guisborough, from where a private train left at 1.55pm. Another train was due to leave Darlington at 1.40pm carrying other bigwigs, but was held up by a misbehaving train from Newcastle. Eventually, more than 400 VIPs reached Middlesbrough station where they were loaded into two special trains which took them right out to the tip of the finger.

The Northern Echo: From The Northern Echo of October 26, 1888

“The breakwater was gaily decorated with Venetian masts, each mast being 30ft high surmounted with a richly gilded spear head, also on each mast was fixed a heraldic shield, backed with a trophy of national flags,” said the Echo.

About 2,000 people, beneath dull, threatening clouds, crammed onto the fingernail to hear brief speeches – “this is a great work characteristic of Englishmen”, said Mr Smith, commending them for their triumph in their battle against the “inclement coast”.

He then fired three submarine mines, “each loaded with 50 pounds of gun cotton”, which had been positioned by Major Belk in the waterway.

The Tees Submarine Mining Company had its base on the gare, and it specialised in underwater detonations for clearance purposes, keeping its explosives safely nearby in Powder Hole.

“A concussion, which made the jetty stagger, and a huge uprising of water, and the mines were exploded,” said the Echo. “The breakwater was lined along its whole length with people, whose forms stood out against the sky like so many silhouettes.”

At 4.05pm, the dignitaries piled onto four paddlesteamers, with Mr Smith taking up a position on the poop deck of the Cleveland alongside Sir Joseph, Lord Londonderry, Lord Vane-Tempest, Sir Matthew White-Ridley, Sir Henry Havelock-Allan… The steamer was weighed down by men with titles before their names and abbreviations after them, all listening to the on-board band playing operatic selections.

The Northern Echo: The Royal Exchange in Exchange Square was built in 1868 to replace the old customs house in St Hilda's, and it featured a large hall where the iron market was held each Tuesday and Friday. Just outside it, and looking towards it, was the statue of

The Royal Exchange in Exchange Square, now sadly demolished, where the industrialists feasted

The procession of paddlesteamers arrived at the commissioners’ new deep Middlesbrough dock at 5pm where cheering crowds greeted them. They processed to Exchange Hall where they sat at 10 tables, each seating 40 dignitaries, and feasted on great delicacies provided by Ferguson & Forrester of Glasgow – the finest caterers outside London. The Echo printed a diagram of the table plan, and the menu:

The Northern Echo: The feast

In its editorial, it said: “The Gare which Mr Smith opened is not merely a monument of engineering skill but a rare example of the shrewdness with which far seeing men can seize the advantages which lie before them.”

But the Echo was concerned by a speech by a military man, General Daniels, who said that the manmade finger would “be admirable as a source of fortification”.

It thundered: “None of the men who planned this breakwater or designed its formation ever intended to build a platform for big guns. Instead of intending to keep out foreign ships, the pier was meant to protect and shelter the overseas traders of all lands.”

The Northern Echo: The Coastguard Station at South Gare in 1974

The Coastguard Station at South Gare in 1974

However, within two years of South Gare opening, the Tees Defence Corps came to be stationed there and a coastal battery with two large guns pointing seawards was installed on the tip.

But for the last 135 years, the deep river allowed ships from all corners of the world to dock in Middlesbrough which allowed the town’s industries to develop to their full potential, and even today the Teesworks site, which is the successor to the steel industry, is attracting international developers despite the controversy which is keeping this manmade finger of land on the tips of everyone’s lips.


The Northern Echo: General view of the South Gare lighthouse, on the River Tees, in Teesport, Cleveland, which was built in 1884 and which today was unveiled as the world's first ever fuel cell-powered lighthouse. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Monday November

The South Gare lighthouse in 2007, with the blast furnace behind, when it became the world's first hydrogen fuel cell-powered lighthouse. Picture: Owen Humphries