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We thank Len Charlton (that's Len at right) for the article below - A Story of Sunderland.

It is with great sorrow that I advise that Len Charlton sadly passed away on Aug. 2, 2014. Goodbye my friend.

Len died peacefully at his home in Abingdon, Oxfordshire, at age 92. He had a very long & happy life & lived at Sunderland for many years. His love for the city & his interest in its history & future will be readily apparent to readers of the many articles that Len wrote for this site..

He also contributed to the web site & the many images on that site carry Len's interesting captions

Len Charlton's many articles now on site, in no particular order, except that his very last article, 'Sunderland by the Sea', is listed first.


Sunderland by the Sea - from a deserted coastline through two wars to an international airshow


The Coal Mines & the Staiths


Wearmouth Colliery - Sunderland's very own colliery


George Stephenson and the Hetton Railway - Stephenson's pioneering 1822 railway line


The Victoria Hall disaster of Jun. 18, 1883, in which 183 children died.


Growing up in Pre-WW2 Sunderland


The First Coal Drops in Sunderland - John Neasham & the Hetton Staiths


Gill Bridges - there were many of them over the years


The Harbours & Docks of Sunderland - an interesting history


Jack Crawford & The Battle of Camperdown - a Sunderland hero indeed


A Journey around Sunderland's old villages


From stagecoach to Metro - Travelling Around in Sunderland - Sunderland's transport system


Jopling's Department Store - an institution in Sunderland for over 200 years


The earliest remaining relics of human activity around Sunderland are some 4,000 years old. The suburbs of Hastings Hill & Tunstall Hill have yielded burial artifacts & an ancient dugout canoe was found in the river near Hylton. But the first written history of the area starts in AD 628 with the remarkable story of a boy born in Northumberland into the Baducing family of nobles. Early in life he travelled to Rome to study Christianity &, accepting the faith, took monastic vows in France before returning home in AD 674 as Benedict Biscop Baducing. On his return, the Northumbrian King Egfrith, who wanted to introduce Christianity to the realm, gave Biscop lands & funds to set up monasteries at Jarrow & Wearmouth and with the help of 22 monks St. Paul's was built on the Tyne & St. Peter's on the north bank of the Wear. Over the next ten years, Biscop & his entourage travelled to and from Rome six times, journeys which in those times were difficult & fraught with danger, to bring back a priceless collection of religious & scientific books, sacred images, relics, & fine cloaks for his monasteries. The lands on the south bank of the Wear were named the Sundered Land (i.e. separated land), & Biscop acquired some of this land opposite Monkwearmouth to build St. Michael's Church. The area was called Bishopwearmouth leaving 'Sundered Land', abbreviated to Sunderland, as the name for the older fishing village of some 100 acres on the river mouth. Sunderland was completely separate from Biscop's up-river settlements of Bishopwearmouth & Monkwearmouth but the three districts formed the start of Sunderland as it is now known.

It was all to be documented later in the writings of the Venerable Bede, who in 680 AD had been a seven year old child put into the care & tuition of Benedict Biscop.
Bede was a great scholar, & devoted his entire monastic life to translating & writing religious, historical & philosophical works of world wide significance, his most famous work being a version of the bible called 'The Codex Amiatinus'.

At left a (clickable) depiction by J. Doyle Penrose of 'Bede' translating the Gospel of St. John to a scribe.

This beautifully bound bible, presented to the Pope & now in Florence, Italy, measures 14"x 20", weighs 75 lbs & uses some 1550 calve skins for its 2,660 vellum pages. In those days the costs of vellum alone for such a work must have been enormous & gives some indication of the wealth of the monastery.

There were originally 3 copies of the 'Codex Amiatinus', written before 716 AD, all copies of 'Codex Grandior' written 200 years earlier at Vivarium in S. Italy. Only one complete copy remains, kept at the Laurentian Library, in Florence, Italy.
At first right, the most famous page from the 'Codex Amiatinus', depicting Ezra, who restored the Law to the Jewish people after the Babylonian captivity. At right an illustrated page showing the Vivarium monastery where 'Codex Grandior', later destroyed by the Vikings, was written. Sources (1, a giant image), (2). And below.

