Of the three main places that came together to make up Sunderland (Monkwearmouth, Bishopwearmouth and Sunderland) it seems Sunderland was, in the early stages, the least important. In truth, much of the present Sunderland city centre was historically Bishopwearmouth. The real Sunderland was a place further to the east, still on the south side of the river, but closer to the river mouth.
Old Sunderland is little-known outside the city of Sunderland, being away from the town centre. There are a few remaining buildings of note today though many eighteenth and early nineteenth century buildings became slums and were cleared or suffered at the hands of the intensive wartime bombing raids. However, the notable buildings that have survived are charming and impressive.
For centuries Sunderland was only one part of Wearmouth and although the name Sunderland came to be commonly used for the whole area it was not until 1719 that Sunderland itself achieved the status of separate parish. By that time it was already the principal focus for industrial growth on Wearside and was rapidly overtaking its other Wearmouth neighbours in population.
As the eighteenth century progressed the name ‘Sunderland’ increasingly replaced the more general term ‘Wearmouth’ which had been used for the whole area including the port.
‘Sunderland’ is a rather unusual name for a town or settlement because it ends in the suffix ‘land’ which seems more appropriate for the name of a nation or a region. It is possible that the name originally referred to an area rather than a single place.
It is known that around 685 AD, King Aldfrith of Northumbria gave a parcel of land on the south side of the river to Benedict Biscop – who had established the monastery of St Peter at Monkwearmouth on the opposite side of the Wear.
The parcel of land was separated or detached (sundered) for this purpose. It was detached from the rest of the lands belonging to the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow monastery. All the other lands were to the north between the Wear and the Tyne within the district once known as Wirralshire.
Another possible explanation is that Sunderland ‘the sundered-land’ refers to the broken or separated nature of this coastal land which is divided up by wooded coastal denes or valleys. These would include the denes at Hendon and Ryhope and many more all the way down the Durham coast. If this provides an explanation for Sunderland then the name would have referred to a much wider area than it does today.
Old Sunderland : Pudsey’s Port
Sunderland is historically part of County Durham and was ruled in medieval times by the Prince Bishops of Durham. The development of Sunderland as a port was instigated by one of the most powerful Prince Bishops of Durham, Hugh Pudsey (Hugh Du Puiset) who reigned in Durham from 1154 to 1195.
Sometime between 1180 and 1183 Pudsey issued a charter creating ‘Wearmouth Borough’. The charter was based on that of Newcastle although Newcastle’s charter was a royal charter granted by the King.
Sunderland was situated within Durham where Pudsey, as Prince Bishop held a right to issue charters of his own. The intention was to develop a thriving town and trading port to encourage merchant activity by granting certain freedoms to official merchants called burgesses.
Pudsey’s charter encouraged the development of a town on what may have been previously empty land near the mouth of the river. Bishopwearmouth still remained the centre of the whole parish (until 1719) but the port town of Sunderland could now develop near the mouth of the river. Confusingly the port of Sunderland was still generally called Wearmouth and the adoption of the name Sunderland may have reflected a desire to distinguish the place from Bishopwearmouth.
Wearmouth (Sunderland) was shipping coal from at least as early as 1396 when there is a record of coal shipped from the Wear to Whitby Abbey. On the whole it seems that Sunderland was a small and not particularly busy borough in these early times and it was probably little more than a small fishing town.
The port was slow to develop and successive Prince Bishops, if they were interested at all, seemed more interested in the fishing and agricultural ports at Hartlepool and Stockton or even Gateshead where there was coal-shipping potential but the Bishops’ ownership there was hotly disputed by the merchants of Newcastle.
For Sunderland, Newcastle upon Tyne was a big part of the problem. By the 1600s Newcastle had a well-established Royal-backed monopoly that enabled that town to control the lucrative coal shipping trade along the whole North East coast from Whitby in the south to Berwick in the north. Any ambitious developing port was expected to pay a levy to Newcastle that stifled competitive trade. Only the most courageous, determined and commercially minded Prince Bishops would have been able to challenge this.
Despite the challenges, the port of Sunderland was beginning to show significant signs of growth by the 1630s with trade built upon shipping coal mined in the Chester-le-Street and Washington areas that was brought along the river to the port. Further growth at Sunderland would come during and after the Civil War when the rivalry with Newcastle intensified.
Leveller Lilburne : ‘Freeborn John’
Sunderland’s growth took place despite centuries of fierce resistance from the wealthy town of Newcastle which held a royal charter restricting coal shipment from nearby ports like Sunderland. Over centuries places like South Shields, North Shields and Gateshead found their efforts to develop successful port facilities thwarted by intimidating Newcastle merchants. During the Civil War an opportunity arose for Sunderland, Newcastle’s biggest emerging rival, to make a challenge Newcastle’s regional supremacy.
