Discovery of canoe in the Wear near Hylton by diver Harry Watts

Alan Liddle shared with us a link to the 1911 book “Life of Harry Watts; sixty years sailor and diver” telling the story of the famous Sunderland diver and sailor.

There is a transcript of the book here:


Among other things, Harry was famed for finding an ancient dug-out canoe in the River Wear near Hylton.  The map below shows the exact site where the canoe, along with human remains, were found in 1888.

The following excerpt has been taken from chapter 222 of the book, which details the finding of the canoe and also makes reference to large stones from a bridge spanning the Wear at Hylton:

“In the Museum in Borough Road is a Pre-historic Canoe, found in the bed of the River Wear by Mr. Watts when engaged in diving operations. The account of it given in the 1910 Spring issue of the Sunderland Public Library Circular, is as follows:-

‘This is one of the most important additions ever made to the antiquities department of the Museum. This ancient dug-out canoe was found in the bed of the River Wear at Hylton, near Sunderland, about 25 years ago, and was recently presented to the Corporation by the River Wear Commissioners. As may be seen, it was hewn out of an oak tree trunk ; it is upwards of 2,000 years old, and may even date back to the stone age. It may, indeed, be claimed to be Sunderland’s earliest boat, and the forerunner of the many noble vessels which have for centuries been launched on the Wear, and have made Sunderland’s reputation as the largest shipbuilding town in the world.

‘The details of its discovery are as follows:-

It was discovered by Mr. Harry Watts, the well-known Sunderland diver and life-saver, when employed by the Commissioners to remove the ‘ Brixons,’ large stones forming the remains of a bridge which spanned the river at Hylton. The canoe lay at the river bottom, covered with alluvial mud and shingle, and contained human bones, which, unfortunately, were not secured. Its size is about eleven feet long by two feet broad, by one and a half feet deep. Stone implements shaped like chisels were also found in the bed of the stream near the same spot, together with deer horns, relics of the times when ancient Britons, clad in skins, and armed with stone axes, hunted the red deer in the primeval forests of the county of Durham. Proof of the existence of such forests in times of yore is not wanting, in the shape of huge trees found water-logged in the bed of the stream ; and it was doubtless from the trunk of a similar giant of the forest that the canoe itself was made, probably carved out by stone axes, assisted by fire.”

Keith Cockerill has found a photo of the canoe and adds;

‘Last time I was in the museum, I seem to remember that additional printed information suggested that the canoe may not be as old as previously thought. I understand that previous attempts to preserve the old craft means that carbon dating of the canoe is no longer an option’.

From the book ‘Where Ships are Born – Sunderland 1346 to 1946’