Bede's name is remembered in many schools & memorials, one of which, a Saxon design pillar with cross, is placed at Cliff Park near Roker Beach.

Anglo-Saxon Monastic life was brought to an end by the Viking raids starting on the North East in 866 AD. Monasteries & churches were easy & wealthy targets & Monkwearmouth suffered badly. The raids, battles & the resultant political upheavals continued until the Norman Conquest of 1066 AD. which opened up the country to Christianity again. Work then soon started on the great Norman Cathedral at Durham & the Monkwearmouth & Jarrow churches were quickly re-established as monastic cells of the Cathedral.

At right above, a portion of an engraving of Durham Cathedral, by William Miller after Turner (source).

By now the small villages of Monkwearmouth, Bishopwearmouth and Sunderland had become joined together by lanes and ferries but they still had their separate identities. A charter in 1184 granted by Bishop Hugh de Puiset granted market rights to the little fishing village by the harbour which now officially became the town of Weremouth but of course this definition of a 'town' was set by the standards of the times. The lane running to Bishopwearmouth became Wearmouth High Street.

Records of private shipbuilding & coal trading start in the 1300s but it was not until the 1500s that collieries started bulk coal exporting & organised shipyards were built. An Elizabethan Commission listed Sunderland as a fishing town of 30 houses with 7 cobles & 30 fishermen but one must assume that other trades were just not counted. Certainly, by the 1700s, Sunderland had changed beyond recognition.

Fed up with having to walk five miles to the church at Bishopwearmouth, the merchants and shipowners complained & the Parish of Sunderland was established in 1719 with a new church, 'Holy Trinity Church', being built near to the quays.

At left, an engraving of St. Michaels Church, Bishopwearmouth. And at right, 'Holy Trinity Church' of 1719. Sources (1) & (2 but the image I show was from a City of Sunderland site I can no longer find.)

A pictorial map drawn in 1785-1790 (Rain's Eye Plan) shows an area half a mile deep south of the river in fine detail.


Thanks to Brian Hubbard, we can show you 'Rain's Eye Plan'. At left is the title section of the map by James Rain, published in 1790 perhaps & created over the period of 1785/90. And above is a section from it, showing High Street north to the River Wear. The original map is in the Sunderland Museum. The detail is truly amazing.

From the old Garrison and Barracks on the coast, High Street ran west through Sunderland's tightly packed housing & quays alongside the river. The houses slowly peter out & High Street continues on through several private lands & gardens to Bishopwearmouth which is then a village growing round it's 'green' two miles up river from the coast. When the map was drawn, the total population of Bishopwearmouth, Monkwearmouth & Sunderland combined had reached 5,000.

There are several ferry routes marked, one of which is Pan Ferry, named after the big salt panning basins where a new town centre would appear as the old town grew westwards. The expanding industries of lime quarries, glassworks & particularly coal, were creating a busy maritime trading port calling for river dredging, lighthouses & piers and in 1796 the first Wearmouth Bridge was built. As fortunes were made & lost & nearby farmland sold off, people seeking work on the river & docks flocked to the port which became overcrowded with lodging houses packed with newcomers as well as passing seamen.

At right above is an image of Pan or Bodlewell Ferry. In 1883. The fine, complete image can be seen here.

Many of these tenements were conversions of wealthy houses whose owners were moving away from the packed East End into fine terraces being built up river towards lands owned by a General Lambton & a Mr. Fawcett. Similarly many landowners living in country estates bought a town house to be close to their business & a wealthy new area developed around streets named Fawcett Street and John Street.

By the 1800s, High Street was thriving with business. At the bottom (East end) it was lined with open markets selling fish, meat, clothes & hardware while running parallel and joined by narrow alleyways was Low Street with its quays & taverns. There were more than 100 pubs & 5 breweries in the original 100 acres, all of which was noisy with trading & packed with people of all classes going about their business during the day.

