The Wearmouth Bridge
Bishopwearmouth, on the south side of the River Wear, forms much of the city centre of modern Sunderland and developed from the settlement of South Wearmouth. It is linked to Monkwearmouth, north of the river, by the Wearmouth Bridge of 1929.
The present Wearmouth Bridge, designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson replaced an earlier one of international renown. It was an iron bridge of 1796 and one of the most famous in the world. Only the second cast iron bridge built in England, it eclipsed the famed Ironbridge of Coalbrookdale in Staffordshire as the Wearmouth Bridge was twice as long and in its time was the biggest single-span bridge in the world. Described as a “triumph of the new metallurgy and engineering ingenuity” it was built by local industrialist Rowland Burdon of Castle Eden.
Burdon, who was the MP for County Durham, purchased sections of a bridge from an iron company in Rotherham. These sections, designed by the engineer and renowned radical, Thomas Paine, were intended for a new bridge across the Schuylkill River in Pennsylvania in the United States so the sections had to be modified for Wearmouth. The American businessman who originally ordered the bridge went bankrupt, enabling Burdon to make the purchase.
Sunderland’s bridge was considered something of a wonder. It attracted curious visitors from far and wide including foreign dignitaries and was commemorated on thousands of souvenir pottery items manufactured by Sunderland earthenware firms. The bridge opening was a significant event in Sunderland’s history because it brought together the communities on the two sides of the River Wear that were previously only linked by ferry.
One North East writer and poet, a Michael Watson of North Shields was one of many to recognise the significance of the new iron bridge but his poem suggesting that Burdon might issue patents to prevent the pursuit of more ambitious projects was perhaps a little tongue in cheek:
Ye sons of Sunderland, with shouts that rival ocean’s roar,
Hail Burdon in his iron boots, who strides from shore to shore!
O, may ye firm support each leg, or much, O, much, I fear,
Poor Rowland may o’er stretch himself, in striding ‘cross the Wear.
A patent quickly issue out, lest some more bold than he,
Should put on larger iron boots, and stride across the sea !
Then let us pray for speedy peace, lest Frenchmen should come over,
And foll’wing Burdon’s iron plan, from Calais stride to Dover.
In the 1850s Sunderland’s iron bridge was considerably modified by the Tyneside engineer Robert Stephenson but continued in use until replaced by the present Wearmouth Bridge in 1929. Like the earlier bridge, the Wearmouth Bridge has the railway bridge of 1879 as its companion.
Historically, the old part of Bishopwearmouth – or South Wearmouth – was a village focused around Wearmouth Green and the Sunderland Minster which was formerly the church of St Michael and All Angels. It was in this area of Sunderland that a number of old routeways into the town converged.
South Wearmouth, as Bishopwearmouth was originally called, came into being in Anglo-Saxon times when it encompassed lands stretching south as far as Seaham and Hesleden. The lands were given to the Community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street around 830-846AD.
The lands were then seized in 918 AD by the Dublin-based Viking ruler, Ragnald who gave them to his follower, Olaf Ball. They were later returned to the Bishops of Chester-le-Street (predecessors of the Bishops of Durham) by Athelstan, King of England in 934AD. Athelstan described the lands as “my beloved vill of South Wearmouth” Through its association with the Bishops of Durham, South Wearmouth became ‘Bishopwearmouth’.
The green is bordered by neat cottage-like buildings in Church Lane and the rustic looking Mowbray Almshouses of 1863. The almshouses were originally founded in 1727 when Jane Gibson, widow of a Sunderland merchant made a bequest for “an hospital or almshouse, erected and endowed for the maintenance of 12 poor men or women”. The fund for the almshouses was administered by a notable Sunderland family called the Mowbrays, who rebuilt the almshouses in 1863. The green itself has long been common land and in less enlightened times was used as a venue for bull baiting.
Bishopwearmouth was a rather sleepy rural settlement at the time of the Boldon Book (1183) and retained its village-like appearance for centuries. You still get that feel today south of Sunderland Minster where the church still overlooks the village green.
St Michael’s church became the Sunderland Minster in 1998, in keeping with Sunderland’s city status, granted in 1992. The minster is now officially ‘The Minster Church of St Michael and All Angels and St Benedict Biscop’. Despite its minster status, it is not the oldest or most historically significant church in Sunderland. That honour belongs to the 1,300 year old church of St Peter across the river at Monkwearmouth.
Nevertheless Sunderland Minster is a site with quite a remarkable history. There is thought to have been a church on this site since 930AD and very probably earlier given the extensive area of land associated with South Wearmouth.
Although parts of the present building can be dated to the thirteenth century and carved stones of Saxon times have been found, much of the present building owes its origins to a restoration of the nineteenth century with further work carried out during the 1930s.
Historically, an extensive rectory and rectory lands were attached to this church, stretching right down to the river from a site now occupied by the Empire Theatre.
Considered one of the best parsonages in England, the rectory building was demolished in 1855. Its incumbents had included several significant figures. Notable Wearmouth rectors went on to become bishops, archbishops and one even became a pope, namely Robert Gebenens, a Wearmouth rector in the 1370s, who became Pope Clement VII during the Great Schism.
