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.

Wearmouth Bridge
The present Wearmouth Bridge with the railway bridge to the rear pictured from the north side of the River Wear © David Simpson

The present Wearmouth Bridge, designed by Mott, Hay & Anderson replaced an earlier one of international renown. The earlier bridge 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 at the time, 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.

The Old Wearmouth Bridge
The Old Wearmouth Bridge from the south side of the river in the nineteenth century with the railway bridge to the rear

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 railway bridge
The present day Wearmouth Bridge here seen to the rear of the railway bridge and pictured from the north side of the river © David Simpson

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.

Bridges across the River Wear, Sunderland. Pictured from Bridge Street © David Simpson
Bridges across the River Wear, Sunderland. Pictured from Bridge Street © David Simpson

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.

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.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland © David Simpson

Like the earlier bridge, the Wearmouth Bridge has the railway bridge of 1879 as a companion. The present Wearmouth Bridge is very much a beloved symbol of Sunderland. With its V-shaped nick at the apex of the arch, the bridge is a familiar landmark at the heart of the city.

Views from the bridge of the nearby mouth of the River Wear that gives the bridge can be seen and at the centre the bridge features the city’s famous Latin motto: ‘Nil Desperandum Auspice Deo’ (Do not despair, in God we trust).

Nil Desperandum Auspice Deo (Do not despair, in God we trust), is the Latin motto of the City of Sunderland here depicted on the Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland with the mouth of the River Wear beyond.
Latin motto of the City of Sunderland on the Wearmouth Bridge with the mouth of the River Wear beyond © David Simpson

Wearmouth Green

Historically, the old part of Bishopwearmouth – or South Wearmouth – was a village focused around Wearmouth Green and 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.

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

South Wearmouth, as Bishopwearmouth was originally known, 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 AD 830-846.

The lands were then seized in AD 918 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 AD 934. Athelstan described the lands as “my beloved vill of South Wearmouth”. Through its association with the Bishops of Durham, South Wearmouth became ‘Bishopwearmouth’.

Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland
Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland © 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”.

Church Lane. Sunderland
Church Lane. Sunderland © David Simpson

The fund for the almshouses was administered by a notable Sunderland family called the Mowbrays, who rebuilt the almshouses in 1863. The green has long been common land and in less enlightened times was used as a venue for bull baiting.

Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland
Mowbray Almshouses, Sunderland © David Simpson

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, now Minster Park.

Church Lane, Sunderland
Church Lane near the minster is one of Sunderland’s oldest streets © David Simpson

Sunderland Minster

St Michael’s church became 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.

Sunderland Minster
Sunderland Minster © David Simpson

Nevertheless, Sunderland Minster is a site with quite a remarkable history. There is thought to have been a church on this site since AD 930 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.

Sunderland Minster
Sunderland Minster © David Simpson

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.

Sunderland Minster
Sunderland Minster © David Simpson

The most notable Wearmouth Rector was William of Durham (William De Dunelm) the rector from 1229. After making a good living from the Wearmouth rectory lands, upon his death he granted 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.

Sunderland Minster clock
Sunderland Minster clock © David Simpson

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.

Sunderland Empire and the Dun Cow
Sunderland Empire and the Dun Cow High Street West © David Simpson

High Street and Keel Square

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 Sunderland Empir
The Sunderland Empire © David Simpson

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.

The Dun Cow, Sunderland
The Dun Cow, Sunderland © David Simpson

The pub is beautiful both outside and within. It has a remarkable back bar described in the Pevsner architectural guides as “an eclectic delight, stylistically hard to nail, perhaps Jacobean with Art Nouveau”. The bar was restored in 2014.

Inside the Dun Cow. Sunderland
Inside the Dun Cow. Sunderland © David Simpson

Externally of similar style to the Dun Cow 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 Marquess was an uncompromising man who had not been a favourable figure to Sunderland or to the miners who worked in its neighbouring collieries.

The Peacock, Sunderland
The Peacock, Sunderland © David Simpson

The Peacock was the name of an earlier pub that had stood on this triangular site at the junction of some of Sunderland’s oldest streets long before The Londonderry pub was built. The year 2017 also saw the transformation of the neighbouring Edwardian old fire station into a wonderful new music, culture, dance, drama and arts hub which includes the Engine Room restaurant.

