Sunderland : North of the River Wear

Fulwell, Roker, Seaburn, Southwick, Witherwack and Hylton Castle

Here we explore those parts of Sunderland situated north of the River Wear including several former rural places absorbed by the town that subsequently became part of the city. These include the coastal areas of Roker and Seaburn and nearby Fulwell in addition to places further inland such as the riverside suburbs of Southwick and Hylton Castle.

Fulwell windmill, Sunderland
Fulwell windmill, Sunderland © David Simpson

Monkwearmouth, one of the most historic parts of Sunderland is also situated north of the river but has long been part of Sunderland and is featured on a separate page. The most northerly parts of Sunderland share a closely connected history with villages such as Whitburn in the neighbouring countryside of South Tyneside.

Back in early medieval times the whole area of what is now northern Sunderland including much of what is now South Tyneside formed a district stretching from the Wear to the Tyne called Wirralshire. It’s name is thought to mean ‘heal of the Wear’ and it was one of several small shires that formed part of the Kingdom of Northumbria with its roots as a district possibly going back to Celtic times. Aucklandshire and Quarringtonshire were other such shires. It is perhaps worth noting that a similar heal of land near Liverpool that is also situated between two river estuaries (the Mersey and the Dee) is called ‘The Wirral’.

Fulwell : A giant and a windmill

Fulwell has an Anglo-Saxon name that means the ‘foul spring’ and historically belonged to the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral. It seems that Fulwell has been occupied since Roman times with the possible evidence being a skeleton discovered in a magnesian limestone quarry here in 1759.

Fulwell windmill, Sunderland
Fulwell windmill, Sunderland © David Simpson

The skeleton, apparently of a giant, measured 9 feet 6 inches tall. Roman coins were found near his hand and it was assumed that he was either a Roman or at least someone who lived here in Roman times.

Later, in 1820, a small statue dedicated to a Roman god was found in a nearby quarry at Carley Hill. This small statue known as a Lar was of the kind often used to protect a house, a shrine at a crossroads or even a Roman family as they sat to dinner.

Fulwell’s most prominent landmark is Fulwell Mill, a windmill alongside Newcastle Road dating from 1808. Built of magnesian limestone, its early owners included the Swan family and it was utilised in the making of flour. On January 7, 1834, a tragedy occurred when a miller called William Wren arrived to repair a broken sail broken off during a storm.

Fulwell windmill, Sunderland
Fulwell windmill, Sunderland © David Simpson

There was a strong gust of wind and the rope that held him secure, suddenly snapped. Wren clung to one of the remaining sails which carried him three full turns before flinging him to his death over the roof of a neighbouring house.

Fulwell Mill’s last miller retired in 1949 when the mill was used in manufacturing animal feed. The mill is now maintained by the Friends of Fulwell Mill. Unfortunately, the sails and cap of the mill were damaged during a storm in December 2011 and were removed. They were not replaced until 2018.

Fulwell limekilns Sunderland
Fulwell limekilns Sunderland © David Simpson

Only a few metres north of the Fulwell windmill and on the same side of the Newcastle Road is a car showroom. Just to the rear of the cars is a rising bank of limestone in which there are situated 8 lime kilns built by Sir Hedworth Williamson of Monkwearmouth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. The kilns burnt magnesian limestone from a nearby quarry.

Limekiln, Fulwell, Sunderland © David Simpson
Limekiln, Fulwell, Sunderland © David Simpson

To the east and south east of Fulwell are Seaburn and Roker and to the south we enter Monkwearmouth. Just off Newcastle Road in Monkwearmouth was located the Newcastle Road football ground where in the nineteenth century Sunderland AFC enjoyed the most successful spell in their history.

Seaburn : Seaside Sunderland

Seaburn is named from a small stream that enters the sea here and is home to a fabulous beach. It is the most northerly coastal part of Sunderland before we reach South Bents and the rockier coast around Whitburn in South Tyneside. The north end of the Seaburn beach itself is quite stony at the Whitburn end but there is about a mile and a half of golden sand stretching south of here broken only by the rocks of Cliffe Park that separate Roker and Seaburn beaches.

