Vol 4 – No. 43, September, 1890 – The Town and Port of Sunderland

Sunderland, a port of great renown, and amongst the Registrar General’s twenty largest towns, is, after all, if we are to speak strictly, one of the least of places. It covers no more than 219½ acres. Almost the whole of the great town popularly known as Sunderland is really Bishopwearmouth; but the municipal borough also includes the townships of Monkwearmouth and Monkwearmouth Shore, whilst the parliamentary boundary takes in the township of Southwick. To all this Sunderland proper bears but a very small proportion. Without seeking to be minutely accurate, it may suffice to say that the river Wear on the north, Sans Street and Numbers Garth on the west, Coronation Street and Adelaide Place on the south, and the sea on the east, are the boundaries of the ancient township of Sunderland. If it were possible to “beat the boundaries” which it is not, since they pass through many private houses and other inaccessible places the whole circuit could be traversed in a journey of about two miles. But whilst confining ourselves to the southern side of the river, we must include Bishopwearmouth in our present conception of Sunderland.

Bishopwearmouth emerges from the dim shades of antiquity in the will of King Athelstan, who died in 940. He says, “I give to St. Cuthbert (meaning thereby the bishop and monks then established at Chester-le Street), the delightful town of South Wearmouth, with its appendices, that is Weston (Westoe), Offerton, Silksworth, the two Ryhopes, Burden, Seaham, Seaton, Dalton, Dalden, and Heselden, which places the malignity of evil men long ago stole from St. Cuthbert. “That Sunderland is not mentioned in this enumeration of the appurtenances of Bishopwearmouth shows, I think, that it had then no distinct existence. Indeed, it is not till we reach the twelfth century that we meet with any certain mention of it, and possibly not by name even then. There is a Sunderland mentioned in Bishop Pudsey’s great survey the Boldon Buke, which, from a reference to a mill-dam, I am strongly disposed to identify with Sunderland-by-the-Bridge, near Croxdale. There also we may probably seek for that Sunderland wherein a woman, named Sierith, was freed from a fever which troubled her twice every day, by the good offices of the Saint of Finchale, as we are told in Reginald’s “Life and Miracles of St. Godric.” Even in the important charter granted by Pudsey, between 1163 and 1186, to the burgesses of Wearmouth, which implies in some of its grants the then existence of an important port. Sunderland is not mentioned. When, in the next century, we come to the charter of Henry III., we still find that Sunderland is not named. The earliest employment of the name Sunderland which I have met with that can with certainty be identified with the Wearside port occurs in a monetary account of the year 1311, wherein Bishop Bek’s receiver renders a statement of the sums he had received from the fee farms of the boroughs of Darlington, Auckland Gateshead, Wearmouth, Sunderland, and Stockton. In 1354 we find Bishop Hatfield leasing the borough of Sunderland, with its fisheries, to Richard de Hedworth for a period of twenty years, at an annual rent of 20s. A long series of similar leases follows.

During the civil wars of Charles I. Sunderland was a place of considerable importance. Whilst Newcastle was garrisoned by the Royalists, Sunderland was held by the Parliamentarians, whence they sallied forth to the battle of Boldon Hill. Surtees has preserved a fragment of what he calls “a genuine Sandgate ballad,” which evidently alludes to the opposing military attitudes of the great boroughs of the Tyne and Wear.

Ride through Sandgate both up and down,

There you’ll see the gallants fighting for the crown;

All the cull cuckolds in Sunderland town,

With all the bonny bluecaps, cannot pull them down.

Sunderland possesses few objects of antiquarian interest. The old church of Bishopwearmouth was almost totally destroyed in 1806, when the present edifice was built. Of the older structure the local historians tell us “the architecture was supposed to be as old as the days of Athelstan “; but such fragments as remain are not earlier than the thirteenth century, and from Hutchinson’s description it is clear that no part was much older. In the immediate vicinity of the church is a large open space, still known as “The Green.” Round this green the primitive vill of South Wearmouth gathered. The green was an indispensable feature of every village settlement; but in most cases, as the village developed into a town, this space became too valuable to be allowed to remain unoccupied. Bishopwearmouth is fortunate in still retaining this interesting remnant of its earliest times, which also, I rejoice to add, yet retains its greenness.  The parish church of Sunderland is neither an ancient nor a modern edifice. It was built in the days of Queen Anne, and is a genuine example of the church architecture of that period. It does not occupy the site of any earlier edifice, for Sunderland itself was only made a parish by Act of Parliament in 1719. It is a large brick structure, and retains almost all its original fittings, amongst which are the royal arms and those of Bishop Crewe. A more gloomy and depressing interior it would be hard to find.