During the war, Newcastle was staunchly Royalist but in Sunderland there was some significant support for the Parliamentarian side. The powerful family of Sunderland merchants called the Lilburnes were influential in this respect. By the 1630s George Lilburne had risen to prominence and was Mayor of Wearmouth. The Lilburnes were a significant family in Sunderland during the Civil War.
Lilburne was the uncle of ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a close associate of Oliver Cromwell. John was the founder of the radical Levellers movement who claimed everyone was born with “freeborn rights”. John, was born either at Sunderland or at Thickley near Shildon in County Durham. He would go on to write a suggested constitution for England in 1649. It was not adopted, but later provided ideas and inspiration for the Constitution of the United States.
Civil War : Sunderland v Newcastle
John Lilburne’s uncle, George Lilburne, was one of a number of merchants in Sunderland that opted to support the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War. In 1642, Sunderland perhaps enthusiastically received a garrison of Scottish soldiers – Covenanters – who supported the Parliamentarian side. The Scots, nicknamed ‘Blew Caps’ (blue caps) from their attire, set up a camp south of the river in Bishopwearmouth on a site near the present Wearmouth Bridge though there was no bridge in those days. It is thought there were already a significant number of Scots living amongst the Sunderland inhabitants at this time.
A plaque near the bridge in an area once called Bishopwearmouth Panns records their presence here. Panns is named from huge pans of the salt trade, once active in this area from the sixteenth century.
Sunderland became a centre for Parliamentarian military campaigns against the Royalists in North East England. The Scots went on to besiege South Shields which was seized. However, the most significant Parliamentarian offensive in the North East was arguably the great siege of Newcastle in 1644, where for a time, the walled Tyneside town held out against Parliamentarian forces that included Scots from the Sunderland garrison. Despite heavy resistance, the defences of Newcastle were eventually crushed by the constant bombardment of cannons from the Gateshead side of the river.
Sunderland’s stance in the Civil War is thought to have aroused much bitterness from Newcastle Royalists. Writing in the 1820s, the Durham historian, Robert Surtees (married to Anne Robinson of Silksworth) mentioned the following rhyme in connection with the Newcastle residents’ reaction to the Scottish siege:
Ride through Sandgate, up and doon
There you’ll see the gallants fighting for the croon
And all the cull cuckolds in Sunderland toon
With all the bonny blew caps cannot pull them doon.
The poem is of great interest though the authenticity of the poem may be in doubt, however, as Surtees, who was usually noted for his thorough research, was not above making up a verse or two to illustrate a historical point. Nevertheless, Surtees was keen to stress that it was a genuine ballad from the Sandgate area of Newcastle.
Whatever the truth behind the ballad, the role of Sunderland and Newcastle in the Civil War was of extreme importance as Newcastle was the major supplier of coal to London. If Sunderland-Wearmouth had followed Newcastle and supported the Royalist cause, the essential supply of coal to Cromwell’s London would have been virtually cut off and perhaps the outcome of the Civil War may have been different.
In fairness to Sunderland, it was perhaps not surprising that its sympathies lay with the Parliamentarians rather than the Royalists, as after all it was a Royal Charter that restricted Sunderland’s trade and gave Newcastle a somewhat unfair advantage in any competition between the two ports.
One result of the Civil War, was that Sunderland and its coal trade began to rapidly expand while Newcastle, though it remained the premier coal exporting port of the nation, began to lose its monopoly hold on exporting North East coal.
Growth of the port
By the 1720s, the port of Sunderland was a hive of activity, easily overshadowing its neighbours at Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth. Its commercial trade, population and industrial development continued to grow throughout the eighteenth century spreading west towards Bishopwearmouth.
In 1717 the River Wear Commmissioners was established to improve navigation into the port and it would make great improvements through the removal of sandbanks and bars that hampered movement in the river, by constant dredging.
Piers were built at the river mouth to control the formation of such obstacles starting with the South Pier in 1725-59 and a North Pier in 1788-1802. Later, both piers were modified in 1804-42 and later still new north and south piers were built, namely Roker Pier in 1885 and the new south pier of 1893-1914.
The Sunderland residents no longer had to make the mile long trek to St Michael’s at Bishopwearmouth (now Sunderland Minster). Constructed in brick by the York architect, William Etty, Holy Trinity can still be seen today in the East End on the edge of Sunderland Town Moor. A Grade 1 listed building, it is a rare example of a very early Georgian church.
In recent years Holy Trinity church has undergone significant restoration assisted by a £5.1 million grant from the National Lottery Heritage Fund. Now beautifully restored, its magnificent interior serves as an award winning arts and events space called Seventeen Nineteen. The name is of course inspired by the year of the church’s foundation : 1719.
Early eighteenth century churches are rare in North East England, though a church of a similar era can also be seen just off the High Street in Stockton-on-Tees – another expanding port that gained parish status at this time.