Seaburn beach at its northern end near Whitburn
Seaburn beach at its northern end near Whitburn. Notice the cliffs of the Cleveland coast in the distance to the south. Photographed during the Tall Ships Race of 2018 © David Simpson

Seaburn and Roker became ever more popular places of leisure in the age of the trams and railways that made the seaside more accessible to people travelling from further afield.

Railway companies printed posters and guide books promoting the delights of the Seaburn and Roker resorts with illustrations of pretty girls in bathing costumes to emphasise their appeal.

Tall Ships Sunderland 2018
Sailing ship off the coast of Seaburn, Tall Ships Race, 2018 © David Simpson

The famed artist, L.S. Lowry (1887-1976) was a regular visitor to Seaburn and often resided at the Seaburn Hotel. His paintings of Sunderland included Roker beach and the Wear docks.

Beach at Seaburn / Roker
Beach at Seaburn / Roker © David Simpson

In more recent times Seaburn, along with Roker came to be known as the setting for the Sunderland Air Show (established 1988) viewed by huge crowds from the beach and promenade with the sky sea and sand providing a splendid vista for the event. Sadly, this spectacular event is no longer held.

Sunderland Air Show.
Typical scenes from  the Sunderland Air Show. These from the show of 2010. The lighthouse shown here is ‘The White Lighthouse’ is situated at Cliffe Park (see below). Photos © David Simpson

Roker : Pier and Park

Roker is situated between Seaburn and the mouth of the River Wear in the Monkwearmouth area. The meaning of the name ‘Roker’ is uncertain but probably refers to ‘carrs’ or coastal rocks of some kind. A famous landmark at Roker is the North Pier, better known as Roker Pier which is a breakwater on the north side of the River Wear.

The pier protrudes from the beach and promenade at Roker and curves gently towards the river mouth mirrored by its similarly curving south pier companion that protrudes from the dock to the south. Roker Pier and lighthouse was completed between 1885 and 1903 as part of the improvement of the harbour and river navigation. Piers have been constructed at the mouth of the Wear since the eighteenth century.

Roker pier lighthouse
Roker Pier lighthouse © David Simpson

Roker lighthouse, a handsome granite edifice of red and white colouring adorns the end of the pier. It can be reached by walking along the top of the pier which also contains a long tunnel built so that the lighthouse keeper could reach the lighthouse and enter from below during stormy weather.

 White Lighthouse, Seaburn, Sunderland
The White Lighthouse, Seaburn, Sunderland © David Simpson

A lighthouse of 1856 was also situated on the South Pier but this was dismantled in 1983 to allow for harbour improvements and moved to Cliff Park in Seaburn. It is known as ‘The White Lighthouse’.

Roker was once famous as the site of Roker Park, the home to Sunderland Association Football Club for 99 years (1898-1997). The football ground has now gone with housing built upon its site.

Clockstand Close, Roker
Clockstand Close, Roker © David Simpson

The former location of the Roker Park football ground is remembered in the street-names of Midfield Drive, Association Road, Clockstand Close and Goalmouth Close.

Centre circle Roker Park
Streets on site of Roker Park football ground showing site of the centre circle © David Simpson

The position of the former centre circle is marked out in the road where Clockstand Close and Promotion Close meet. Roker Park was Sunderland AFC’s seventh home ground but it was not the first to be situated in Roker.

Roker’s Horatio Street Ground was Sunderland Football Club’s fourth home (1883-1884) and nicknamed ‘Clay Dolly Field’, because of its proximity to a clay pit. Whilst playing there, the team used the Wolsey public house near the sea front as a changing room. Upon leaving Horatio Street, the club moved to its fifth ground at Abb’s Field (1884-1886) in the South Cliff Road area of Fulwell.

The Wolsey pub, Sunderland
The Wolsey pub which once served as changing room for Sunderland Football Club © David Simpson

For most of its long history the Roker Park ground had played host to top flight football until the club experienced relegation for the very first time in its history in 1958 after which many ups and downs would follow. Promotion Close and Promotion Close Park at the heart of the development on the site of the ground would seem to be a nod to the later part of the Roker Park story.

