Sunderland, County Durham, England

Half way up the eastern seaboard of England, the wide mouth of the Humber River makes a deep gash in the coastline. Two thousand years ago, long before England existed as a nation, most of the land north from the Humber to what is now the Scottish border was occupied by the Brigantes, the largest and most powerful of the many warring Celtic tribes who called this part of the island their own. 



The Celts

THE CELTS had gradually settled in Britain from continental Europe between 500 and 100 BC, and had brought iron working with them. While their language, culture and religion identified them as Celts, there was no central government. The tribes themselves, frequently at war with each other, were based on the clan system of extended families and lived in huts of thatched roofs, wood and wickerwork from which they farmed the surrounding land.

Celtic Britain map
Map: Michael Otterson

The Romans

The Romans first came into the Celtic lands in the south of England in 55 BC, when Julius Caesar, general of the legions in Gaul (France), advanced as far as the Thames, the river on which London now stands. The motivation for this early incursion was partly to prevent Celtic support to Rome's adversaries in Gaul. But Britain was also a site for valuable minerals, including tin from Cornwall, as well as a source of food supplies for the legions.

Another Roman incursion came the following year, 54 BC. But in 43 AD, in the reign of Emperor Claudius, the Romans launched a full-scale invasion and pushed far to the north in what would transform the face of ancient Britain. Military victories combined with strategic alliances between the Romans and selected tribes effectively reduced opposition among the fragmented Celts.

In the north, the Brigantes were reduced to subjection by AD 80. The large number of excavated Roman military camps between the Tees and Tyne rivers are reminders of the challenge in subduing that ancient kingdom of which County Durham is now a part.

Bath, England
Photo by Michael Otterson

Above: The modern city of Bath has preserved something of the Roman presence in Britain, giving a fascination glimpse into what life must have been like for the ruling classes.

Below: Remains of Hadrian's Wall, County Durham.

Hadrian's Wall
Photo by Michael Otterson

Roman camps or towns were situated along a major north-south military road which enabled the rapid deployment of troops and supplies. There was also a Roman road from the Tees to the Tyne, crossing the River Wear at Hylton. A Roman station may have stood at the mouth of the River Wear, at the north end of what is now Castle Street, Sunderland.

After the conquest of the Celtic Britons, the Romans turned their attention to expanding agriculture, transforming more of the the heavily forested land and swamps into productive farms. Over time, the country became the granary for the northern Roman Empire, with vast amounts of food crops grown and exported. Britain’s climate proved receptive to the introduction of new plants and fruit trees. Gradually the Roman way of life permeated the populace, especially in the well-planned Roman towns with their markets and commerce. The whole structure was protected by military garrisons, coastal defences and, of course, the great Hadrian’s Wall marking the extreme northern frontier of the empire. Christianity arrived in about AD 178, competing at first with the paganism of both Celts and Romans and finally becoming the acknowledged religion of the empire in 324 under Constantine.

The Anglo-Saxons arrive

With the collapse of the Roman Empire and the recall of the last Roman soldiers from Britain in 410, the British Isles entered the Dark Ages in which historical records are scanty. Now open to raiders and settlers from the Germanic tribes of Europe, the country was soon invaded and colonized by Anglo-Saxons, who overcame Celtic Britons and forced them to the western side of the island - to Cornwall, Wales and the northwest.

BBC map of immigration
Map credit: BBC Primary History resource

The Angles were from the region around the neck of the Jutland peninsular (modern Denmark and northern Germany), the Saxons from lower Saxony. It was from the Angles that England later got its name, but England as a country did not yet exist.

By 600 AD several dominant Saxon kingdoms had emerged, the two largest of which were Northumbria and Mercia. Northumbria, established in 547 and which included the future counties of Northumberland and Durham, stretched from the Humber to the prominent Scottish inlet at the Firth of Forth, a location that invited constant trouble from the Scots and Picts to the north. From 547 to 800 Northumbria was ruled over by some 30 kings, including King Oswald who introduced Christianity. 

Biscop and Bede

In 674 there came one of those pivotal moments so valued by historians, because the records of the associated events pour a flood of light onto the otherwise obscure times. King Ecgfrith of Northumbria granted a substantial tract of land to Benedict Biscop, a Northumbrian noble of Angle lineage, on which he built the monastery and church of Wearmouth. Biscop made several trips to Rome and the Continent, and brought back many books, works of art and sacred relics, as well as craftsmen who reintroduced glassmaking to England. Little of the original monastery now exists, but the associated church of St. Peter’s stands today on the same site as the parish church of Monkwearmouth, in the heart of what is now Sunderland. 

