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The following article was written as a family history project by Margaret (Meg) Hartford, who has kindly consented to its inclusion on site.

Margaret tells us that she was born in Sunderland, the only child of Victor Graham & Margaret Black. After attending Bede Grammar School for Girls, she worked for the Sunderland Library Service, mainly at Central Library & at Monkwearmouth Branch Library, as a library assistant. She then trained as a geography teacher at Kenton Lodge College of Education, Gosforth, Newcastle, & taught for many years in Nottinghamshire & Nottingham City, mainly working with Special Needs pupils. Her father’s family have lived in the Monkwearmouth area since arriving from Scotland via Northumberland in the 1840s. Some are still living there today. Meg has researched her paternal family roots in Monkwearmouth & beyond & also her maternal family history, which is all on the south side of the river in Sunderland by the Sea & Bishopwearmouth where the Tonge line goes back to the mid 1600s. Meg's interest in local history developed when she had to write a dissertation in her final year at college & she chose as her subject, the Urban Development of Sunderland. 

Bonnersfield & Sheepfolds?

What was the origin of these names? They were obviously rural & farming related but by the 18th century the land was becoming industrialised.

According to an 1858 Directory of Sunderland there are memorial tablets to members of the Bonner family in St. Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth. Maybe they were owners of the land at one time.

Another source refers to John Bonner (1741 – 1811). John was a Freemason, who was described as a carpenter, & was in charge of the construction of the ‘Phoenix’ or King George Lodge for the order. The Freemasons had met in various East End pubs before building a hall on Vine Street which was damaged by fire in 1785. John rebuilt the hall as an almost identical copy of the original. Bonner also had a timber ‘raff’ or yard in the area known as Bonnersfield. The raff is described as having a large house with tiled roof & two chimneys.

The Freemasons were involved in the construction of the first Wearmouth Bridge which was completed in 1796. On the north bank of the river, the land to the east of the bridge is Bonnersfield while that to the west is Sheepfolds.

By 1790 the Stafford Abbs Brewery was operating on Bonnersfield. John Stafford & Cooper Abbs founded the 'Monkwearmouth Brewery and Maltings'. It was close to the river, & appears on Raine’s Plan of 1790 and the 1817 and 1850 Robson maps of the area.

The lower part of Bonnersfield became known as Brewery Bank. The business was bought by James Deuchar in 1890 & closed in 1936. The premises were converted to a mineral water factory.

In the 1850’s and early 1860’s, my great great grandfather, Joseph Graham, had a timber yard immediately to the east of the Bridge on part of Bonnersfield near the brewery. The Monkwearmouth voters list for the period confirms this & lists his residences at Hallgarth Square, Hamilton Street & Millum Terrace at various times during these years. He was the first to supply Robert Thompson with timber when he started his own shipbuilding business in the mid 1850’s – according to a family letter written by his grandson. Joseph eventually suffered a major business loss & as a result sold the yard.


An image of the 1890 Wilson's fire, thanks to Keith Cockerill

Joseph may have sold his yard to J. W. Wilson and Sons who had a saw mill & timber yard on the same site for many years. It is recorded that Wilson's operated a steam mill and smithy on Bonnersfield in 1857. The yard was the site of a large fire in Dec. 1878. By 1890 the site covered almost 2 acres when a second fire broke out which gutted the whole yard which contained huge amounts of timber. Damage was estimated at £18,000 – £20,000.

The yard was rebuilt and business continued until the early 1960’s. The chimneys were demolished in 1963. The timber yard can be seen in many images of Wearmouth Bridge.

More recently the waterfront was part of the extended North Sands Shipbuilding yard. The last launch was in May 1979 and the buildings were demolished in 1986.

The picture below shows part of Bonnersfield photographed from the south bank of the Wear. Wilson’s timber yard is in the foreground. From the left the buildings on the skyline are the Monkwearmouth and Sunderland Savings Bank, the Aquatic Arms & the Royal Hotel – more of them later. The ’Bromarsh’ is visible above the timber yard building with the three dormer windows. The spire of the Scotch Church on North Bridge Street is to the right of the ‘Bromarsh’.

William Mills was born in 1856 in Southwick. He was apprenticed to George Clarke, Marine Engineer, & on completing his indentures he spent seven years at sea. During this time he designed equipment which allowed ships' lifeboats to be launched easily & safely. He was awarded a gold medal by the Mercantile Marine Service in recognition of his design which saved many lives.

He started his own business as a general engineer in 1885 & established an aluminium foundry known as the Atlas Works in Bonnersfield. It was reputed to be the first works of its kind in the U.K. Mills was a keen golfer. He developed & patented some of the earliest aluminium golf clubs, using what he called 'metallic golfing instrument heads'. I believe that one of them was the well known Mills putter.

Later, William Mills opened a second factory in Birmingham where he produced the 'Mills Bomb', a hand grenade which was used by the British Army from 1915. Mills was knighted in 1922 & died in 1932 in Weston-super-Mare.

Before Mills established the Atlas Works, the Monkwearmouth Iron Works founded by James Walkinshaw in about 1847 were operating in Bonnersfield. In the late 1850’s these became Tyzacks Iron Company. (At right is an image of the 'Ironworks' of S. Tyzack & Co., thanks to the 'University of Newcastle Upon Tyne' - "©SINE Project" - here.)

