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Sunderland, Durham

Historical Description

Sunderland, the largest town in the county of Durham, is a prosperous seaport at the mouth of the river Wear. It is a municipal, parliamentary, and county borough, situated in lat 54-55º N, and Ion. 1 20º W. It is 270 miles N of London, 12 E of Newcastle, and 80 N of York. The town consists of three chief parishes, Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth on the south side of the river Wear, and Monkwearmouth on the north side. The port has long been a keen rival to the neighbouring seaports on the Tyne. Sunderland is essentially a modern town, though some unglazed clay vases have been found recalling the days of the ancient Britons, and various relics prove that the Romans were acquainted with the place. The Wear is noted chiefly for its shipbuilding and its large exportation of coal. Other industries carried on at Sunderland include marine engineering, anchor and chain forging, ropemakmg, boatbuilding, sailmaking, glass and bottle manufacture, paper, biscuit, patent fuel, and cement making, timber preserving, &c. The exports are coal, coke, bottles, earthenware, lime, iron, chemicals, cement, and patent fuel. The principal imports are timber and silver sand. It is a drawback that the prosperity of the town should have to depend so much on the shipbuilding industry, for whenever that is depressed the marine engineering and kindred trades also suffer, and the whole town feels it more or less. It would be a boon to Sunderland if more manufactures altogether independent of shipping could be started. The town had a population in 1801 of 26,511, and of 50,000 in 1831. At the census of 1891 the parliamentary population was given as 142,097, and the municipal as 131,015. The estimated population in 1895, within the parliamentary boundaries, was 150,000. In the latter year the rateable value of the borough was about £484,000, and there was a municipal debt of £413,622. The borough is governed by a mayor,, 16 aldermen, and 48 councillors, who also act as the port sanitary authority and urban district council. The management of most matters affecting the trade of the port and harbour is vested in the River Wear Commissioners, a body which comprises representatives of the landowners, coal-owners, shipowners, shipbuilders, merchants, and others.

Shipbuilding has been the staple industry at Sunderland for centuries. During the wars which took place at the beginning of the 19th century, orders were received from all parts of the country for vessels, and builders then in business generally made their fortunes. Owing, doubtless, to the activity produced by the outbreak of the Crimean War, 1853 proved the busiest year in the days of wooden ships, and the output on the Wear reached 69,000 tons during the twelve months. The average size of a vessel in those days was 450 tons, but with the change to iron, and from iron to steel, the dimensions have rapidly increased, until an average of 2500 tons per vessel has been reached at Sunderland. The largest output in any single year was 217,000 tons in 1889, but. in 1894 the tonnage had fallen away to 166,000, owing to strikes and general depression. It was a Wear shipbuilder (Mr W. T. Doxford) who patented the turret deck type of cargo steamer, which caused some stir in shipping circles a few years ago.

Large quantities of coal from the Durham coal-field are annually shipped from Sunderland. In 1800 the exportation of coal and coke from the Wear was about 300,000 tons a year. This had risen to 1,380,000 tons in 1830, and to considerably over 4,000,000 tons in 1895. The amount of coal raised in the county of Durham exceeds 30,000,000 tons per annum. Wearmouth Colliery, opened about the year 1826, is noted for its great depth. In sinking it thirty-one seams of coal were passed through, the total depth of the mine being 1800 feet. At one time glass-making was an important industry at Sunderland, but its importance has in late years greatly diminished, chiefly owing to foreign competition. It is claimed that the first glass manufactured in England was made at Sunderland by French artisans brought from France in the 7th century by Benedict Biscop, the founder of Wearmouth monastery. There was no bridge over the Wear at Snnderland until the year 1796, and as thousands of people resided on both sides of the river, great inconvenience was experienced by the inhabitants in having;. to cross the river by means of a ferry-boat. It was Rowland Burdon, M.P., who conceived the idea of building a bridge, and in order to carry out the scheme he advanced a sum of £30,000 of his own money. An iron bridge was constructed at a cost of £41,800, the remainder being raised by public-subscription. The span of the bridge is 236 feet 8 inches, and the mode of bracing the ribs was so simple that the ironwork was placed in position in ten days, and the scaffolding immediately removed. The Emperor of Russia visited Sunderland in 1816, and expressed his great admiration for the bridge, which in those days was regarded as a. wonderful structure. In 1846 the foot toll was abolished, and in 1885 tolls on vehicles also ceased, the bridge being declared free eighty-nine years after being opened.