Ancient church of St Peter's, Monkwearmouth
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Left and above:  St Peter’s Church, Monkwearmouth, as it is today. The tower dates to Norman times and its stone wall can be seen at the far end of the aisle. The monastery was dissolved by King Henry VIII as part of the English reformation. The original doorway through which St. Benedict Biscop and the Venerable Bede entered the church can be seen at the far end. This west wall and the porch behind it are all that remain above ground of the monastery of St. Peter, founded in 674.

Biscop was the first Abbott of the monastery, but what is even more significant than his remarkable life is the entry into the monastery in 680 of a seven year old boy known as Bede. Bede’s life was spent at St Peter’s and a sister monastery built soon after at Jarrow, a few miles to the north. Over time, Bede’s prodigious scholarship turned Jarrow into the main European center of learning north of Rome. His most famous work, Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum (The Ecclesiastical History of the English People) gained him the title "The Father of English History.”  The book covers the period from Julius Caesar’s invasion to his own day, with special emphasis on the kingdom of Northumbria.

The Danes

The English Book of Common Prayer in the 8th Century included the phrase, “Deliver us, O Lord, from the wrath of the Northmen.” It was an understandable plea. Danish incursions began in the late 700s on the Northumbrian coast and continued for 200 years. Churches and small settlements were easy targets for pillage, plundering and rape. The monastery and church at Lindisfarne were plundered and burned in 793, and the ecclesiastical buildings at Jarrow were attacked the following year, although the Danes were driven off. A large battle between Saxons and Danes near Tunstall Hills, on the southern side of what is now suburban Sunderland, also resulted in a defeat for the Danes.

Map of Danelaw, England
Map: Origin unknown

The Saxons could not hold out indefinitely, however, against raiders who came suddenly from the sea unopposed by any organized navy or any comparable seafaring expertise. By the middle of the ninth century the monastery at Monkwearmouth had been abandoned. In 867 a large and unstoppable Danish force plundered the whole of Northumbria, burned houses and churches to the ground and slaughtered the inhabitants. 

It was from about this time that the Danes came not just to pillage, but to settle. There were long years of conflict with the Saxon kingdoms, principally the dominant Northumbria, Mercia and Wessex. The Saxon king, Alfred the Great of Wessex, drove the Danes back for a time, but Danes mostly held the upper hand. A system of legal jurisdiction and governance called Danelaw was established over much of the country. From 1016 to 1042 Danish kings held sway in most of England. 

Gradually, however, centuries of conflict, treaties, truces and and accommodation saw the Danes assimilated. Especially under the Danish King Canute, they settled down on the land, intermarried with Anglo-Saxons, and the two races became one people. A BBC genetic survey of the population of Britain in 2000 identified Norwegian origins among certain settlements, notably the outer islands of Scotland. However, the Danish descendants could not be distinguished from those of the Anglo-Saxons. Some Danish place names remain - Suddick, now Southwick, a Sunderland suburb on the north shore of the Wear, is an example.

Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth

The harbour at the mouth of the Wear was well known in Saxon and Danish times, and probably well frequented because of the important Benedictine monastery at Monkwearmouth as well as the shelter it provided.

At this time there were three distinct settlements, in addition to a few very small neighboring hamlets. On the north side of the river stood Monkwearmouth. On the south side, the community of Bishopwearmouth was founded in 930. Bishopwearmouth was so called to distinguish it from Monkwearmouth. A grant of land from the Northumbrian king to the bishop of Durham included Westoe, Offerton, Silksworth, Ryhope, Burdon, Seaham, Seaton, Dalton, Dalden, and Haseldene.

Sunderland itself was a small fishing village toward the mouth of the River Wear, the name probably referencing “sundered land” because of the River Wear valley carving its way toward the coast, and separating Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth. “Soender-land” has both Anglo-Saxon and Danish connections. Eventually, Sunderland would grow to absorb both Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth and surrounding villages.

Historian William Cranmer Mitchell, in his 1919 “History of Sunderland,” describes Bishopwearmouth in Saxon times as follows. The explanations in brackets have been added.

