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’.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
You can read more about Sunderland’s history on the following pages of the England’s North East site:
North East place-names and their origins. DAVID SIMPSON explores the sometimes surprising meanings of place-names in the North East region.
Did you know that Sunderland was the sundered or separated land; Newcastle was simply a ‘New’ Castle and Gateshead was, quite strangely, the ‘head of the she-goat’? We take place-names for granted but all have an origin and meaning that is often long forgotten or sometimes lost in time. No one actually knows how London got its name, for example.
I’ve always been fascinated by place-name origins. It’s an unusual hobby perhaps, though I find it rather strange that few people share my curiosity for such everyday features of our world. Peculiar place-names like Pity Me arouse much interest – and are often rather plainly explained as ‘poor farmland’ although there’s a wealth of more popular if rather dubious theories. In truth I think that everyday names can be just as interesting.
Some place-names give clues to the origins of the early settlers who founded the place. For example in the south of our region around Middlesbrough there are many place-names ending in the element ‘by’: Thornaby, Ormesby, Tollesby, Normanby, Danby, Lackenby, Lazenby, Maltby and so on. These ‘by’ names are all Viking – and usually Danish in origin, although Normanby points to Norwegian ‘northmen’.
Such Viking names are numerous just south of the Tees in the once intensively Viking settled area of North Yorkshire. Interestingly, they are quite rare north of the Tees – Aislaby near Yarmand Raby (Castle) near Darlington are exceptions that are not that far to the north of the river.
These ‘by’ ending names can also be found in Viking settled Cumbria particularly along the Eden valley all the way up towards Carlisle and there are a fair few in the Merseyside area in the North West of England associated with Viking immigration from the Viking colony of Dublin.
In Old Danish a ‘by’ was a Viking farm or village and even today a quick scan of a map of Denmark and you’ll find dozens and dozens of little villages with names like Norby, Kaerby, Staby, Balleby, Foldby, Karlby, Draby, Voldby, Rakkeby and Mejby. Many of these wouldn’t seem at all out of place in North Yorkshire.
Most place-names in England, including the North East of England are usually of Anglo-Saxon origin. The Angles and Saxons were a Germanic people closely related to the later Vikings. The original Anglo-Saxon coastal homelands stretched from Frisia and the Netherlands up to the present day border of Germany and Denmark.
The Angles, for example, who gave their name to England (the Angle Land) settled extensively in Northumbria and originated from Angeln near the border of those two countries and settled in our islands as invading warriors some three centuries before the Vikings arrived on our shores.
Just about anything ending in ‘ton’ or ‘ham’ is Anglo-Saxon including most of those ‘ingtons’ and ‘inghams: Darlington, Bedlington, Billingham, Bellingham and so on. A ‘ham’ was a homestead and a ‘ton’ an enclosed settlement. Ton or ‘tun’ to give the old spelling was, incidentally originally pronounced ‘toon’ and is at the root of our modern word ‘town’. Sound familiar?
I’m really into place-names for fun but with a quest for true knowledge about the place-names as part of our region’s history. I’m an amateur enthusiast when it comes to place-names to be honest. It is in fact a serious scholarly study and often a complicated one at that.
You can’t simply look at a place-name and guess what it might mean. You have to go back to the earliest known recorded spelling from perhaps a thousand years ago or more and work back from there.
Most place-name experts are skilled linguists with knowledge of several languages that are no longer spoken today like Old English (the language of the Anglo-Saxons), or the Old Norse of the Vikings as well as old Celtic languages like Brythonic and Old Welsh. The experts will have knowledge of how these languages evolved and changed over time and in the case of Old English and Old Norse, how they fused together along with the later Norman French to form the basis of the English language as we know it today.
A good knowledge of local dialect, local history and local topography is also very useful to the scholar of place-names. In fact its essential right down to a knowledge of local soil types, quality of drainage (at that time) and the suitability of land for early farming and settlement.
Newcastle, Sunderland, Middlesbrough
So, what about familiar names like Sunderland, Newcastle and Gateshead? Well the ‘separateness’ of Sunderlanddates to Anglo-Saxon times and refers to land detached or ‘sundered’ from an estate by the King of Northumbria for the use of the Wearmouth monastery.
The ‘New’ Castle of Newcastle dates to Norman times, the first castle being built by William the Conqueror’s eldest son Robert Curthose in 1080 on the site of a Roman fort. At that time the long-since ruined and redundant Roman fort and its associated surviving settlement was called Monkchester, and although this might be considered the ‘old castle’, it seems the rebuilding of the Norman castle by Henry II in the twelfth century was the origin of the true ‘New Castle’.