The most notable Wearmouth Rector was however William of Durham (William De Dunelm) who was rector from 1229. Making a good living from the Wearmouth rectory lands, William granted, upon his death, a bequest for the founding of a college. That college was none other than University College at Oxford, the first college of one of the most esteemed educational establishments in the world.
Industry gradually colonised the rural ‘Rectory Park’ lands during the nineteenth century and a significant part of the park was home to Vaux Breweries (founded 1837) that stood here from 1875 up until closure in 1999. Lately, the site has become a focus for major redevelopment and includes Sunderland’s new City Hall.
High Street and Fawcett Street
The area of High Street West facing the Minster is home to a number of notable Edwardian Baroque style buildings including the Empire Theatre of 1906 by the Sunderland architects Thomas and William Milburn. The brothers also built the former fire station nearby and the magistrates court.
The Empire Theatre’s neighbour is the equally ornate Dun Cow pub of 1901 (by Benjamin F. Simpson) which, like the theatre, has a green copper dome.
Of similar style is the pub called The Peacock just to the east, built 1901-02 (by Hugh Hedley). It was originally named The Londonderry after the County Durham coal owner, the Marquess of Londonderry but was refurbished and renamed in 2017.
The Peacock was the name of an earlier pub that had stood on this site. The year 2017 also saw the transformation of the Edwardian Old Fire Station into a wonderful new music, culture, dance, drama and arts hub which includes the Engine Room restaurant.
As a blue plaque explains, the building opened as a fire station in 1908 and was designed by the Milburns and operated as a fire station until closure in 1992. Its restoration was undertaken with support from the Heritage Lottery Fund.
One particularly appealing and quirky detail of the Milburn’s building are the motifs of flaming torches with the word ‘fire’ alongside the upper windows.
The Peacock pub and nearby magistrates court overlook the recently created Keel Square (2015) with its water fountains. The square has an extraordinary lengthy line of paving called the Keel Line with an inscribed year-by-year timeline featuring the names of all the Sunderland-built ships.
The High Street was historically called ‘the Lonnin’ and part of the route, through the former open land between Bishopwearmouth and Old Sunderland was also called ‘Wearmouth Walk’. By the time the first Wearmouth Bridge opened in the 1790s, the whole of the street was colonised by buildings joining the two places together.
The opening of the first Wearmouth Bridge stimulated further growth including a new major street that was built in Sunderland adjoining the High Street and leading south from it. This was Fawcett Street, built on land belonging to a local landowner called Christopher Fawcett around 1814.
Initially residential, Fawcett Street had developed into Sunderland’s major commercial thoroughfare by the late nineteenth century. There are several notable buildings in this street leading south towards the Civic Centre and Mowbray Park.
One particularly notable building in the street is the former Elephant Tea Rooms, designed by the noted Victorian architect, Frank Caws for tea merchant Ronald Grimshaw. Elephants of stone feature in the ornate artwork of this distinct building which features multi-coloured brickwork.
Mowbray Park and a monument to a tragedy
Sunderland’s Mowbray Park occupies an area that was historically called Building Hill. Here certain local people held rights to quarrying the magnesian limestone close to the centre of town. The quarry is said to be called Building Hill because the stone was used for building purposes but the real origin seems to have been Billdon – a bill-shaped hill.
In 1844, Sunderland council purchased the undulating quarry land from the Mowbray family with the assistance of a government grant. Their intention was to develop a public park for Sunderland. The park was opened in 1857 by the Sunderland Lord Mayor and local MP, John Candlish, who was a noted glass bottle manufacturer in the town and also owned a glassworks in Seaham. Candlish is commemorated in one of the park’s monuments.
There are a number of other notable memorials in the park. The most moving is that to the Victoria Hall disaster. Located on the Toward Road side of the park, it stands near the site of the Victoria Hall Theatre where, tragically, on June 16, 1883, an incredible 114 boys and 69 girls died in a crushing incident caused by a door that could only be opened one way.
The incident occurred during a special performance for children and the crush occurred as excited youngsters in the upper tier of the theatre rushed towards a lower tier of the theatre where performers were throwing free toys to the audience.
Following the tragedy, new safety measures were introduced to public buildings across the world. The Victoria Hall theatre continued to operate until 1941 when it was destroyed by a German parachute bomb.
The Indian Mutiny was an event that could have been avoided as it resulted from British insensitivity, ignorance and disrespect for Indian traditions. Havelock had no direct responsibility for this but it is debatable whether he would be so favourably looked upon as a hero by the standards of modern thinking.
Close to the lake overlooked by the Winter Gardens one of the most endearing features of the park is a sculpture of a walrus reclining alongside the water with the seagulls for company. It commeorates the Lewis Carroll rhyme, the Walrus and the Carpenter which has strong associations with Sunderland. Lewis Carroll was a regular visitor to Whitburn on the northern outskirts of Sunderland.
Jack Crawford – Nailing colours to the mast
Perhaps the best-known monument in Mowbray Park is that dedicated to the Sunderland sailor, Jack Crawford. The monument was unveiled in 1890 and depicts Jack in his most famous act: nailing a flag to a ship’s mast. Strangely the monument was erected rather late as Jack died in 1831 and the heroic act for which he was famed took place in 1797.