St. Stephen’s Presbyterian Chapel stood at the northern end of Monkwearmouth Bridge on the corner of Bonnersfield, opposite Sheepfolds. It was built in the 1820’s at a cost of £3,000. It ceased to be a church in 1903.

George Black was born in Newcastle in 1857 but by 1861 the family were living at Ravensworth Street, Sunderland. His father was a druggist. For many years George Black worked in theatres in Manchester & Birmingham.

He bought the old St. Stephen’s Chapel & exhibited his huge waxworks collection there when it was not touring the country. As an added attraction he showed 'moving pictures', with the audience seated in the pews. By various times the cinema was called 'Blacks Picture Palace' & 'The Monkwearmouth Picture Hall'. When George died in 1912, he owned 12 cinemas in the North East which were operated by his sons. In 1916, the name was changed to 'The Bridge Cinema'. It was sold to the Marshall Brothers in 1919 & they renamed it the 'Bromarsh'. 

It remained a cinema until 1943 and a public air raid shelter was opened in the basement of the building in World War II. During one of the last major air raids on North East England, on the night of May 23/24, 1943 tons of bombs fell on the town & damage was widespread. 83 people died & 222 were injured. Three public shelters were hit in this raid - Lodge Terrace in Hendon, Bonnersfield Shelter, & the Bromarsh. Three people died in the Bromarsh and there were seven casualties in Bonnersfield.

The Humble family were in Bonnersfield shelter that night. Parents Bert and Elizabeth escaped but five of their children Jean (aged 2), Doris (3), Frederick (7), Marjorie (8) and Mildred (16) were killed along with Ellen Morgan & John Thomas Murtha.

My father’s family home was just opposite the Bromarsh at 26 Sheepfolds Road. My cousin, Anne, who lives in Surrey, was six at the time and wrote the following:-

'The cinema (Bromarsh) took a direct hit. The next time we went north some of my friends were not there any more. My Aunt Mattie was one of those who went to help and she was handed a neighbour’s little girl. She had no injuries at all and my aunt thought that she was just unconscious, but she was dead. My Aunt said it was as if the blast had just blown the life out of the child.'

The house that Martha Graham, great grand daughter of the timber merchant, her mother & brothers lived in was part of the block of properties eventually all owned by the Newcastle Breweries. The Aquatic Arms was on the corner of Bridge Street & Sheepfolds with number 26 Sheepfolds Road squeezed in between it & the railway viaduct. The rest of the block was the Royal Hotel and Brewery offices.

The Royal Hotel was number 1, North Bridge Street & in 1881 the owner was Thomas Bell. The hotel must have had rooms suitable for large gatherings as the inquest for the Monkwearmouth victims of the Victoria Hall disaster was held there in 1883. The coroner heard evidence & questioned many witnesses including the hall keeper. His name was Frederick Graham & he was the son of Joseph Graham, previously mentioned.

Number 26 was a tied house. My grandmother, Emma, had taken the job of caretaker & cleaner of the Newcastle Brewery offices after her husband died in 1920 due to mustard gas poisoning in World War I. The offices were filled with dark mahogany Victorian desks and counters & behind them and the Royal Hotel was a yard. It had access to the arches under the railway viaduct which were used for storage & I remember horse and carts loading up there. I think there may have been some stabling in one of the arches. Mattie took on the caretaker job after the death of her mother in 1951 & lived there with her husband until her death in 1966.

Among all the industrial building of this area were the homes of many ‘ordinary’ Wearsiders. Occupations recorded in the census returns show employment in the shipyards, iron foundries and many other local industries as well as many sailors’ families.

Royal Hotel is at left & #26 Sheepfolds Road is in the centre.

A cousin who had grown up in Scotland came to study at the Technical College and lived with Auntie Mattie while he was a student. He was involved with Rag Week and the organisers wanted a banner placed in a prominent position as a stunt.

At the side of the house was a small window at the height of the viaduct parapet and about two or three feet away. It was quite possible to reach the bridge from inside. My cousin climbed out in the middle of the night and the next day the banner was on display in the middle section of the railway bridge for all to see.

I remember the speculation and 'fuss' about how it had got there. We kept quiet!

Like most areas of Sunderland the old heavy industries of Bonnersfield have gone. In their place stand flats. The block formerly owned by Newcastle Breweries at the top of Sheepfolds Road has been demolished & the site is now occupied by St. Peter’s Metro Station. There is grass growing on the river bank and people walk up the river side paths. To some extent Bonnersfield is returning to what it was in the early 18th century, open green space, which is now used for leisure activities instead of agriculture.

Margaret Hartford.

Acknowledgement - We particularly thank the Sunderland Antiquarian Society for the images above of Bonnersfield & of Blacks Picture Palace - also, the 1851 map section.


For your pleasure and interest.

A fine image of the Monkwearmouth Station Museum, thanks to Tyne & Wear Museums (via Jonathan Kinnair, Assistant Media Officer of Sunderland City Council). The building, which dates from 1848, was commissioned by the famous railway entrepreneur George Hudson. It served as the terminus station for the Brandling Junction Railway. In 1967, it was closed to passenger traffic & became a museum in 1973. The grade 2 listed building features a grand entrance hall & a well preserved booking office, both of which display many original features such as ticket booths, fireplaces & shuttered windows - and much much more besides.

And Monkwearmouth Railway Station as depicted on a piece of pottery. A milk jug which was sold on Nov. 29, 2013 via eBay - for GBP 10.50 or U.S. $17.33.

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