The greater portion of the trade of the port is carried on at the docks, which comprise a total area of 78 acres. Wearmouth Dock, on the north side of the river, was the first dock constructed. It is 6 acres in extent, and was opened in 1839. Since the year 1847 it has belonged to the North-Eastern Railway Company. Snnderland shipowners soon discovered that the opposite side of the river was more convenient for their purpose, and in 1850 a commencement was made with the South Docks, where most of the shipping trade is carried on. These docks are three in number, and cost £750,000. A lock was constructed by the Wear Commissioners in 1880, to connect the docks with the South Outlet, at an expenditure of £100,000, and this has proved a great convenience and an aid to commerce, as vessels can leave the docks for the sea by means of thi& outlet without touching the river at all, and they are almost independent of the ordinary tides. There is also a commodious fish-market at the south entrance, where steam trawlers and fishing boats can discharge afloat almost direct to carts or railway trucks. The Wear Commissioners, in 1874, erected, large chain-cable and anchor testing works, where the quantity of chains and anchors tested average about 8000 tons a year. The buildings and machinery foundations are constructed entirely of concrete, and the machinery is worked by hydraulic power direct from an accumulator at a pressure of 2000 Ibs. to the square inch.

The Sunderland harbour is well provided with piers. About the year 1723 the Commissioners commenced to build the South Pier, for the purpose of directing the current of the river against the bar and the adjacent shifting sands. A north pier was commenced in 1786, but owing to the shifting sand the work proved slow and arduous. Both these piers were subsequently washed away, and new ones erected. It should be stated that in the formation of one of the piers, it was necessary to cut through a layer of solid rock 500 yards long. A lighthouse had teen erected on one of the breakwaters, and the latter being afterwards considerably lengthened, the lighthouse seemed left behind. The engineer (Mr Murray) thought he would be able to move the lighthouse bodily to the end of the pier, and was given permission to try the experiment, which was watched with interest all over the country. The removal was carried out without a single accident, and occupied nine months. Whilst the lighthouse was in motion it moved at the rate of 2 feet per minute. In 1885 a large new pier was commenced at Roker, and carried out to a length of 2760 feet in a south-easterly direction. This pier was constructed in complete lengths of 42 feet 7 inches concrete blocks. A subway is formed in the heart of the pier, as a means of access to the lighthouse in stormy weather. The concrete blocks average 43 tons in weight. In 1891 it was also decided to construct a corresponding pier farther to the south, and the work was commenced that year. This pier will be 2870 feet long, and is estimated to cost £160,000. When these works are completed, it is considered that the Sunderland harbour will be one of the safest on the NE coast.

There are not many imposing buildings in the town, which is rather backward in this respect. It must be admitted, however, that matters have improved considerably during recent years, particularly in the Fawcett Street neighbourhood. The Town-hall is situated in Fawcett Street, and was opened in 1890 at a cost of £45,000. In 1895 the municipal buildings and the Free Library were lighted by electricity. Not many yards from the Town-hall is the Subscription Library, which was opened in 1878. The library contains 22,000 volumes, and was founded over a hundred years ago. There are two large parks, the Mowbray Park, situated almost in the centre of the town, and the Roker Park, at Roker-by-the Sea, a popular pleasure resort, where a great deal of money was spent by the Sunderland corporation during 1885 in erecting promenades, &c. The Free Library and Museum, and the Winter Gardens adjoining, are situated at the town end of the Mowbray Park, but the premises are much too small for public requirements, and many schemes have been brought forward for extending them. It seems probable that a new building will be erected before long to relieve the pressure on the library, which contains over 20,000 volumes. The chief features of the museum are the collections of British birds and conchological specimens, both of which are almost complete. Facing the eastern side of the Mowbray Park is the Victoria Hall, the largest public hall in the town, with accommodation for 3000 persons. In 1883 this building was the scene of a shocking calamity, 183 children being killed by a crush upon the stairs while leaving an entertainment. The Assembly Hall in Fawcett Street accommodates 1200 persons, and the only other public hall of any size is the Workmen's Hall at Monkwearmouth. There are two theatres owned by the same proprietor, and a large hall of varieties. Several political clubs exist in the town, the most important being the Constitutional Club in John Street with 800 members, and the Liberal Club in Fawcett Street, formerly the Athenaeum, a much older building, with about 600 members. There is also a non-political club in Fawcett Street with a large membership. Both political parties have branch clubs in various parts of ithe town. The Sunderland and North Durham Infirmary in Durham Road is a magnificent institution, and involves an expenditure of £10,000 a year. It is about a mile distant from the centre of the town, and was opened in 1865. Since that date several additions have been made to the building. It provides accommodation for 240 patients. In connection with this infirmary there is a small convalescent home at Harrogate named the Heatherdene Home. A kindred institution is the Monkwearmouth Hospital in Roker Avenue, and there is a public dispensary in Lambton Street. The Sunderland and North Durham Eye Infirmary is quite a new building, and is situated in the same district as the general infirmary. There is also an Institute for the Blind, opened in 1883 at a cost of £6000. The Central Railway Station, belonging to the North-Eastern Railway Co., is a disappointing structure for so populous a town, and of late years there has been considerable agitation for a larger and more convenient station, and it is believed the railway authorities will before long do something to remedy the grievance. The post office is also admittedly too small for public requirements, and a scheme has been practically decided on for the erection of a larger building on a site supplied by the Sunderland corporation. Owing to the crowded state of the county lunatic asylum at Sedgefield, to which the borough of Sunderland sent the greatest number of patients, the Sunderland corporation were induced for a compensation of £35,000 to withdraw their patients from the county asylum, and to build one for the borough patients. This structure was built at Ryhope, about 3 miles from Sunderland, at a cost of over £100,000, and was opened in 1895. Accommodation for 350 patients is provided.