Close to Holy Trinity is situated the Gray Memorial Garden, which was once the churchyard established in 1719. Jack Crawford, Sunderland’s famed naval hero was amongst those buried there (see Mowbray Park on our Sunderland city centre page.
Right next to Holy Trinity church it comes as quite a surprise to discover Trafalgar Square. It’s quite different to its London namesake but this Sunderland square is nevertheless a fascinating and rather lovely spot. Gated at the front, the square consists of three sides of attractive brick houses surrounding a green.
Actually built in 1840 by William Drysdale, these houses were early Victorian seamen’s almshouses and were built with money raised from the muster roll. As with the almshouses near Sunderland Minster at Bishopwearmouth, the doors are painted blue.
Above the door of the central house is a large decorative plaque of 1840 listing the names of the trustees involved in the erection of the square. At the edge of the green is a large display giving the names of the 76 sailors from Old Sunderland who were at the Battle of Trafalgar. It includes details of their names, their ages, the ships they served on and details of those who died in action during the battle or died later from their wounds.
Low Street : The Quayside
Much of the business activity of the port of Sunderland during the eighteenth and nineteenth century was focused upon Low Street in Old Sunderland which formed the then lively Quayside area of the town. It was linked to what was then the equally busy High Street (High Street East) on the top of the river bank by a series of lanes. The most prominent of these lanes was Bodlewell Lane and can still be seen. It was named from a well that was the main water supply for Sunderland in the seventeenth, eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. A bodle was a Scottish term for half a farthing which could buy two gallons of water.
Bodlewell Lane reaches the quayside at what was once the site of a ferry. A ferry service operated from this point from as early as the 7th century. This was in the time of Bede who lived in the monastery just across the river before he moved on to Jarrow. Bede incidentally gave his birthplace as Sunderland so he probably used a ferry here to reach the monastery across on the other side when he first went to the monastery. From the eighteenth century it cost a halfpenny to use the ferry and remarkably this price stayed in force until the ferry ceased to operate in 1957.
Low Street is a quiet riverside area today that is now a home to modern apartment buildings, riverside seating areas and University accommodation. In the 1820s this was home to more than 40 pubs and taverns including places of ill-repute. The street’s importance fell into decline following the building of the docks in the Hendon and Town Moor area during the 1850s and 1860s. These docks could be accessed by ships at the river mouth without the need for berthing at the Low Street quay.
There are two other buildings of note next to the Quayside Exchange. The distinctive neighbour adjoining the Quayside Exchange in High Street East is The Eagle Building, now a workshop but on a site that was a pub from the seventeenth century. For many years it was topped by a six and a half foot tall wooden eagle that was probably placed here around the time the pub became ‘The Eagle Tavern’ in the 1860s. The building ceased to be a pub in the 1920s and the eagle was removed. A new eagle, by sculptor Phil Townsend was put in the place of the previous eagle in 2002.
Just below the Quayside Exchange in Low Street is a brightly coloured building with the words Wylam Wharf. Dating from the late 1700s it was built as a warehouse and extended in the 1820s. This is the Rose Line Building named from a company that occupied it from around 1912. After falling into disuse it was restored in 1995.
Site of the Barracks and Black Cat Battery
Other historically significant features of ‘Old Sunderland’ included the Sunderland Town Moor where the town’s principal merchants called burgesses held certain rights. Surviving green areas of the Town Moor can still be seen bordering the churchyard of Holy Trinity church. Another important feature was the town battery and barracks just to the north of the Town Moor which defended the port of Sunderland in times of war.
The site of the battery and barracks is indicated by the name Barrack Street close to Sunderland docks. Defensive guns were installed in the 1740s during the War of Jenkins’ Ear and a barracks was added in 1795. These were located right on the shoreline at the mouth of the river up until the building of the neighbouring docks in the 1850s. Being so close to the shore, the batteries were subject to erosion and over time there were a series of instalments.
The batteries were primarily erected to defend against the French, but during the American War of Independence (1775-1783), the American sea captain John Paul Jones was a constant threat along the North East coast and the battery installed at that time was named after him. This battery was later increased in size and four 24 pounder guns introduced along with a furnace to heat the shot. It was renamed the Black Cat Battery in 1805 after a solitary volunteer charged with manning the guns allegedly mistook a large black cat for the devil after spending the earlier part of the evening in a local pub.
Another story is that the black cat was the apparition of a lady who passed close to the battery before drowning herself in the North Sea. Rather surprisingly, the name of the Black Cat battery seems to have no direct connection to the ‘Black Cats’ nickname of Sunderland football club.
In addition to the Black Cat Battery the northern part of the Town Moor became the site of a military barracks in the 1790s. The barracks housed 1,528 infantrymen and in 1803 a hospital for 80 patients was added. There was rebuilding in the 1820s but for many years the barracks were disused and were finally demolished in the 1930s to make way for Corporation Quay.