In 1997, the Roker Park ground was superseded by the Stadium of Light at Monkwearmouth a little further to the south but there is another Roker Park, namely a public park near the coast just to the north east of the old football ground. This Roker Park, dating from 1880, is situated within a little valley called Roker Gill.

Roker church
St Andrew’s church Roker © David Simpson

Nearby, Roker’s beautiful church of St Andrew dating from 1907 is known as the ‘Cathedral of the Arts and Crafts Movement’ because of the work it contains within by the artists William Morris and Edward Burne-Jones who both belonged to that particular art movement.

Roker church
Looking out towards St Andrew’s church and the sea from Fulwell Mill © David Simpson

On the west side of the Newcastle Road, a little to the west of the site of the Roker Park Football Ground and a little to the north of the Stadium of Light, where Roker and Monkwearmouth meet, we find the site of Sunderland  Football Club’s sixth ground: the Newcastle Road Ground (1886-1898) which preceded Roker Park and where the club enjoyed the most successful spell in its history.

It was here that Sunderland AFC came to be known as ‘The Team of all the Talents’. As with the Roker Park ground, the site is now occupied by housing and the ground roughly stretched from Eglinton Street at the west end of the pitch to Netherburn Road at the east end. The gardens on the east side of Newington Court more or less mark the site of the half way line.

Newington Court on the site of Sunderland Football Club’s Newcastle Road ground  where they won three of their six level 1 league titles © David Simpson

Southwick and Witherwack

Southwick is the most central of Sunderland’s northern riverside settlements, situated between Monkwearmouth and Hylton. The Anglo-Saxon name means ‘southern farm or trading place’ and was  originally two places: High Southwick and Low Southwick.

Holy Trinity, Southwick
Holy Trinity, Southwick (High Southwick) © David Simpson

High Southwick was probably the older settlement and developed around a village green (there is still a green) and was likely connected to the monastic lands of Wearmouth and Jarrow. The name occurs as ‘Suddick’ and ‘Suthewic’ in the 1100s, ‘Suddick’ possibly reflecting an older, original pronunciation. Low Southwick was nearer the river.

Holy Trinity church on Church Bank in High Southwick dates from the 1840s. Here, the Rectory of Southwick just to the north of the church was once home to the Reverend Charles Collingwood, who married Mary, the sister of writer, Lewis Carroll.

View of the Northern Spire Bridge from Holy Trinity churchyard, Southwick
View of the Northern Spire Bridge from Holy Trinity churchyard, Southwick © David Simpson

Lewis Carroll knew the Sunderland area well, being a frequent visitor to Whitburn which has strong Alice in Wonderland connections. Carroll visited his sister here at Southwick on occasions and a blue plaque commemorates the connection.

Holy Trinity, Southwick
Holy Trinity, Southwick © David Simpson

The rectory is thought to have been the home to a stuffed walrus that inspired Carroll (who grew up at Croft near Darlington) to write The Walrus and the Carpenter in Alice Through the Looking Glass. A stuffed walrus in Sunderland Museum is sometimes connected with the poem but this arrived after Carroll had written the poem. ‘The carpenter’ may be a reference to Sunderland shipbuilders from the days of wooden sailing ships.

Plaque commemorating Lewis Carroll's connections to Southwick
Plaque commemorating Lewis Carroll’s connections to Southwick © David Simpson

Southwick is home to a number of single-storey terraced ‘Sunderland Cottages’ (see Pallion) which are a feature of several parts of the town. Southwick’s river front lies at the north end of the Edwardian Queen Alexandra Bridge.

Queen Alexandra Bridge, Sunderland
Queen Alexandra Bridge, Sunderland © David Simpson

Wear Street at the north end of the bridge was the birthplace of bomb-maker William Mills in 1856, though the bridge didn’t exist at the time of his birth. A pub in the street near the river has a mural commemorating his invention : the ‘Mills Bomb’. It is placed between depictions of the Sunderland football heroes, Kevin Phillips and Jim Montgomery who can be seen on the end of the pub facing out across the river.