Just as intriguing, Gateshead across the Tyne lies at the head of the road or ‘way’ dating back to Roman times and perhaps earlier. Roads were sometimes called ‘gates’ in times past but this term was more commonly used for old streets in historic towns. ‘Head of the gate’ seems a plausible explanation for Gateshead, however, the Venerable Bede, writing in the seventh century describes Gatesheadin Latin as ‘Ad Caprae Caput’ – meaning ‘the head of the she goat’ so perhaps there was some form of totem or symbol of a goat’s head overlooking the ancient bridge across the Tyne.
More North East place-names explained
Ashington: ‘Ing’ usually means a kinship or tribal group and ‘ton’ usually means an enclosed settlement. On the surface Ashington looks like ‘the place belonging to the people of a person called Ash’ or something similar. However the earliest spelling in old records is ‘Aescen-denu’ and this is an Anglo-Saxon place-name that means ‘valley (a dene or ‘denu’) overgrown with ash trees’. It shows how important it is to find the oldest spellings.
Bamburgh: From Bebba’s Burgh, a burgh or fortified place named from a Northumbrian queen called Bebba who was the wife of King Æthelfrith. Before Æthelfrith’s time it was known by the Celtic name Din Guayroi.
Bishop Auckland: A complicated one this. The old name was Alcuith – a Celtic name referring to a river. Later it became the home of a castle and palace belonging to the Bishops of Durham hence the ‘Bishop’ part of the name. The old name came to be changed to Auckland (perhaps because it was thought to mean ‘oakland’).
Chester-le-Street: Places containing the word ‘Chester’ are usually Anglo-Saxon in origin even though they refer to the earlier site of a Roman fort. ‘Street’ usually refers to a Roman road. ‘Le’ was added by the Normans as part of a suffix to distinguish places with similar names ‘Le-Street’ distinguishes it from other places called Chester. Other ‘le’ places that would otherwise have potentially confusing similar names are Houghton-le-Spring, Houghton-le-Side, Haughton-le-Skerne, Hetton-le-Hill, Hetton-le-Hole and in North Yorkshire we have Hutton-le-Hole.
Darlington: Originally something like Deornoth’s People’s enclosure. You’d never guess this unless you see the early spellings.
Durham: Originally Dun Holm, ‘the hill island’. In Norman French it was Duresme and in Latin it was Dunelm.
Hartlepool: Means ‘Stag Island Pool’. Le-Pool was added by the Normans to distinguish it from the nearby village of Hart. Unlike other ‘le’ place-names it doesn’t use hyphens but it could easily have been called Hart-le-Pool.
Middlesbrough: Means middle manor or perhaps middle fortified place. One theory is that it is named from its middle location between the historic Christian centres of Whitby and Durham.
Stanhope: Means ‘stony side valley’. Hope meaning land in a ‘side valley’ is a common element in North East place-names, especially in the hilly country of the west.
Warkworth: Wark comes from ‘weorc’ – an earthwork or castle and ‘worth’ means an enclosed settlement. The villages of Wark on Tyne and Wark on Tweed were both sites for castles built on earthworks.
DAVID SIMPSON recalls the tragic loss of life in the coal mining history of North East England where literally thousands of men lost their lives simply doing their job.
“Bye mam”, shouted fourteen year-old John Richard Heard, as he set off for work, as he’d done so many times before.
“Bye son”, his mother replied and then, strangely, moments later, another farewell came as he briefly returned, for reasons that we will never know:
“You’ve already said goodbye, son” came the reply, the mother not knowing that this goodbye, would be his last.
The young lad lived in Perkinsville, a little pit village near Pelton just west of Chester-le-Street. He worked at nearby Urpeth Busty Pit, a short walk from his home. How long he worked there, we don’t know. What sort of lad he was, we don’t know.
All we know is that the inquest notes for his death on that day, January 27, 1898, include the boy’s name, the name of the colliery owners, the name of the pit and the cause of death.
The mine owners were Charles Perkins and Partners, the successors to Lieutenant Colonel Edward Mosely Perkins, from whom ‘Perkins’ Ville’ was named. The Perkins family also owned the nearby iron works at Birtley where there is a prominent statue to E.M. Perkins’ memory. The pit was the Urpeth Busty Colliery, ‘busty’ being the name of the coal seam that this particular colliery worked. As for the cause of death, a short matter of fact explanation reads as follows:
“His work consisted in ‘helping-up’ the putter with his empty tubs, after which he should have returned to the siding. On this occasion, however, he did not return to his proper place, and being caught by the full tub, which the putter was bringing out, was crushed between it and the prop.”