The Town Moor of Sunderland must not be forgotten formerly an open green space, of about seventy acres, at the east end of the town, whereon the burgesses and stallingers had the privilege of stints, and whereon, too, at one time, annual races were held. The rights of the burgesses and stallingers were a repeated and fruitful cause of litigation. But the moor, at least so far as its stints are concerned, is now a thing of the past; and though a large part of it yet remains an open space the especial freehold of the juvenile footballers and cricketers of the neighbourhood scarcely a patch of grass is left.  Of modern Sunderland strangers are often led to form a very unfavourable impression. A guide book, which is generally considered authoritative, gives the following description: “Sunderland ranks high among British seaports, but the whole town is black and gloomy in the extreme, and the atmosphere is so filled with smoke that blue sky is seldom seen, especially in the lower part of the town, which consists for the most part of a mass of small, dingy houses, crowded together, intersected by lanes rather than streets. Dirt is the distinctive feature. Earth, air, and water are alike black and filthy.” It is needless for me to say that this account is libellous. Without claiming that Sunderland is in any sense Arcadian, or even that it is one of the most desirable places in England for residence, it is yet fair to say that sunshine penetrates its skies as frequently as it does those of most towns of its size, that some of its streets are broad, well formed, and clean, and that it has good shops, pleasant suburbs, and hundreds of excellent houses. Of other advantages I shall speak presently. Some years ago I was travelling to the North. One of the occupants of the same carriage was a Yorkshireman, whose home was in the West Riding. He was a victim of asthma. He was on his way to Sunderland, where, he told me, he had spent a few weeks in every year for many years past. The air of Sunderland did him more good, he assured me, than the air of Scarborough, Southport, or Buxton.

Upper High Street - Sunderland

Lower High Street - Sunderland

The principal street of Sunderland is the High Street, which stretches in a waved line from near the parish church of Bishopwearmouth, almost to the docks at the east end of the town a distance of more than a mile. It seems hard to realize that not more than a century ago part of this street was still a country road, bounded by green hedgerows. Hutchinson, writing about the year 1785, speaks of the ground which borders High Street being “now eagerly sought after by persons of opulence and trade, who have arranged handsome villas on each side of the road, so that in a few years the buildings of these places will meet.” Where are those handsome villas now? Two of our engravings are views in High Street. One of these, “Upper High Street,” shows the best and busiest part of the thoroughfare. The spectator is looking westward, and a little before him, on the right, Bridge Street branches off, leading by the famous Sunderland Bridge to the neighbouring town of Monkwearmouth, and to the roads to Shields and Newcastle. Our second view of the same street, “Lower High Street,” depicts a more shady neighbourhood, a neighbourhood which grows more shady still as we go forward in the direction in which we are looking. The building on our left, with the arcade of open arches, is the old Exchange, built in 1813, and now used as a Seamen’s Institute, whilst the street which branches off on the same side a little further away Bodlewell Lane leads down to a long, narrow, unsavoury thoroughfare, known, not inappropriately, as “Low Street.” Eastward this street terminates at the commencement of the Quay, parts of which used to be designated Custom House Quay, Ettrick’s Quay, and Bowes’s Quay, but the whole of which is now known generally as the “South Quay.” On the land side of the Quay there are a few quaint old buildings, and views may be got, looking seaward, which are worthy of the artist’s attention. A view of the Quay, as seen from the river, forms one of our illustrations.

South Quay Sunderland

Bodlewell Ferry - Sunderland

Our last engraving is a view of the stairs which lead down to the Bodlewell Ferry. Two ferries are still maintained at Sunderland, but they have lost their ancient importance. Before the erection of Sunderland Bridge they were of course the only means of transit across the river. We find, as early as 1153, the Bishop of Durham receiving a rent for a grant of the exclusive right of ferry over the river at Wearmouth. An unexpired lease of the same kind, held by one of the Ettricks of High Barnes, was purchased from the lessee by the commissioners of the new bridge in 1795.

Sunderland is as well abreast of the spirit of modern progress as any town in the North. It has not only a public park, a public conservatory, and a public library, but also a well kept and well arranged public museum and art gallery. It has even stolen a march upon the city of the Tyne and got a new Town Hall. But Sunderland has one advantage which Newcastle can never attain. Scarcely more than a mile from the bridge is the charming little sea-side village of Roker, with promenade and sands and park of its own. There, after his day’s labour is over, the artizan can spend his summer’s evening with his children. Roker is, of course, a delightful resort for the whole populace of Sunderland and the district, but I always think of it as especially a blessing for the toilers and the poor.

J. R. Boyle, F.S.A.

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