Wall art in Sunderland commemorating William Mills, inventor of the Mills Bomb
Wall art in Sunderland commemorating William Mills, inventor of the Mills Bomb © David Simpson

The son of a Sunderland shipbuilder, William Mills invented the hand grenade (the ‘Mills Bomb’) used by the British army in World War One and into World War Two. The grenade adopted the distinct fragmenting ‘pineapple’ design. They were manufactured at his munitions factory in Birmingham from 1915.

Mills Bomb.Times Inn, Sunderland
Mills Bomb. Times Inn, Sunderland © David Simpson

Mills was also the inventor of a safer method of releasing and reconnecting lifeboats from ships at sea, which helped to save lives. He died in 1932 and had resided at East Boldon during the First World War.

Blue plaque in Sunderland commemorating William Mills, inventor of the Mills Bomb
Blue plaque in Sunderland commemorating William Mills, inventor of the Mills Bomb © David Simpson

North of Southwick is Marley Pots, named, apparently from clay pits of marl clay. Just east towards Fulwell is Carley Hill from the name of a mansion. North west of Marley Pots is Witherwack, a peculiar name that could derive from a Norse word ‘wither-woodland’. The second part of the name was probably originally ‘wick’ meaning a farm or trading place. Being north of Southwick, Witherwack is possibly the ‘North Wick’.

Hylton Castle
Hylton Castle © David Simpson

Hylton Castle

Today the two sides of the River Wear at Sunderland are linked by bridges but up until the eighteenth century Sunderland was only linked to Hylton and Monkwearmouth on the north side of the Wear by means of a ferry. One ferry operated from a site where the Wearmouth Bridge now stands while another major ferry crossed the river to the west at Hylton.

Hylton Castle, one of Sunderland’s most historic buildings guarded this ferry crossing of the Wear. A ferry operated here from at least 1322 and the castle was built by one William De Hylton around 1400.

Hylton Castle castle
Hylton Castle castle © David Simpson

Hylton Castle is most famous for its ghost called the ‘Cauld Lad o’ Hylton’. This ghost is said to be the spirit of a stable boy who was slain by a baron of Hylton in the sixteenth century. The unfortunate young man had been caught napping by the temperamental lord, who in a fit of rage brutally struck the boy with a pitch fork killing him instantly.

The ghost, who may or may not carry his head under his arm, was occasionally seen and often heard by the domestic servants of Hylton Castle.

Like all good poltergeists the Cauld Lad’s favourite pastime was throwing dishes, plates and pewter, but this only happened if the Hylton kitchen was left in a tidy state. Curiously if the servants left the kitchen untidy, the Cauld Lad would tidy it up. Naturally the servants took advantage and always left the kitchen untidy.

Hylton Castle viewed from the north
Hylton Castle viewed from the north © David Simpson

The castle building was not the only place to be haunted by this mischievous ghost, for on occasions he is known to have impersonated the boatman on the Hylton ferry, where after accepting fares he would leave his passengers stranded in the centre of the river.

The pranks of the ‘Cauld Lad’ were finally ended by presenting him with a green cloak and hood which were laid before the kitchen fire. The Hylton servants sat up watching until midnight when the ghost finally appeared. He happily took the garments and then suddenly disappeared with the last words:

“Here’s a cloak and here’s a hood,
The Cauld Lad o’ Hylton will do no more good”

Though Hylton was occupied until the early twentieth century, what remains of the castle today has been developed as a working building and heritage led community resource that benefits the local community and visitors.

Hylton Castle chapel
Hylton Castle chapel © David Simpson

The medieval shell of the castle chapel survives just north of the castle and is thought to be the same one mentioned in an inventory of buildings in 1448.

On March 26, 1644, the area around Hylton Castle was the site of a Civil War battle between an army of Scots and Royalists. The Scots, supporting the Parliamentarian cause would ultimately capture the port of Sunderland where many residents including the influential Lilburne family were not favourable to the Royalists.