History.-The origin of the name of Sunderland cannot be satisfactorily explained, but a suggestion which finds much favour with historians is that from its almost insular position it was denominated Sunderland. The first mention we have in history of the place is when Benedict Biscop founded a monastery on the north side of the river in the year 634. The same abbot subsequently brought over workmen from France, who constructed a magnificent church at Monkwearmouth, and it is admitted that Monkwearmouth is by far the oldest portion of the town. This monastery was twice destroyed, first by the Danes, and afterwards by King Malcolm of Scotland, but it was restored under the influence of Bishop Waleber. It is undoubted that the tower of the existing church of St Peter's, Monkwearmouth, is part of the old Saxon structure. The Venerable Bede, the ecclesiastical historian, was one of the monks belonging to this monastery. He wrote of the river as the Wiri, and from this the name of Wearmouth sprung. Towards the close of the 12th century Wearmouth became a borough, but until the discovery of coal in the district it does not appear to have been a place of much importance. It was in the year 1396 that the first exportation of coals took place from Sunderland, although forty years prior to that date coal was being worked at the neighbouring town of Newcastle. It was a Sunderland man, Dr Clanny, who invented a safety-lamp for miners, and this was afterwards improved by Sir Humphrey Davy. After the introduction of these lamps there was a remarkable diminution in the loss of life, and so delighted were the Snnderiand coalowners that they presented Sir Humphrey Davy in 1817 with a magnificent service of plate worth 1800 guineas.

The first mention of shipbuilding on the Wear dates back to 1346, and in the days of wooden ships Sunderland was looked upon as the busiest shipbuilding port in the world. It is long since the Clyde robbed the Wear of its supremacy in this respect, and the Tyne has generally had a larger output during recent years than the Wear. Sunderland received its charter of incorporation from Bishop Morton in 1634, the exports enumerated in the charter being " sea-coles, grindstones, mbstones, and whetstones." By virtue of this charter a mayor, twelve aldermen, and a common council were appointed. Sir William Belasyse was the first mayor of the borough. It is probable that this corporate body was short-lived, as the civil wars commenced shortly afterwards. Whilst Newcastle espoused the cause of the Royalists, Sunderland sided with the Cromwellites. At this time an embargo was laid. on all ships sailing from Newcastle, but no such prohibition applied to Snnderiand, and naturally the latter .place became of more importance than ever, as the inhabitants of London depended, largely upon the Wear for their fuel. In 1644 the Scots crossed the Tweed with 1800 infantry and 3500 cavalry, and laid siege to Newcastle. After trying in vain for three weeks to capture the town, they proceeded to Sunderland, and stationed themselves in the town. General King advanced from Newcastle to meet them, and a battle took place on the Boldon Hills, the Scots being ultimately compelled to retreat. So prominent a part had Sunderland taken in favour of Cromwell, that after the Restoration Charles II. directed the inhabitants of the Wearside town to take an oath of allegiance to his Majesty. About the year 1669 letters patent were granted for the building of a pier and lighthouse at Sunderland, the harbour having become almost unnavigablc. Permission was also granted to raise contributions for cleansing the harbour. In 1717 an Act of Parliament was obtained by which Commissioners were appointed to look after the harbour, and they were empowered to raise money by a tonnage duty on ships. The Commissioners displayed considerable activity, and in less than ten years an immense improvement took place in the condition of the river and harbour. The first Act for the improvement of Sunderland harbour mentions that the town was " well inhabited with rich and able merchants and tradesmen, having a port and haven capable of containing many hundred sail of ships at a time, loaded with coals, salt, glass, and other merchandise." Sunderland was not created a parliamentary borough until 1832, at which period the population was estimated at 50,000, and the port was credited with possessing 300,000 tons of shipping. There were 1136 votes cast at the first election, and two Liberal members were returned. Since that period the town has retained its Radical character, and the only period of any consequence during which a Conservative has had a share in the representation of the borough was from 1845 to 1859, when George Hudson, the " railway king," was one of the two representatives.

