Tag Archives: Sunderland history

The Story of Sunderland

Sunderland

The historic heart of Sunderland is really three places in one: Monkwearmouth to the north of the River Wear; Bishopwearmouth to the south and then out towards the coast to the east is ‘Old Sunderland’ known as Sunderland’s ‘East End’.

Bridges Sunderland
The Wearmouth Bridge and railway bridge, Sunderland pictured from Monkwearmouth © David Simpson 2017

All three places can trace their origins back to Anglo-Saxon times and Monkwearmouth is a particularly special place, being the home to the church of St Peter, part of the Anglo-Saxon monastery that was twinned with Jarrow. It was associated with the Venerable Bede, who was himself a Sunderland lad by birth. Monkwearmouth is of course also home to Sunderland Football Club.

Church of St Peter Sunderland
Church of St Peter Monkwearmouth, Sunderland with the site of the neighbouring monastery marked out © David Simpson 2017

There are traces of more ancient origins in Sunderland, notably at Hasting Hill on the east side of the city, a significant prehistoric site and there is another rather ancient enigmatic site at Copt Hill near Houghton-le-Spring. Over time many places have been absorbed by the city (as it officially became in 1992): Fulwell, Silksworth, Southwick, Herrington, Hendon Houghton and Hetton to name a few. Some places were noted for quarrying and mining and most had earlier agricultural roots.

Copt Hill Neolithic site near Houghton-le-Spring. © David Simpson 2021

To the west is the expansive Washington New Town, a major part of the City of Sunderland that developed from a little village that produced the first named ancestor of the first US president George Washington. So it is that this Washington is the original, from which a US state and the American capital city ultimately take their name.

Washington Old Hall
Washington Old Hall : Photo © David Simpson

Of course it is the River Wear that forms the real heart of the city of Sunderland. Today it is a focus for modern developments, including housing and apartments as well as educational facilities associated with the University of Sunderland and the National Glass Centre.

The River Wear at Sunderland once thronged with industry, with wharves, glass works, breweries, potteries, docks, drops, paper works, coal staithes and of course shipyards. It is with shipyards and shipbuilding that Sunderland was especially synonymous for much of its industrial heyday and this was still true well into the twentieth century. The wonderful Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland published in 1790, a kind of 3D plan of the town, depicts dozens of cartoon-like carpenters hard at work at the mouth of the River Wear building wooden sailing ships for which Sunderland was then known.

Mackems at work from Rains Eye plan
Detail from Rain’s Eye Plan of Sunderland circa 1790 showing Wearsiders at work

According to William Fordyce, a County Durham historian writing in 1857, some enterprising Sunderland shipyard workers working in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth century could either build a ship to high quality specifications or alternatively in their spare time at a cheaper than the usual market price be persuaded to make one.

There’s perhaps a sense that some Sunderland shipbuilders might ‘rustle up’ a more basic ship on demand ready for the buyer to take away at basement price, perhaps without the usual quality assurance. It is a possible early origin of the phrase mac n’ tac (make ‘em and take ‘em), seemingly a shipbuilding-related phrase that later developed into the ‘Mackem’ moniker given to Sunderland natives today.

Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland
Stadium and the River Wear, Sunderland © David Simpson 2017

You can read more about Sunderland’s history on the following pages of the England’s North East site:

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