Sunderland Industries

Sunderland trades and professions 1851

In the nineteenth century the Sunderland area was home to a wide range of industries including glass making, potteries, limestone quarrying, coal mining and shipbuilding. A significant proportion of the population were sailors and many people in the town were employed on the quayside in shipping-related trades.

Monkwearmouth Colliery
Monkwearmouth Colliery

By the time of the 1851 census Sunderland Borough encompassed the whole of Sunderland, Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth and was home to 63,897 people. Of the trades and professions represented in the town, seamen were the biggest group with 3,060 sailors resident in the town. Shipwrights (shipbuilders) were the next biggest group with 2,025 employed in this trade.

Other trades and professions represented in Sunderland included miners of which there were 808, joiners (784), glass manufacturers (641), iron manufacturers (622) blacksmiths (479) and bargemen/boatmen (295). Then there were rope makers (216), river pilots (192), earthenware manufacturers (156), ship owners (162), railway workers (130) limestone quarrymen (104) and anchor smiths (99).

A study of the birthplaces of people living in Sunderland in 1851 shows that the town’s industrial growth was boosted by people from outside. The census shows that of the 63,897 people living in the Borough only 38,265 people were born there with a further 8,969 born in other parts of County Durham. Some 4,385 Sunderland people were born in the neighbouring county of Northumberland (which included a significant number from Newcastle) and 2,566 were born in Yorkshire.

In addition to this, there were 3,601 Sunderland people born in Ireland and 2,008 born in Scotland but only 144 were born in Wales. Surprisingly, some 615 people were born in the Lake District counties of Cumberland and Westmorland and 879 were born in the London area. Seven Sunderland residents were born at sea, 374 in foreign countries and overseas colonies and the remainder of the Sunderland population were born in various parts of England or the British Isles.

Wearside coal mining

As with many North East industrial towns, coal lay at the root of everything in Sunderland, allowing the development of the port through the coal trade and providing the fuel necessary for the development of many industries. Sunderland was shipping coal from medieval times and supplying coal to London by the 1500s. In these earlier times the Wearside coal was mined inland in the Fatfield, Biddick and Chartershaugh areas, all in the vicinity of the present town of Washington. Here the coal was close to the surface.

From 1822, beginning with Hetton Colliery, coal mines began to open in east Durham penetrating the coal beneath the Magnesian Limestone escarpment and enabling mining in the very heart of the Sunderland area. By the 1820s and 30s the coal trade on Wearside was dominated by three major coal owners: John George Lambton (the Earl of Durham), The Marquess of Londonderry (surnamed Vane Tempest) and the Hetton Coal Mining Company.

A mine was operated at Monkwearmouth Colliery from the 1830s by the Pemberton family and other Sunderland collieries followed at Ryhope (1857), Silksworth (1869) and Herrington (1874) which were all operated by Londonderry.

Doctor Clanny’s lamp

Coal mining was a dangerous trade and over the centuries a staggering 2,700 miners lost their lives working in coal mines situated within the boundaries of the present city of Sunderland area. Fatal injuries were common place but explosions caused by naked flames were the biggest danger and necessitated the development of a miners’ safety lamp.

In response to the Felling Colliery disaster near Gateshead in 1812 (which claimed 92 lives) the very first safety lamp was developed in 1813 by Dr William Reid Clanny, an Irish-born Sunderland man, who was Sunderland’s senior physician. In 1815 Clanny’s design was improved by George Stephenson (the Geordie Lamp) and by Sir Humphry Davy (the Davy Lamp) and both lamps became common place. In 1841 Clanny vastly improved his design, creating the Clanny Lamp and this was also widely used.

The Wearside Keelmen

A notable trade associated with the coal industry were the keelmen, the skilled boatmen who ferried coal along the River Wear to waiting ships. They formed a distinct community and were a significant group on Wearside both in Sunderland and in the coal district around Fatfield, particularly at Biddick near the River Wear.

The riverside community and settlement of Biddick has long gone, but the Wearside keelmen at Biddick were noted for putting up a good fight, particularly when threatened by press gangs. In the nineteenth century the people of Biddick were compared to banditti and were notorious for smuggling.

There were around 1,500 keelmen working on the Wear in 1811 but the increasing use of railways and coal staiths allowed coal to be brought closer to the river mouth and loaded directly onto ships without the need for the keelmen. Even before the rapid development of steam railways in the 1820s, staiths were becoming a threat to the keelmen’s livelihood.

In 1812, despite previously stalling due to pressure from the keelmen, a local coal owner called John Nesham built staiths at Galley Gill on the River Wear just west of the Wearmouth Bridge near Rectory Park. The coal staiths were linked to Nesham’s coal mines at Newbottle via a railway. It must have struck fear in the hearts of the keelmen.

By 1815 other coal owners were planning to build their own staiths and the under-threat keelmen took to rioting as a protest. Destroying the railway bridge across the Galley Gill that led to the staiths, the keelmen set alight to the staiths along with the machinery that lowered the rail wagons into the ships. The rioters were eventually dispersed by troops from Newcastle but the damage was done.

This destructive protest was in vain. Staiths considerably reduced the cost of shipping coal and nothing was going to stop the coal owners from pursuing their continued development. In the decades that followed the keelmen’s trade would become virtually obsolete.