The Fire Station, Sunderland
The Fire Station, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

The Fire Station, Sunderland
The Fire Station, Sunderland © David Simpson

One particularly appealing and quirky detail of the Milburns’ building are the motifs of flaming torches with the word ‘fire’ alongside the upper windows.

Magistrates Court, Sunderland
Magistrates Court, Keel Square, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Detail Magistrates Court, Keel Square, Sunderland
Cartouche detail Magistrates Court, Keel Square, Sunderland © David Simpson

Keel Square is just one feature of a new era of development in the heart of Sunderland. These developments have included the Fire Station venue but also the Northern Spire bridge which has improved access into the heart of the city. Another important development is the City Hall on the old Vaux Breweries site.

City Hall, Sunderland
City Hall, Sunderland © David Simpson

The City Hall is the centrepiece of the old Vaux site, which is just across the road (the A183) to the north of Keel Square and opened in March 2022. It supersedes the former Civic Centre that was situated near Mowbray Park and is being joined by a number of other office developments on this important site at the heart of the city.

'Gan Canny' sculpture by Ray Lonsdale commemorating Sunderland Vaux Breweries. Depicting a dray horse and cart
‘Gan Canny’ sculpture by Ray Lonsdale, Keel Square, Sunderland © David Simpson

A lovely memorial to the original Vaux Breweries (which closed in 1999) is Ray Lonsdale’s sculpture ‘Gan Canny’ which depicts a traditional Vaux Breweries dray horse and cart. It was installed in December 2021 in Keel Square near the magistrates court.

A new brewery opened in Sunderland on the north side of the river near the Stadium of Light in 2020 which adopted the Vaux brand. It maintains the legacy of a brewing name that traces its Sunderland origins back to the nineteenth century. The ‘Vaux’ name of the brewery is, incidentally, pronounced to rhyme with the word ‘forks’.

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

High Street West, which skirts Keel Square, is part of a mile-long street following a centuries old routeway that begins near Sunderland Minster and becomes High Street East in Old Sunderland nearer to the river mouth.

Mackies Corner, Sunderland
Mackies Corner at the junction of Bridge Street, High Street West and Fawcett Street © David Simpson

The High Street was historically called ‘the Lonnin’. It was part of a route, through former open land between Bishopwearmouth and Old Sunderland that 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 Bishopwearmouth and Old Sunderland together.

Near the far western end of High Street West is the Box Office for the Empire Theatre near the Minster Park at Bishopwearmouth Green. Hereabouts the retaining high wall of the minster churchyard faces out west to the neighbouring pedestrianised street of Low Row (one of Sunderland’s older streets) beyond which is the A183 and the main campus of Sunderland University.

St Mary's Building, Sunderland
St Mary’s Building, Sunderland © David Simpson

The part of the A183 just west of Low Row was formerly Hind Street where we find a red and cream rusticated building that was formerly a gas board office and a bit further to the south, the pleasing St Mary’s building built in 1823 as an infirmary. It later became a Primitive Methodist College and then around 1880 became St Mary’s Roman Catholic School. Subsequently it became part of Sunderland Polytechnic and then Sunderland University.

Old gas board office, Sunderland
Old gas board office, Sunderland © David Simpson

A short distance west of the old Gas Board offices in Silksworth Row is a fine Victorian pub called The Ship Isis. Reputedly haunted, it is perhaps named from a ship named from an Egyptian goddess or possibly from a famous Roman ship of that name. A popular theory is the pub was originally called The Ship but renamed The Ship Isis because the crew of a ship of this name were ‘paid off at the bar’.

Isis, Sunderland dated 1885
Isis, Sunderland dated 1885 © David Simpson

Curiously, a steamship ship called Isis, built at Hull in 1862 belonging to the port of Newcastle was involved in a collision in 1885 (the year the pub was built). It left Newcastle bound for Carthagena in August that year and collided in the North Sea with a Middlesbrough-built ship Edgworth, belonging to the port of Cardiff, that was heading from the River Tees to Bilbao with a cargo of iron ore.

Edgworth was sunk after it was struck by Isis. There was one fatality but the rest of the Edgworth crew were picked up by the Isis and brought to the Tyne. A court later laid the blame for the accident with the master of the Isis.

Fawcett Street

The opening of the first Wearmouth Bridge in 1796 stimulated further growth in the town of Wearmouth-Sunderland including a new major street built 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.