At left a 'William Robson' 'Dublin Stout' beer bottle. And at right an interesting advertisement for 'Vaux's Stout'

Further up High Street came the 'Exchange Buildings' opened in 1814 and used as a Town Hall & trading exchange for many years. Still further up, the general quality of the shops being built gradually improved to cater for the wealthier clientele from the new developments. These were ignored by most East Enders who had to live & shop amid the foul conditions of the dockside areas created by the overcrowding & the lack of sanitation. Less than 1 in 10 houses had water supplies or attached privies, lodging houses often had ten or more people living in rooms typically some 14 ft. square & 7 or 8 ft. high, many with windows filled in or boarded up. Cess-pits were used by multiple tenements as well as by butchers & were often left uncollected to overflow into yards & lanes. A population return for the Borough of Sunderland in 1831 shows that in Sunderland Parish (i.e. the East End) there were 17,000 people in 100 acres whereas in Bishopweamouth the figures were 14,825 people in 3,285 acres & in Monkwearmouth 7,539 in 840 acres.

Perhaps it was inevitable that in 1831 the cholera plague then raging in Europe came to Sunderland by sea, probably carried in flax imported from Riga, Latvia, & landed near the quarantine station which was rather foolishly placed over a mile up river at Deptford. Official records list the first victims as William Sproat, a keelman, followed by his grand-daughter & then his son, all living together in quayside squalor. The epidemic, spreading in the dirt & filth, took four months before it was controlled leaving a total of 215 reported deaths including Jack Crawford, the hero of the Battle of Camperdown. The affluent areas away from the river virtually escaped but belatedly the reports commissioned about conditions in the East End shocked the nation.

One eminent doctor reported 'a picture of wretchedness, filth and poverty .......... he could not have believed could exist in the present age in any part of civilised Europe'. Although some cleaning up was achieved, living conditions remained a major problem & in fact it was not until 1854 that it was proved that cholera was spread by contaminated water & not until 1875 that local authorities were enforced to provide adequate sewerage & drainage.

At left 'Lower High Street' in Sunderland in the 1870/1880s.

Railway access to old Sunderland had started in 1836 with the 'Town Moor' station on a coal line from Seaham to the South Docks at Hendon but this became inconvenient for the new town. And in 1853, a station was built at Burdon Road on the mineral line from Penshaw to South Docks. As the steam age developed, new railways & collieries had opened, one in Monkwearmouth close to where Bede's monastery had stood 1000 years earlier.

At right, the Opening of South Docks, in 1850. In a 'John Wilson Carmichael' (1799/1868 or 1800/1868) painting.

The rocketing coal exports were creating big coal drops & staiths on the river & docks, these taking work from the keelboats which had previously shipped coal down from Penshaw.

The older glass & pottery industries expanded as did demand from the enlarged fish quays. At the river mouth, new docks appeared & the river was further widened and deepened with longer North & South Piers. Ship building was leaving the small yards, which built wooden ships by hand, in favour of large mechanised yards making iron ships, soon to be fitted with steam engines built alongside the yards. Doxford's steam engines became famed world-wide The rail link from Tyneside, which originally stopped at Monkwearmouth station was extended in 1879 when the new big central station was built in the town centre to join the old lines together & connect them across a new railway bridge. This new station was built in an extravagant mixture of Victorian/Gothic style & in 1890 it was matched by a splendid new Town Hall in Fawcett Street. By now Bishopwearmouth village had developed downwards into Sunderland, & surrounding districts, such as Hendon, Mowbray, Deptford & Southwick were also expanding. With the central station & adjacent Town Hall served by the horse tram routes the new town was now firmly established as a single conurbation with the quay & dockside areas of Old Sunderland regarded as it's East End.

Fawcett Street which ran between Burdon Road and MacKies corner was a quarter mile long & the fine Georgian residences were soon converted into banks, offices & expensive shops. At the southern end, Mowbray Park had been opened, spacious with promenades, gardens, lakes as well as the museum, Winter Gardens & the new Victoria Hall nearby.