Biggest shipbuilding town in the world

The industry for which Sunderland was known above all others is of course shipbuilding and Sunderland has long claimed to be the biggest shipbuilding town in the world.

The first record of shipbuilding in Sunderland was in 1346 when a certain Thomas Menville is recorded as building a vessel here. It was constructed at Hendon near the coast but it is likely that ships were being built in Sunderland before that time.

Early ships were of course built of wood including 63 ships built at Sunderland in 1776. John Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland, a conceptual map dating from the 1790s shows dozens of ships’ carpenters hard at work near the river mouth. Daniel Defoe who had visited Sunderland in 1762 was struck by the bustle and prosperity of the town.

During the 1700s many warships were built at Sunderland to assist in the wars with the French as well as the usual commercial sailing ships. By the end of the eighteenth century, the biggest ship built in Sunderland was the Lord Duncan but this was accidentally blown up in the West Indies at considerable financial loss to its Sunderland owner, William Havelock.

Shipbuilding continued to expand in the nineteenth century with the number of shipyards in the town growing from nine in 1801 to 31 by 1840. From Lloyds Register of Shipping in 1835 it could be seen that Sunderland was “The most important shipbuilding centre in the country, nearly equalling as regards tonnage and ships built all the other ports put together.”

Until around 1868, most ships were built of wood using oak, beech and elm but the last wooden sailing ship was built at Sunderland in 1880. Sunderland’s first iron ship was The Loftus built in 1852 by George Clark’s engineering works. Steel ships were built in Sunderland from the 1880s and the last sailing ship was built in 1893.

Notable names in Sunderland shipbuilding included Sir William Laing, Theodore Doxford and later the shipbuilding firm of Austin and Pickersgill. There were 16 shipyards operating in the town in 1919 but this number had fallen to nine during the Second World War due to ever-increasing competition from abroad.

Despite this, an extraordinary 27% of merchant ships built in Britain during the Second World War were built at Sunderland. Unfortunately, shipbuilding and other industrial activity in the town made it a regular target for Nazi bombing raids and many lives were lost in Sunderland during the war years.

In 1978 there were 7,535 people working in Sunderland’s shipyards but this fell to 4,337 by 1984. Sunderland’s last two shipyards merged into one but this shipyard eventually closed in 1989 bringing an end to at least six and half centuries of shipbuilding in Sunderland.

Bottle works
Nineteenth century view of the old Wearmouth Bridge and a Bottle works

Sunderland glass making

Glass making was introduced to Wearside by Benedict Biscop at the Monkwearmouth monastery in the seventh century AD when he employed glaziers from France. It was the first known record of glass making in Britain and was the beginning of a long tradition of glass manufacture in Sunderland which is recognised by Sunderland’s place as the home to the National Glass Centre.

Sunderland is of course a coastal city clustered around the Magnesian Limestone gorge of the River Wear so sand and limestone, the essential ingredients for glass making were in plentiful supply as was coal for heating the furnaces.

Glass bottles were being exported from Sunderland by 1685 and in the 1690s the Sunderland Company of Glass Makers had established a works at Ayres Quay and at Bishopwearmouth Panns. A Glass House Quay was mentioned in 1719 where a brick structure called a glass house must have stood for the making of glass. By 1817 Sunderland was the home to seven bottle works and three glass works.

One notable glass works was James Hartley’s Wear Glass Works established in Sunderland in 1836. This was the biggest glass works in the country and manufactured a considerable proportion of the glass used in the construction of the Crystal Palace that housed London’s Great Exhibition in 1851. By the 1850s there were 16 bottle works in Sunderland which could manufacture between 60,000 and 70,000 bottles a day.

Sunderland potteries

Although earthenware would have been manufactured in Sunderland from very early times, the first known commercial pottery manufactory in Sunderland was established in 1750 by a Mr Philips in Old Sunderland and was called the Sunderland pottery or Garrison Pottery.

The raw material for making pottery in Sunderland was imported but at little expense as ships brought in white clay and stone from places in the south of England which they used as ballast to give the ships weight and buoyancy rather than arrive empty at Sunderland. The material was then offloaded for the making of earthenware.

Potteries in Sunderland included Anthony Scott’s pottery in Southwick, Dawson’s Pottery in Low Ford and Dixon’s Garrison Pottery at Pottery Bank. Many of the workers in these potteries were children. Sunderland pottery was shipped to London and then exported throughout Europe. Around 300,000 items of earthenware were exported in the Sunderland pottery heyday.

The pinkish-coloured Sunderland Lustreware was particularly well sought after in Britain and many of these items depicted an illustration of the famous iron bridge across the River Wear – the first Wearmouth Bridge. Foreign competition in the late nineteenth century resulted in a dramatic decline of the Sunderland pottery industry including the closure of the largest Sunderland pottery, the Southwick Pottery, in 1897.

By the time the First World War broke out in 1914 there was no longer a pottery industry in the town. Some wonderful examples of Sunderland pottery can still be seen in the Sunderland Museum near Mowbay Park.

Monkwearmouth | Old Sunderland

Bishopwearmouth City Centre

Sunderland South | Sunderland North


 Washington Penshaw  





North East England History and Culture