Roman and Prehistoric Sunderland
People have been living in the Sunderland area since prehistoric times with evidence dating back to the Messolithic (Middle Stone Age) period. This was demonstrated by stone tools discovered during excavations of the much later St Peter’s church at Monkwearmouth.
Neolithic or New Stone Age sites in the Sunderland area include the prominent Humbledon Hill and Hastings Hill (which overlooks the A19) and both of these sites continued to be occupied into the Bronze Age.
Little is known of the Sunderland area in Roman times. The nearest Roman road was the Wrekendike, running from Chester-le-Street to South Shields. Other clues include a bronze figure of the Roman god Jupiter found at Carley Hill near Fulwell in the nineteenth century and the skeleton of a Roman giant – a 9 foot tall man, that was also found in the Fulwell area.
A series of beacons are known to have been built along the North East coast by the Romans to warn of Anglo-Saxon invasions in the late Roman period and since neighbouring South Shields was a major Roman supply port it seems likely that the Romans were no strangers to the Sunderland area. It was also thought that there was once a Roman ford across the River Wear at Hylton but until recently the evidence has been scant. However, in 2021, a trove of Roman artefacts was uncovered by an archaeologist diver in the River Wear at North Hylton and the finds included five anchors.
The Three Wearmouths
What we call Sunderland today developed from three separate places that were, for much of their history, collectively called ‘Wearmouth’. The three places were: Monkwearmouth, Bishopwearmouth and ‘Old Sunderland‘. These three places merged together through growth and expansion to form one continuous town by the eighteenth century.
All three places were named in Anglo-Saxon times when they were places of more than national importance. Undoubtedly the most historic part of Sunderland is Monkwearmouth on the north side of the River Wear. Today Monkwearmouth is best known as the home to the Sunderland AFC football stadium – the Stadium of Light – but Monkwearmouth was historically significant as the location for the world-famous monastery of St Peter.
The area around St Peter’s church – the only remnant of the monastery – was known in later times as the township of Monkwearmouth Shore, while the actual village of Monkwearmouth was situated around a village green that was located close to where the Wheatsheaf pub now stands. The wider parish of Monkwearmouth historically included Fulwell, Hylton and Southwick.
Codex Amiatinus : A Precious book
It is at Monkwearmouth that Sunderland’s history really begins. In 674 AD the land on the northern bank of the River Wear overlooking the coast at the river’s mouth was granted by Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria to a noble called Benedict Biscop.
Biscop used the land to build a monastery of which all that remains today is the Anglo-Saxon church of St Peter, one of the oldest churches in England.
Biscop had great ambitions for his monastery at Wearmouth and brought in masons to construct it in the Romanesque style and glaziers from France at a time when glass making was virtually unknown in Britain. Biscop was eager to emulate the church of Rome and even employed an Archchanter, from St Peter’s cathedral in Rome.
Most impressive of all was Biscop’s Wearmouth library, where hundreds of manuscripts were collected or made. The most significant Monkwearmouth creation was the beautiful illuminated ‘Codex Amiatinus’ or ‘Wearmouth Bible’. It is the oldest surviving Latin Vulgate in the world , a vulgate being the version of the Bible officially used by the Pope. The ‘Codex Amiatinus’ was taken to Italy by Ceolfrith, the Abbot of Wearmouth-Jarrow as a gift for the Pope in the early eighth century and is now preserved in the Laurentian Library in Florence. A beautiful facsimilie copy of the Codex Amiantinus can be seen at St Peter’s Monkwearmouth on permanent loan from Sunderland’s City library.
Bede: Sunderland’s most famous son
Monkwearmouth, along with Biscop’s slightly later monastery at Jarrow, would achieve world-fame through the scholar and saint known as the Venerable Bede (675-735) who records that he was born in Sunderland – ‘the Sundered land’ – and began his monastic life at Monkwearmouth before moving on to Biscop’s other later monastery at Jarrow on Tyne.
There has long been a tradition that Bede was born at Monkton near Jarrow but at the time of Bede’s birth the monastery at Jarrow had not yet been built. When Bede’s Latin description of his birthplace is translated into the Anglo-Saxon spoken at the time of Afred the Great, it seems clear that Sunderland was his birthplace:
‘natus in territorio eiusdemmonasterii’ (Latin)
‘accened on sundurlonde pas ylcan mynstres’ (Anglo-Saxon)
In fact, there is evidence, from the emphasis of Bede’s writing, that he may have spent as much if not more of his time at Monkwearmouth despite his later association with Jarrow. It is difficult to be certain as Monkwearmouth-Jarrow were regarded by Bede as “one monastery in two places”, though Wearmouth was undoubtedly the senior monastery.