At week-ends, the town centre was full of the well-to-do strolling round, meeting friends & listening to the concerts on the bandstand.

It was a different picture for the East-Enders who lived life to the full. Packed into overcrowded slums, they took their pleasure enjoying the fairs, races, boxing, bear-bating & cock-fighting on the Town Moor while at night the only escape from intolerable living conditions was drinking & fighting in the taverns. It was a dangerous place for a stranger.

At left the 'Winter Gardens' in Sunderland in 1905.

At right below is a 1907 image of the Victoria Hall monument. The original monument therefore?

The late 1800s also saw the first steps in using the coast as a seaside resort when Roker Park was built round a ravine leading down to the sea. Roker had just been a single terrace of houses on the cliff looking over a wide beach but now it sported a fine promenade leading to the park with a tram route from the town centre. Sadly this affluent picture was marred by a period of increasing unemployment and great poverty and then by the 1883 tragedy at Victoria Hall when the lives of 183 children were lost, crushed in a panic during a penny show being given for poor families. A memorial (at right) for the children still makes a depressing sight in nearby Mowbray Park. Six years later a fire started at Havelock House, a large drapers on MacKies corner, and ran out of control for days destroying or damaging fifty large properties in the town centre, fortunately with no loss of life. The century had ended in both tragedy and disaster.

Upper High Street, Sunderland, in 1883, as published in the Feb. 3, 1883 edition of 'The Graphic'. A splendid image, presented here thanks to Bruce Hammal, of London. You can see the image in a larger size here. A splendid image, indeed!

For many people in Sunderland however, the 1900s started with every indication of prosperity & success. Electric Trams replaced horse trams, the routes spread out, & many new municipal buildings were being built as well as the new Queen Alexandra Bridge at Southwick. Barnes Park was opened on the Durham Road for the rapidly expanding western suburbs. This park with gardens, lake & bandstand matched the Mowbray & Roker parks for size and facilities. The population had reached 146,000 & the town had become famous world-wide for its ships & its quality of exports as well as a mecca for shopping. Shops were family owned & competed for trade with their names often works of art amid decorative cast iron & awnings. There was a wide range for all tastes with Fawcett Street at the top. Here were the big window displays of high fashion & the latest appliances, lit by gas frequently from copper globes hanging outside, the warmth attracting trade. Patronised by the rich, many shops & banks had their own top-hatted doormen to welcome by name their best customers many of whom were driven from country properties in their own carriages.

The Great War came as a shock.

With so much unemployment there was no lack of volunteers from Sunderland. As with other towns, many jobs were taken over by women and although a Zeppelin raid killed 22 people and battleships shelled the coast, Sunderland escaped serious damage. After the Armistice, everyone tried to get back to normal life while coping with the deep grief for the many lost. Expansion southwards resulted in the towns fourth big park being opened near Ryhope Road on land owned by the Backhouse family who were Quakers and highly regarded as horticulturists. Their specialist gardens with a large aviary became as popular as Roker Park which offered the different pleasures of a stroll on Roker promenade or along the big new north pier to the lighthouse. Electric trams gave easy access from the town centre for 'a day by the sea-side'. Cafes and beach huts and small hotels were springing up and the coast line rapidly extended northwards until by 1930 buildings and promenades ran alongside beaches at Roker and Seaburn for over 2 miles.

Behind the coast line Fulwell, previously farmland, joined the development as a main northern suburb of the town. However they were hard times. The inevitable miner's strike over wages in 1926 & the world depression which followed compounded a period of general unrest & nearly a third of the workers became unemployed. Trying to alleviate this, more municipal work was started including a deep water quay & extensive slum clearances both in the East End & in some suburbs. The worst of the old East End slums were demolished at last but sadly another effect of the depression was that many fine family shops lost their identity as national companies bought them out & this plus reducing trade had started Fawcett Street on its decline even before WW2. This time Sunderland suffered badly. Bombing killed 267 people and some 4,000 houses were destroyed or badly damaged.