The words “he should have” are typical of the comments found in the summaries of mine accidents at that time. Responsibility is firmly placed on the individual worker, even when the deceased worker might be as young as eleven, ten, nine or eight-years-old but this lad was fourteen, so clearly he must be considered an adult. To the modern mind the thought occurs that this is only a boy and he should not be working here at all, but these were very different times when the risk of death in the name of work and progress, even for children, was a simple and unfortunate fact of life.
Five months following John Richard’s death, his mother, Alice Heard, would also pass away. She was 41. Her death was perhaps hastened by her heart-breaking loss. Alice would share the grave with her beloved son in Pelton churchyard. She would, however, live to see the marriage of her daughter from whom my mother’s family descend. Alice was my great-great grandmother and the story of the lad – my grandma’s uncle – who came back to say that one last goodbye, has passed down to us.
In our day and age no one expects to lose their life simply doing a job, simply earning a living for their family. Less do we expect to find children employed in such dangerous work. However, this was once the widely accepted reality in the coalfields of Northumberland and Durham and in other coalfields across the land. A century earlier, back in the early 1800s most people had worked as ‘agricultural labourers’. That was no doubt a relentless job and it certainly received very poor pay. It was a life of virtual servility, little better, perhaps, than that of the medieval peasants of old. For such people, mining was a very attractive proposition.
Businessmen, speculators, risk takers, entrepreneurs and men of money like Edward Mosely Perkins brought new opportunities for the impoverished. They opened mines and built new villages from scratch, offering simple home comforts and wages which though modest by the standards of today, would have been more than tempting for farm hands used to working the land.
Alice’s mother and father, were called Apperley and originated in rural Herefordshire where Apperleys had resided for centuries, presumably working the land. Mining brought new opportunities that drew people of modest means from far and wide to the North East seeking work in the coal mines. Another branch of my family came over from Ireland, also to work in the Durham mines. Mining was a comparatively lucrative trade, but of course it was also, as we have seen, potentially deadly.
The massive scale of this danger and the huge loss of life really only hit home to me some years ago when I co-authored a book about the history of Sunderland aimed at young people in that city. The book was filled with quirky facts and fun features but also the occasional poignant event.
This book was fun to do but one thing that really sticks in my mind is discovering that within the modern bounds of what is now the City of Sunderland we can find the names of around 2,700 men and boys who lost their lives working in the mines of that very area. So, that’s 2,700 just within the area covered by the present City of Sunderland. That is to say just one small part of the North East coalfield.
Now you might think there must have been some fairly major colliery disasters in the Sunderland area given that figure, but in truth that part of the region seems to have been reasonably fortunate in terms of mining deaths. The worst disaster in the area now covered by present day Sunderland was of a relatively modest scale. It was also a relatively early disaster, being an explosion at Newbottle Colliery in 1815 that claimed 57 lives.
However, by the time that colliery closed in 1956 it had claimed the lives of 148 men and boys over a period of time, all of whom died simply doing their job. Across the region most deaths in the mines were, sadly, an almost day to day experience. There were no major disasters at Ryhope Colliery, for example, which operated for 109 years (1857- 1966) yet it still claimed the lives of 291 men and boys during its working life. Further north, at Monkwearmouth, 297 lives were taken during that mine’s history. That is of course the colliery that once stood on the site now occupied by Sunderland Football Club’s Stadium of Light.
The intention here is not to be morbid or make a political point of some kind. It’s just important to highlight this rather sad element of our region’s history that should not be forgotten. Most towns and villages around our nation have war memorials recalling the names of those who gave their lives while bravely fighting for their country. Many were young men, of whom we should be rightly proud. In the coalfield of Northumberland and Durham many such war memorials stand in almost every town and village but those towns and villages could equally display monuments to the men and perhaps more significantly, the boys – the children – who gave their lives simply earning a living to support their families.
This is no less a tragedy than the sad losses of war and these are individuals of whom we should be no less proud, especially when we consider the part coal played in powering us towards the modern world and all the comforts we know today.
Mining tragedies weren’t just a nineteenth century phenomenon, however. In May 1951, for example, 83 men lost their lives in one single event in the colliery at Easington in County Durham. And if you find the human cost too unbearable to imagine you might consider that it was not just human lives that could be taken. In September 1880 a single disaster at Seaham Colliery claimed 164 men and boys but also killed 181 pit ponies working below ground. Mining could be a hard and cruel industry in so many respects.
If the plight of the region’s miners and their families, who faced such daily dangers is remembered at all, it is in the memorials to the major disasters. One good example is at Stanley in County Durham which recalls the disaster at the West Stanley Burns Pit in February 1909 where 168 lives were lost. The memorial was unveiled in 1995 by the then Newcastle United football manager Kevin Keegan whose grandfather, a miner at this pit, had survived the event and had helped with the rescue effort.