Fawcett Street, Sunderland
Fawcett Street, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Elephant Tearooms, Sunderland
Elephant Tearooms, Sunderland © David Simpson

One particularly notable building in the street is the former Elephant Tea Rooms (1873-77), 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.

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

Mowbray Park

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.

Mowbray Park. Sunderland.
John Candlish statue, Mowbray Park. Sunderland © 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.

Mowbray Park, Sunderland
Mowbray Park, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

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

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.

Mowbray Park, Sunderland with Toward Road behind the trees
Mowbray Park, Sunderland with Toward Road beyond the trees © David Simpson

Toward Road which skirts the eastern edge of the park should be pronounced as though the ‘Tow’ rhymes with ‘how’ and is said to derive from the name of a pub landlady called Peggy Toward. It is thought that it was once known as ‘Peggy Toward’s Lonnin’.

Mowbray Park
Mowbray Park © David Simpson

Another interesting monument in Mowbray Park recalls Sir Henry Havelock , who was born at Ford Hall in 1795. A military man and son of the Sunderland shipbuilder, William Havelock, Sir Henry is recalled in 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,

Mowbray Park. Sunderland
Mowbray Park © David Simpson

The Indian Mutiny was an event that could have been avoided as it resulted from British insensitivity, ignorance and disrespect for Indian traditions. Perhaps 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 and overlooked by the Winter Gardens, one of the most endearing features of the park is a sculpture of a walrus reclining alongside the water often with 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 © David Simpson

Jack Crawford : 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.

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

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.

Jack Crawford, Mowbray Park
Jack Crawford, Mowbray Park © David Simpson

Lowering of the flag signified a surrender, so the brave (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, Mowbray Park
Jack Crawford, Mowbray Park © 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, perhaps a result of the pressure of fame.

Jack Crawford died in 1831. Sadly, 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.

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

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.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, Mowbray Park
Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, Mowbray Park © 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.

Sunderland Museum © David Simpson
Sunderland Museum © David Simpson

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.

Sunderland Museum
Sunderland Museum © David Simpson

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.

Sunniside end of Athenaeum Street
The Sunniside end of Athenaeum Street, Sunderland © David Simpson


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‘.

River Wear Commissioners, John Street, Sunderland
River Wear Commissioners, John Street, Sunderland © David Simpson

First we encounter John Street which like Fawcett Street runs north-south with attractive Neo-Georgian style houses dating from about 1840 to 1850. On the corner of John Street and St Thomas Street is the striking former River Wear Commissioners building of 1907 which was the head office for the commissioners. It also has a strikingly beautiful interior. Further to the east of John Street is Frederick Street which runs parallel and in a similar vein, as is Foyle Street, further east.

West Sunniside and the old post office
West Sunniside and the old post office © David Simpson

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.

Old Post Office, Sunniside, Sunderland
Old Post Office, Sunniside, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Plaque commemorating Charles W Alcock,
Plaque commemorating Charles W Alcock, Norfolk Street, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Norfolk Street, Sunderland
Norfolk Street, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

The Norfolk Hotel, Sunderland
The Norfolk Hotel, formerly a school was the birthplace of Sunderland football club © David Simpson

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.

Plaque commemorating the foundation of Sunderland Football Club
Plaque commemorating the foundation of Sunderland Football Club © David Simpson

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.

Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland © David Simpson

Sunderland Industries

Trades and Professions in 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 Old 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. A curious fact about Sunderland sailors is that in 1768 they were involved in the first incidence of the word ‘strike’ being recorded in relation to an industrial dispute.

Railway Bridge and Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland
Railway Bridge and Wearmouth Bridge, Sunderland © David Simpson

In 1851 the next biggest group of workers in Sunderland after the seamen were the Shipwrights (shipbuilders) with 2,025 employed in this trade. Sunderland shipbuilders seem to have given rise to the term ‘Mackem‘ which is used to describe a native of Sunderland and there is some possible evidence to suggest that this term may even have its roots as early as the eighteenth century.

Other trades and professions represented in Sunderland in 1951 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).

Sunderland from the north side of the river © David Simpson

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 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 (particularly the Newcastle area ) 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.

River Wear from the Wearmouth Bridge
The River Wear from the Wearmouth Bridge © David Simpson

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.