In the town centre, the central station lost its fine cast iron & glass roof, the southern end of Fawcett Street was completely burnt out, the Museum and Winter Gardens wrecked & Victoria Hall demolished. After the war, little could be done other than patch-up & make-do & the town was a sad sight to returning service-men. Nevertheless the war had been won & hopes were high as the coal & engineering industries geared up to anticipated peace-time work.

Sadly it was a false dawn.

At left, a postcard image of Fawcett Street, pre WW2.

The fifties & sixties were a period of demolition & high rise building. As well as the old slums, some fine properties were demolished with no thought of preservation. The packed housing of Old Sunderland was replaced with modern council flats, & the Parish Church, with only a tiny congregation remaining, was closed. This all provided work but unemployment remained high & it was increasing. Wearmouth Colliery had massive unworked coal seams & the Coal Board invested nearly £10m on a 22 year project to develop the mine. The increasing production was however matched by mechanisation reducing the labour force, a picture being repeated in all heavy industry. Additionally the shipyards & docks which had been so busy during the war could not handle the larger vessels now in demand & the port was too small for container shipping. The declines were gradual but relentless. Coal exports stopped in 1986, shipbuilding ended in 1988 & the country-wide mine closures saw the end of  the highly productive Wearmouth Colliery in 1993. A new civic centre had become essential & in 1970 West Park (alongside Mowbray Park) was taken over for this purpose & the fine old Town Hall in Fawcett Street (at left, with the clock tower, in the image immediately above) which was now far too small was demolished. Gradually the old shops closed or turned into cheap discount stores after a new shopping centre was opened in 1988. With the return of mass unemployment,  vandalism & crime became rife & the town centre became completely run down.

Even the big parks were now dilapidated graffiti-ridden no-go areas and the Council in desperation agreed to employ a full-time park warden for Mowbray Park. This was so successful in reducing vandalism that it was extended to the other parks, the costs being largely offset by reduced maintenance and crime. Some hope returned when in 1992 Sunderland was made a city, its Polytechnic became a university and then with the help of Heritage Lottery funds, £4 million was allocated to restore the entire Mowbray Park and to rebuild the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. In 2000, Mowbray Park, back to its former Victorian glory, reopened and is now a most attractive feature of Sunderland's centre. The old town of slums and docks and quays has long gone replaced by modern buildings and gardens and now High Street East runs down to a barely recognisable East End. High Street West, once a main street busy with trams and shoppers, is now a pedestrianised precinct in the Bridges Shopping centre which provides all types of shop and national department stores. Fawcett Street has lost its former glory with many fine buildings despoiled by garish shop frontages although some survive as banks and offices. The Victorian Railway station with its dramatic cast iron and glass roof arching over the smoke and steam of the long-distance trains has disappeared underground to become the Tyne and Wear Metro station. The whole town centre, now almost a mile square, is encircled by a spiders web of roads and motorways.

With a return of confidence, many new industries have started including car making, electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, textiles and paper making. And many old industrial riverside areas are still being changed into small gardens and pedestrian areas. Exhibition buildings including Sunderland City Library and Arts Centre and The National Glass Centre have appeared as has the Sports 'Stadium of Light' sitting right on the ground where so many miners used to toil at Wearmouth Colliery. Few youngsters going to watch their team at the Stadium will comprehend what life was really like in the days of Industrial Sunderland and even fewer will know that within a stone's throw there once had been an old monastery built by Benedict Biscop 1,400 years earlier from which the three villages of 'Sundered Land' had grown into one university city of c. 280,000 inhabitants with boundaries including Ryhope, Silksworth, Herrington, South Hylton and Castletown.

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The parish of Bishopwearmouth, south of the River Wear was founded in around 940AD, with an original stone church being built shortly afterwards. The first evidence of a church on the site arose in a 1930s excavation when Saxon stones were found. Due to colliery subsidence, the church was virtually re-built beyond recognition in the early 20th century.