Hylton suburbs and Town End Farm

A small village dating back to medieval times called Hylton once existed to the north of Hylton Castle but had disappeared by around 1750 and its site is thought to have been destroyed by limestone quarrying. It was situated in what is now the Downhill area and there was a field called Town End Field located at the west end of the village in what is now the Brisbane Road area of Town End Farm estate.

The suburbs in this north western corner of the city of Sunderland all have a Hylton theme with the exception of Downhill which is named from either Downhill House or Downhill Farm in the Boldon Hills just to the north. Street-names in Downhill for some reason all begin with ‘K’: Kerry, Kildare, Keighley, Kinghorn and so on.

Hylton Castle
Hylton Castle © David Simpson

The Hylton-themed suburbs include Castletown and Hylton Castle estate (where street-names begin with ‘C’) and both are named from Hylton Castle itself. Hylton Red House estate is named from a building called the Red House that stood out in the country here on a spot where we now find Bedburn Avenue.

Town End Farm in the very far north western corner of Sunderland is named from a late nineteenth century farmhouse that stood on the edge of the rural district of Hylton village called Hylton Township. Street-names in Town End Farm all seem to begin with’B’: Baltimore, Bognor, Belgrade, Bergen, Brunswick and Baird to name a few. In the housing estate of Hylton Red House, they usually begin with ‘R’.

The Shipwrights, North Hylton
The Shipwrights, North Hylton © David Simpson

North Hylton close to the old riverside site of the ferry to South Hylton is home to a pub on the banks of the river called ‘The Shipwright’s’ which has a striking mural on its gable end.

The Shipwrights, North Hylton
The Shipwrights, North Hylton © David Simpson

Hylton (or Castletown) Colliery was situated between Southwick and North Hylton where a retail park can now be seen just to the north of the River Wear and just west of the Northern Spire bridge. Castletown developed as its colliery village. The sinking of the mine commenced in 1897 but its active life belongs entirely to the twentieth century. It opened in 1900 and operated until July 13, 1979.

Hylton colliery banner at the Durham Miners' Gala
Hylton colliery banner at the Durham Miners’ Gala © David Simpson

Hylton Family

Notable features of Hylton Castle’s castle include the stone-carved coats of arms of various local families, which can be seen on its walls. They include the shields of the Hyltons, Lumleys, Percys, Greys Eures and the Washingtons. The Washington coat of arms consists of two bars and three stars and is believed to have been adapted by George Washington for the ‘stars and stripes’ flag of the United States.

The Hylton (or Hilton) family who built Hylton Castle were Norman barons who took their name from Hylton village after settling here around 1072. The first Hylton family member was Henry De Hylton (Henry of Hylton) who built a home here that later became the site of the castle.

Hylton Castle and chapel
Hylton Castle and chapel © David Simpson

In medieval times the Hyltons were the most powerful family in the Sunderland area. They were quite a colourful family too. Three members were killed in the Crusades during Richard I’s reign, two were MPs for the whole of Durham during the thirteenth and fourteenth century. Another family member, Sir Thomas Hilton, rebelled against Henry VIII in 1534 but survived to become Governor of Tynemouth Castle. He thus commanded castles on both the Tyne and the Wear.

Over the centuries many prominent members of this family lost their lives in battles including Agincourt (1415), Bosworth Field (1485) and Flodden (1513). The last male heir of the Hylton (or Hilton) family died in 1739 and the castle was sold to Richard Musgrave who promptly changed his name to Hilton but then spoiled it all by selling the castle, ending forever the castle’s connection with the illustrious family name.

Old Sunderland | Monkwearmouth

Bishopwearmouth City Centre 

Hendon, Ryhope, Silksworth, Pallion, Deptford

Whitburn and South Tyneside Villages 


 Washington Penshaw  

Houghton-le-Spring Hetton-le-Hole

Seaham and Murton | Easington

South Shields | Bede’s Jarrow






North East England History and Culture