Stadium of Light at Monkwearmouth on the north side of the river occupies the site of Monkwearmouth Colliery
Stadium of Light at Monkwearmouth on the north side of the river occupies the site of Monkwearmouth Colliery © David Simpson

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 area collieries followed at Ryhope (1857); Silksworth (1869) and Herrington (1874) which were all operated by Londonderry. Monkwearmouth Colliery, also known as Pemberton Main or simply Wearmouth Colliery was one of the biggest and most important coal mines in Britain. It was also the very last colliery in the Durham coalfield when it closed in 1993. Sunderland’s Stadium of Light is built on its site and on the river bank beneath the stadium are the brick remains of the colliery’s coal staith of about 1900.

Remnant of the coal staith of Wearmouth Colliery beneath the Stadium of Light
Remnant of the coal staith of Wearmouth Colliery beneath the Stadium of Light © David Simpson

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 just 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.

Dr Clanny

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.

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.

River Wear near Washington
River Wear near Washington © David Simpson

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 wooden 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.

Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Looking across the River Wear from Southwick on the north bank towards Deptford and Websters Ropery Sunderland
Looking across the River Wear from Southwick on the north bank towards Deptford and Websters Ropery, Sunderland © David Simpson

Shipbuilding City

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 sailing ships built of wood. Sixty-three ships were 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.

River Wear, Sunderland
River Wear, Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Sunderland's Queen Alexandra Bridge crosses the River Wear in a location that was once the heart of Sunderland's shipbuilding industry
Sunderland’s Queen Alexandra Bridge crosses the River Wear in a location that was once the heart of Sunderland’s shipbuilding industry © David Simpson

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.

Doxford shipyard site at Pallion and the neighbouring Queen Alexandra Bridge
Doxford shipyard site at Pallion and the neighbouring Queen Alexandra Bridge © David Simpson

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 and many buildings destroyed.

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 a 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 was recognised by the opening of the National Glass Centre at Sunderland in 1996.

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.

Pann Field, Sunderland © David Simpson
Pann Field, Sunderland © David Simpson

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 would 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.

Bridges, Sunderland © David Simpson
Bridges, Sunderland © David Simpson

Wearmouth Panns recall another industry for which Sunderland was once famed – salt making. As a plaque near the Wearmouth Bridge explains this area was noted for making salt in the sixteenth century. The process involved heating huge quantities of sea water in 20 feet wide 6 feet deep pans heated by a coal furnace (coal and salt water obviously being in good supply at Sunderland) the process involving repeated heating took three days to produce salt.

Limestone industry

Being situated on the magnesian limestone escarpment on a river close to the sea, with huge resources of coal nearby meant that Sunderland was an important exporter of lime. Lime was a highly valued commodity used as a fertiliser, in cement and as a commodity in the chemical industry.

Limekilns on the north side of the River Wear at Sunderland
Limekilns on the north side of the River Wear at Sunderland © David Simpson

There are remnants of extensive limestone quarries at Fulwell including Carley Hill Quarry which supplied lime via a mineral railway line to the great lime kilns on the north bank of the river at Monkwearmouth. These lime kilns, situated just west of the Stadium of Light form a long cliff-like feature of numerous arches along the bank of the river and date in parts to the late eighteenth, early nineteenth and mid nineteenth centuries. The kilns at the left of the row are of the eighteenth century with some twentieth century modifications near their base.

Limekilns, River Wear at Sunderland
Limekilns, River Wear at Sunderland © David Simpson

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.

Wearmouth Bridge approach
The Wearmouth Bridge of today approached from the city centre, Sunderland © David Simpson

The pinkish-coloured Sunderland Lustreware was particularly well sought after in Britain and many of these items, as we have noted, often 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.

The Northern Spire, Sunderland
Sunderland’s Northern Spire bridge is the city’s newest bridge and now one of its most prominent landmarks © David Simpson

Old Sunderland | Monkwearmouth

Hendon, Ryhope, Silksworth, Pallion, Deptford

 Roker, Fulwell, Seaburn, Southwick, Hylton


 Washington Penshaw 

Houghton-le-Spring Hetton-le-Hole

Seaham and Murton | Easington

Whitburn and South Tyneside Villages 

South Shields | Bede’s Jarrow


Sunderland Scenes Mug

The Keel Line in Sunderland's Keel Square features a year-by-year list of ships built at Sunderland
The Keel Line in Sunderland’s Keel Square features a year-by-year list of ships built at Sunderland © David Simpson


North East England History and Culture