Bishopwearmouth : Sunderland City Centre

The Wearmouth Bridge

Bishopwearmouth, on the south side of the River Wear, forms the city centre of modern Sunderland and developed from a settlement called South Wearmouth. It is linked to Monkwearmouth, across the river, by the Wearmouth Bridge of 1929.

Wearmouth Bridge
The present Wearmouth Bridge with the railway bridge to the rear : Photo © David Simpson.

The bridge, designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson replaced an earlier bridge of international renown that was once the most famous bridge in the region.

The predecessor of the current Wearmouth Bridge was an iron bridge dating from 1796 that was one of the most famous in the world. This earlier bridge was only the second cast iron bridge built in England, following on from the famed Ironbridge of Coalbrookdale in Staffordshire but 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.

The Old Wearmouth Bridge
The Old Wearmouth Bridge in the 19th century with the railway bridge to the rear

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 local 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.

Sunderland Minster, Mowbray almshouses
Sunderland Minster, Mowbray almshouses and green : Photo © David Simpson

Wearmouth Green

Historically, the old part of Bishopwearmouth 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’.

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.

Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland
Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland. Photo David Simpson

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.

Sunderland Minster

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.

Neverthless 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.

Sunderland Minster
Sunderland Minster : Photo © David Simpson

Although parts of the present building can be dated to the 13th century and carved stones of Saxon times have been found, much of the present building owes its origins to a restoration of the 19th 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 Oxford Connection

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 left, 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. Presently, the site is set to become a focus for major business development.

Rail bridge and Wearmouth Bridge
Rail bridge and Wearmouth Bridge from the Bishopwearmouth side : Photo © David Simpson

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 also includes the Engine Room restaurant.

The Peacock pub and 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.

Empire Theatre and Dun Cow
Empire Theatre and Dun Cow : Photo © David Simpson

The two main streets of Bishopwearmouth in Sunderland city centre are High Street West and Fawcett Street. The High Street West is part of a mile long street following a centuries old routeway that begins near Sunderland Minster and continues east into the port area of ‘Old Sunderland‘, where it is called High Street East.

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 it had developed into Sunderland’s major commercial thorougfare by the late 19th century. There are several notable buildings in this street leading south towards the Civic Centre and Mowbray Park.

High Street West Sunderland
19th century view of High Street West near the junction with Fawcett Street

Mowbray Park and a monument to a tragedy

Overlooked by Sir Basil Spence’s Sunderland Civic Centre of 1970, Mowbray Park occupies an area of Sunderland 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.

Mowbray Park. Sunderland.
Mowbray Park. Sunderland. Photo David Simpson.

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.

Memorial to the Victoria Hall tragedy Sunderland
Memorial to the Victoria Hall tragedy in Mowbray Park : Photo © David Simpson

Another monument in Mowbray Park recalls Sir Henry Havelock , who was born at Ford Hall in Bishopwearmouth in 1795. A military man and son of the Sunderland shipbuilder, William Havelock, Sir Henry is recalled in the names of many street-names and town-names throughout the world. He became Adjutant General of the British Army in India and was in command at the time of the Indian Mutiny in 1857 when he became famous for recapturing the garrison of Lucknow. Havelock died of dysentery in India later that year

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 amusing 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.

Walrus in Sunderland's Mowbray Park
Walrus in Sunderland’s Mowbray Park : Photo © David Simpson

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”.

Jack Crawford nailing his colours to the mast, Mowbray Park
Jack Crawford nailing the colours to the mast, Mowbray Park : Photo © David Simpson

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 was a 12-year old girl called Isabella Hazard who lived near the River Wear. She died only a day after contracting the disease.

Winter Gardens Sunderland
Winter Gardens, Mowbray Park, Sunderland : Photo © David Simpson

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.

Old Sunderland | Monkwearmouth

Sunderland South | Sunderland North

Industry | ‘Mackems’ 

 Washington Penshaw 

Houghton-le-Spring Hetton-le-Hole

Seaham and Murton | Easington

Whitburn and South Tyneside Villages 

South Shields | Bede’s Jarrow


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