There are many other memorials across the North East, some new, some old. At Haswell between Durham and Easington for example there stands alongside the 1830s remains of a colliery engine house a sculpture installed in 1996 by Michael Disley depicting the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone. It commemorates a disaster at the Haswell mine in 1844 which claimed 95 lives.
One of the most important memorials and one that is contemporary with the event rather than a modern remembrance can be found in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Here a memorial to a disaster of special importance commemorates that which took place at Felling Colliery in 1812 in which 92 miners lost their lives. Their names are engraved around four sides of the monument. This disaster was of particular significance because it was the first pit tragedy to really come to the attention of the public conscience and was an event that really spurred on a determination to improve mine safety. It was the Felling disaster that ultimately brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.
Coincidentally the churchyard is also the burial place of Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), the Pelton-born, union leader who founded The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland. Hepburn, who had worked in mines since the age of eight, fought hard to improve the rights and conditions of his fellow miners. He was a dignified and intelligent man, determined to fight the miners’ cause by peaceful means. He often worked against great adversity and faced much resistance from those who controlled the trade but he was an important part of the story in improving the often brutal conditions in which miners had to live and work.
For me the most moving memorial to a pit tragedy within our region is at the scene of the biggest North East mining tragedy of them all and one that I have only recently visited for the first time. It concerns the Hester Pit at New Hartley near Seaton Delaval in Northumberland. Here a disaster struck on the morning of Thursday, January 16, 1862 after a massive beam engine used for pumping water from the mine gave way, crashing into and destroying the mine shaft below. Deep below the number of miners was especially high as it was time for a shift change with about half the men due to end their shift and the others about to commence work.
The men and boys were able to move to a higher seam to escape the imminent danger of flooding but the destruction of the shaft and cage meant that the only means of ventilation and escape from the build up of noxious gases had been destroyed.
Above ground men worked frantically to reach the entombed miners but the breakthrough would not come until the following Wednesday. Sadly, long before that point, the men below had succumbed to the gas. The last diary entry of one of the deceased occurred on the Friday and this suggests that it may have been on that day that most of the men had met their end.
The bodies sat in two rows, all as if they were simply sleeping. One boy’s head rested on the shoulder of his father, while two brothers embraced in a permanent affectionate slumber.
A miner involved in the attempted rescue effort was the first to encounter this scene. He climbed back to the surface and with great emotion announced the dreadful news to the waiting families and crowds above. There were no survivors below.
Two hundred and four men and boys lost their lives in what was the worst mining disaster ever recorded in the North East of England. Sadly, a third of those who died were under nineteen and included five boys aged ten or eleven years old and more than twenty were from twelve to fourteen years of age.
The dead were buried at Earsdon near Whitley Bay some four miles to the south and a continuous convoy of coffins and mourners is said to have run to there from New Hartley. A monument can still be seen in Earsdon churchyard commemorating the burials but the really moving place for me is the memorial garden at New Hartley itself that is built around the superstructure on the site of the shaft where the terrible events took place. The garden was opened in 1976 and in 2012 a memorial pathway by Russ Coleman was added recalling the names of those who lost their lives
The one positive note that came from this tragedy was a change in the law, in 1865, which made it compulsory for mines to have more than one shaft, though some colliery owners opposed this additional expense. If there had been a second shaft at New Hartley, the miners would have been saved.
Disaster memorials like that at West Hartley are unusual and recollect only the major events. They do not record the names of the thousands of incidental deaths that occurred in North East mines over the decades which were not connected to major disasters.
Deaths such as that of John Richard Heard are perhaps only remembered, if at all, by those whose family histories feature such terrible heartbreaking episodes. There must be many a family throughout the region who share in this unfortunate legacy with their own family tales to tell of men and boys who lost their lives in our North East mines.
The memorials do help us to remember how times can change. They can provoke us to ask questions about humanity itself and how we can make our lives better for future generations.
Let’s not let the miners who gave their lives, miners like fourteen-yea- old John Richard Heard, be forgotten.
To find out more about individual coal mines, mining disasters and pit fatalities in North East England I recommend visiting the fantastic Durham Miners Museum, an amazing online resource featuring vast amounts of information on coal mines, coal owners with extensive lists of names and information and reports about miners who were killed in the pit. The site covers Northumberland as well as Durham and also lead and ironstone mining in places such as Cleveland and Cumberland. You can visit the site at www.dmm.org.uk/
Woodhorn Mining Museum
You can also find out more about the Hartley Colliery disaster and much else about the life of coal miners and coal mining in the region by visiting the fabulous Woodhorn Museum near Ashington