Bede was one of the most famous men in Europe in his time. A man of learning, he was the first historian of the English people and through his scholarship and knowledge gained European renown. It was largely due to Bede that the fashion for dating our years from the supposed birth of Christ came into being.
It replaced the earlier system of dating according to eras – usually by reference to the numeric year of a king or pope’s reign. The AD system, still used by most of the Christian world today was adopted primarily due to the influence of Bede.
Little remains of the monasteries at Jarrow and Wearmouth although the monastery churches of St Paul at Jarrow and St Peter at Monkwearmouth still stand today in similar riverside settings of the rivers Tyne-Don and Wear.
Both places saw much industrial activity in their neighbourhood over the last two-hundred years or so and both deserve to be better known in the English-speaking world. Not just because they were two of the most important centres of Northumbrian culture and learning. During the Anglo-Saxon era these were places of European renown.
Sir Timothy Eden in his History of Durham (1948) went as far as saying that :
“It was not long before, round these two last communities all the light and learning of England was to revolve, and not only England, but of the whole of Europe, during one of the darkest periods in the history of man.”
Sadly, the Anglo-Saxon life of St Peter at Monkwearmouth was brought to an end in the ninth century by Viking raids when it was sacked along with Jarrow by the Viking pirates Hubba and Hinguar.
Fortunately the Monkwearmouth and Jarrow churches were re-established in Norman times around 1070 when they became monastic cells of the great cathedral of Durham. The monastery was finally closed in the 1500s by Henry VIII and fell into ruin. Decades of industrialisation in later centuries soon overshadowed the buildings but the churches have survived the test of time.
St Peter’s church at Monkwearmouth is small and modest in its proportions and architecture and can be easily overlooked. It is of course more than 1,340 years old. Its neighbours are the river mouth to the south, the North Sea to the east and just to the north, Britain’s National Glass Centre, a renowned cultural venue and visitor attraction that was sited at Sunderland because of the city’s long association with the industry of glassmaking that began right back in the days of Benedict Biscop.
Hedworth’s ‘bath tub’
In the 1500s Monkwearmouth passed from the monks to local families like the Whiteheads, Widdringtons and Fenwicks and stone was plundered from the old monastery for the construction of a large family house called Monkwearmouth Hall. This hall burned down in April 1790 at a time when it belonged to the Williamson family.
The Williamsons had been owners of Monkwearmouth since the 1640s when it belonged to a Dame Dorothy Williamson who is still recalled in a local road-name. The family moved to an additional home, Whitburn Hall (now demolished) in the 1700s which became their principal residence.
The north side dock was built despite engineering advice and commercial considerations so when this unsuitably small dock opened in 1837 it really set Sunderland back. Considered something of a white elephant and a vanity project, the tiny dock was barely suitable for ships of any significant size. It was nicknamed ‘Sir Hedworth’s Bath Tub’.
Worst of all, Sunderland’s commercial fraternity considered that the dock’s location and small size was actually more beneficial to Newcastle than it was to Sunderland.
It was a disaster for Williamson, losing him much money. It may have also cost him his seat as Sunderland MP as he subsequently lost out to his rival George Hudson who promised and delivered the larger dock on the south side of the river in 1850. The north dock continued to be used but was never a great success. Today the old ‘bath tub’ is home to Sunderland Marina.
Harry Watts – A life saving hero
A commemorative plaque at the marina recalls a notable Sunderland hero Harry Watts (1826-1913) . Watts who was born at Old Sunderland rescued at least 36 people from drowning during his lifetime both at home and abroad. Several of those were rescued from drowning in the River Wear.
Watts was a man who lived an extraordinarily eventful life that was also filled with much personal tragedy and drama. He was the principal diver involved in the recovery effort for Scotland’s Tay Bridge disaster in 1880 and he assisted with the recovery of bodies in Sunderland’s Victoria Hall disaster of 1883 in which two of his young relatives were killed.
Watts was noted as a temperance campaigner and a born-again Christian. He nearly ended his life in poverty but in 1909 Sunderland was visited by the American philanthropist Andrew Carnegie who had been granted Freedom of the Borough of Sunderland.
Carnegie was told of Watts’ story and held a meeting with the man presenting him with a pension that enabled Watts to live comfortably for the rest of his days. Speaking to the gathering of Sunderland dignitaries Carnegie declared “you should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die”.