The principal churches in the town comprise St Peter's, Monkwearmouth, one of the oldest in the country, which dates from the seventh century; and Bishopwearmouth parish church, the oldest on the south side of the river. The original building was believed to date from the time of Athelstane, but it became so dilapidated that in 1806 it was rebuilt on the old foundations. Amongst those who have been rectors of Bishopwearmouth may be mentioned Dr Paley, the author of "Natural Theology," and the Rev. Gerald Wellesley, brother of the Duke of Wellington. Sunderland parish church, at the east end of the town, dates from the year 1719. Near to it is the Orphan Asylum, supported partly by endowments, but mainly by public subscriptions, where board, lodging, and education are provided for about 50 boys, who are sons of seamen. One of the most recent of Sunderland churches is St Ignatios', in the Hendon district, which was built by the late Bishop of Durham (Dr Lightfoot) at his own expense as a gift to the diocese. The cost was £8000, exclusive of £1500 for the site, the latter being raised by the churchpeople of Sunderland. St Ignatins' was consecrated by Bishop Lightfoot in 1889. St Hilda's church, the most recent of Sunderland churches, built in 1894, was erected as a memorial to the late Bishop Lightfoot, and consecrated by his successor, Dr Westcott. It is also remarkable for an open-air pulpit, the first, it is believed, to be erected in the North of England.

The ecclesiastical parishes of Sunderland are Holy Trinity (population, 6743)-the living is a rectory; gross value, £660 with residence: St John the Evangelist (9769)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £400 with residence. The ecclesiastical parishes at Bishopwearmouth are St Michael's (population, 8914)-the living is a rectory; gross value, £1500: Christ Church (4245)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £600 with residence: St Thomas' (7256)-, the living is a vicarage; gross value, £400 with residence; St Peter's (4479)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £520: St Stephen's, Ayres Quay (4024)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300 with residence; and St Mark's, Millfield (10,000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £420 with residence. The Bishop of Durham is patron of all the livings, excepting St Stephen's, Ayres Quay, which is under trustees. The other parishes are St Paul's, Hendon (18,354)-the living is a rectory; gross value, £450; patron, the Rector of Bishopwearmouth: St Andrew's, Deptford (6753)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £420; the patron is the Bishop of Chester: St Hilda's, the most recent of Sunderland parishes (7000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £290 All Saints', Monkwearmouth (7000)- the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300; patrons, Crown and Bishop of Durham alternately: the Venerable Bede's, Monkwearmouth (10,000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £320; patron, the vicar of Monkwearmouth: St Cuthbert's, Monkwearmouth (2798)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300; patron, the Vicar of Monkwearmouth; St Barnabas', Hendon (8000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £420; patron, the Rector of Hendon: St Luke's, Pallion (8000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £312; Ford or Hylton (3740)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300: Southwick (6500)-the living is a rectory; gross value, £760; the patrons are the Dean and Chapter of Durham: St Columba's, Southwick (6700)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300; patrons, the Crown and Bishop of Durham alternately : Castletown (600)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300; patrons, the trustees of Hylton Castle: St Matthew's, Silksworth (5000)-the living is a vicarage; gross value, £300. The Presbyterians possess two handsome churches, viz., St George's, in the residential quarter of the town, and the John Black Memorial, in North Bridge Street, Monkwearmouth. The Congregationalists have also two new churches, at the Grange and at the Royalty, being both exceedingly fine buildings. The Wesleyan Methodists also possess an imposing edifice in St John's Church, Ashbrooke Road, built in 1887.

There are three Sunderland newspapers, the Daily Echo (Liberal), the Herald and Post (Conservative), and the Weekly Echo. The Newcastle papers circulate freely throughout the Sunderland district.

Transcribed from The Comprehensive Gazetteer of England & Wales, 1894-5


The following is a list of the administrative units in which this place was either wholly or partly included.

Ancient CountyCounty Durham 
Ecclesiastical parishSunderland Holy Trinity 
Poor Law unionSunderland 

Any dates in this table should be used as a guide only.

Directories & Gazetteers

We have transcribed the entry for Sunderland from the following:

Land and Property

The Return of Owners of Land in 1873 for County Durham is available to browse.


Online maps of Sunderland are available from a number of sites:

Newspapers and Periodicals

The British Newspaper Archive have fully searchable digitised copies of the following newspapers covering county Durham online:

RegionNorth East
Postal districtSR2
Post TownSunderland