Crawford was born in Sunderland’s ‘East End’, the port area of ‘Old Sunderland’ as it is known. He worked for a time as a keelman before he was enforced into the Royal Navy by a press gang in 1796.
On October 11, 1797 a British fleet under Admiral Duncan was engaged in the Battle of Camperdown off the coast of Holland against the Dutch fleet when the mast of the Admiral’s ship The Venerable was shot down along with his flag.
Lowering of the flag signified a surrender, so the brave (or perhaps inebriated) Jack, climbed what remained of the mast – he was probably ordered to so so – and nailed the flag in place. He performed this heroic act as the Dutch fired their bullets upon him, with one bullet piercing his cheek. Crawford’s actions are believed to have given rise to that well-known phrase “nailing your colours to the mast”.
Victory followed and Jack was proclaimed a national hero. He was even presented before the King. Sadly, Jack fell on hard times and poverty in later life, when he was often found to be drunk.
Jack Crawford died in 1831. He was one of the first victims of the horrific cholera epidemic that entered the country through the port of Sunderland. The disease swept across the nation where it killed around 32,000 people. Originating in India, this epidemic had already killed millions before entering Britain via Sunderland where the first fatality in the country was a 12-year old girl called Isabella Hazard who lived near the River Wear. She died only a day after contracting the disease.
To the south of Mowbray Park is Ryhope Road, home to the impressive Bede Tower and Langham Tower on the east side of the road with Ashbrooke and Backhouse Park in the valley of the Hendon Burn to the west.
Museum and Winter Gardens
Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens overlook a lake at the northern end of Mowbray Park near the terminus of Fawcett Street which runs to the north. Beginning its life in Fawcett Street’s Athenaeum Building, the Sunderland Museum was the first publicly run museum in the country outside London.
As its collections grew the museum was relocated to its present site. The first stones of the new building were laid by the Sunderland Mayor (and Sunderland Echo founder) Samuel Storey, with the recently retired President of the United States, Ulysses Grant in attendance. The new museum opened in 1879, along with the glasshouse of the adjoining Winter Gardens, based on London’s Crystal Palace.
Today, exhibits in the museum include a fossil of Britain’s oldest-known flying reptile, a 250 million year old Coelurasuravus found at Eppleton near Hetton-le-Hole. There are many displays relating to the history of Sunderland including an impressive collection of paintings and many beautiful examples of Sunderland lustreware pottery.
Heading east of Fawcett Street along Athenaeum Street (named from the centre of learning built 1839-41 that once stood here) we enter a relatively quiet district on the east side of Sunderland’s city where the city centre merges with the ‘east end’ of ‘Old Sunderland‘.
First we encounter John Street which like Fawcett Street runs north-south with attractive Neo-Georgian style houses dating from about 1840 to 1850. Further to the east, Frederick Street which runs parallel is in similar vein as is Foyle Street, further east.
The next street to the east is particularly attractive and again runs parallel to the others. This is West Sunniside which faces across a green to Norfolk Street at the heart of the Sunniside area of Sunderland.
Buildings of note include the attractive ‘Old Post Office’ in West Sunniside of 1902 near the junction of St Thomas Street and bordering Norfolk Street on its east side.
Norfolk Street : Football Milestones
Number 10 Norfolk Street was the birthplace of Charles W. Alcock (1842-1907), one of the most important figures in the history of the world of Association Football and commemorated here by a square-shaped plaque.
The son of a Sunderland shipowner, Alcock was a key figure in the early development of Association Football and was the man who dreamt up and established the FA Cup competition. Indeed, he captained The Wanderers FC, who were victors in the first ever FA Cup final in 1872.
Alcock also organised the world’s first ever international football matches (England v Scotland in 1870) and was England football team captain for a time. Incredibly, Alcock played an important part in the history of cricket too and captained Middlesex County Cricket club in the first county match in 1867.
Norfolk Street is a pleasant street with yet more Neo-Georgian style buildings overlooking the green towards West Sunniside. Heading south along the street, the street’s links to Association Football continue at number 34. Here we find the Norfolk Hotel, the former British Day School, where at a meeting in October 1879, the Sunderland Association Football Club was established under the instigation of Scottish schoolmaster, James Allan. The club was initially called the Sunderland and District Teachers Football Club.
Little can be seen of history in neighbouring Nile Street to the east as much has been cleared but there are a handful of Neo-Georgian style houses in Villiers Street to the east before we cross the A1018 into the ‘East End’ of Old Sunderland.
The Sunniside area was once the home to a Georgian mansion house of 1730 called Sunniside House, that belonged to an Ebenezer Wardell but was later the home to the Backhouse banking family of Darlington (including the famed Jonathan Backhouse) but this house, which stood in what is now the Norfolk Street area, was demolished in the 1840s.
The old house stood in parkland but the Sunniside district was developed as part of the town from around 1844 when many of the Neo-Georgian style buildings were erected as offices associated with the port and industries of the town as it then was.