George Hudson – the Railway King
George Hudson (1800-1871), who defeated Hedworth Williamson in the Sunderland election was MP for Sunderland from 1845 to 1859 and was one of the most important figures in the industrial history of Britain.
Known as the ‘Railway King’, Hudson, a Yorkshireman, was a wealthy banker who invested huge sums of money in the development of railways often employing the Tyneside engineer George Stephenson to the task. In the 1840s Hudson linked Newcastle to Darlington and thus to London via the railway and much of his northern railway network was centred on Hudson’s native York as it still is today.
Hudson had a massive impact on the development of the railways in Britain although his schemes were often funded through dubious financial practices that would have likely seen him imprisoned by the standards of modern financial rules.
Hudson leaves two major legacies in Sunderland. One is the Hudson Dock on the south side of the River Wear and the other is the impressive Monkwearmouth Station.
This former station, now a Sunderland football museum, was built in 1848 by the architect Thomas Moore for Hudson and is an extraordinarily handsome building for a relatively small railway terminus drawing praise from the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner.
Though it closed as a station in 1967 it is a testimony to Hudson’s wealth and ambition. Originally the station was the terminus for a line from the north, but the railway was extended across the river in 1879 by the new railway bridge alongside the Wearmouth Bridge. The line linked Monkwearmouth to a new station in the centre of Sunderland across the river to the south.
Colliery and Stadium of Light
Monkwearmouth’s most obvious landmark today is Sunderland FC’s Stadium of Light. It was built in 1997 on the site of the Monkwearmouth Colliery on the banks of the River Wear. The colliery, sunk in the 1820s had been one of the most important in the region from the very beginning right up until its closure in 1993. When it closed, the Monkwearmouth mine was the last remaining colliery in the Durham coalfield, a coalfield that had been worked for at least 800 years.
The 1820s and the 1830s era when the mine opened was a comparatively late period for coal mining development in County Durham, but Sunderland lay within eastern Durham, where the coal was deep beneath the Magnesian Limestone geology. Coal had not been mined in this area before that time as the very existence of coal in eastern Durham was not proven until the 1820s. Once proved mines began to open, starting with the opening of a colliery at Hetton-le-Hole to the south of Sunderland.
It is apt that the Stadium of Light can attract crowds of 48,000, many of whom come not just from Sunderland but from the many corners of the former Durham coalfield and beyond, including significant support from parts of Tyneside like South Shields and Jarrow. The stadium is named from the miners who emerged into the light from the deep Sunderland mine on which the stadium stands, carrying their miners’ lamps.
Perhaps coincidentally, there are two other ways in which the stadium’s name might seem appropriate. Firstly, Monkwearmouth was, as we have noted, a centre of light and learning in the days when Dark Age Europe was emerging into the light. Secondly, the year 1879 in which the Sunderland Football Club was formed was the year in which the American Thomas Edison reputedly invented the light bulb. However, it was only the year before, that a Sunderland man, Joseph Swan first brought this kind of light to the world.
An interesting and rather impressive historical feature displayed in the reception area of the Stadium of Light is the painting of a football match between Sunderland and Aston Villa that was painted on January 2, 1895 by the Sunderland-based artist Thomas Marie Madawaska Hemy (1852-1937) which is the oldest painting of a professional football match.
It features Aston Villa in their familiar colours on the attack from a corner kick as this enabled the artist to feature the entire Sunderland team including the Sunderland goalkeeper, who like the rest of his team mates is playing in the famous red and white stripes. The highly detailed painting which includes a substantial crowd of supporters is 12 feet long and 8 and a half feet tall. It was very nearly lost. In 1900 the club decided to give it away in a raffle prize but since it was too big to fit into anyone’s house it was never claimed by the prize winner and remained in the club’s hands.
A little upstream from the Stadium of Light, the River Wear forms a tight bend where facing Deptford, across the river are former prominent limestone kilns set in the steep river bank. Lime was a valuable resource for industry and the river banks at Sunderland are formed from the magnesian limestone that marks out the geology of Sunderland and east Durham. Much of the lime here was shipped to Scotland.
The kilns date to at least the 1820s and were operated by the Williamson family of Monkwearmouth who had been involved in the lime making industry in Sunderland area from the early eighteenth century. Other lime kilns were situated upstream at Hylton and Pallion and good examples can also be seen off the Newcastle Road in Fulwell.