“On the crest of the hill stands the small Saxon church, made of wood, the roof thatched with reeds. On three sides of the church are clustered the dwelling houses, each with a small croft [small area for farming], and garden with fruit trees; while on the fourth side is the village green where men and boys practice at the butts [longbow archery targets].

“Surrounding the town may be seen a ditch and an earthen wall, with a wooden fence on top, as a defence against any enemy.

“Very early in the morning the town gate is opened and the herd appears driving the villagers’ cattle, which he has collected from each croft, to the grass land at Boyldon Hill.

“Next appear the Ceorls, the most numerous and the lowest class of Saxon freemen. They are accompanied by a number of Thralls or slaves, and are on their way to the strips of cultivated land at the west of the village where wheat, rye, oats and barley are grown. Now we see the Thane with his sons and house carls [household troops or bodyguards] issue forth. Some follow the stream which joins the Wear and are going to fish for salmon; others are going to hunt in the woods.

“An extensive view of the sea and the surrounding country can be obtained from the village as none of the land is enclosed. There are no noisy shipyards, no busy factories belching forth smoke from their tall chimneys, and the Wear runs swiftly to the sea between steep, craggy banks, in parts overgrown with bushes and trees. In place of the tiers of great tramp steamers, a few long black galleys ride at anchor and here and there a rude boat is drawn up on the shore.”

The Norman Conquest

The Battle of Hastings in 1066 between Anglo-Saxons and Normans from the Continent was one of the most pivotal in the long history of the British Isles. Its origins, context, politics and results are complex and well beyond the purposes of this essay. Still, the Norman invasion and settlement of England had profound consequences for the area we now call County Durham. It was some years after the Battle of Hastings that William's Norman forces finally held sway in the northeast of the island nation.

In 1069 the Saxons refused to yield to 900 Norman soldiers come to forcibly install the Earl of Northumberland in the city of Durham. The Normans, including the earl, were slain. The Normans followed up with a larger force that quelled the rebellion and ravaged the entire countryside, burning and destroying everything between the Tees and Tyne rivers. Within ten years, a second insurrection was put down with equal brutality.

Bayeux Tapestry - comet
Public domain.
Bayeaux tapestry
Detail from the Bayeux Tapestry . Bishop Odo cheers his Norman troops forward. Public domain.

From this time, England - now a distinct country - fell under the rigid feudal system. Ultimately, the Normans, too, would be assimilated in the larger Anglo-Saxon population, and English rather than Norman-French would become the language of the nobility and courts of law.

Over the years, the historical record shows signs of increasing recognition of the settlements on the mouth of the Wear. A Charter of Privileges was granted to the “Burgesses of Weremue” about 1154, apparently in an effort to stimulate trade and commerce and the development of a port. In 1180, the Boldon Book - a survey of land, rents and tenants that included the villages of Bishopwearmouth and Sunderland - refers to specific numbers of tenants and cottagers, and directly references a carpenter and blacksmith, among others. 

Gradually, the ferries and fisheries attracted related river-based activities. Ships began to be built on the river in the 1300s, and the historical record specifically mentions shipbuilding at Hynden (later the Sunderland suburb of Hendon) in the 1460s. One-room wooden dwellings gave way to stone cottages, often with thatched roofs but sometimes capped with tile.

By 1500 it is doubtful that the population of the neighbouring Wearmouth villages exceeded 1,000 people. The next two centuries, however, would see everything change.

The Emergence of Sunderland

The population of the settlements on the River Wear, notably those of Sunderland, Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth, rose gradually through the 1500s and 1600s, but even by 1700 Sunderland’s population was not much over 3,000 people.

A number of those residents were the families and descendants of Scottish and European immigrants who flooded into Sunderland between 1600 and 1630, attracted by the absence of powerful trade guilds which in other towns protected housing and jobs from the encroachments of foreigners.

Sunderland really came into its own in the 1700s. The Industrial Revolution hit Sunderland with full force. The town was a microcosm of that intense period of urban growth in industrial Britain. The River Wear Commissioners were appointed in 1717 - a move which led to steady improvement of the harbour. 

After 1717, the Wear was never the same again. Large rocks, shoals and sandbanks that clogged the river and threatened its shipping trade were continuously dredged. Quays were built, along with lighthouses and piers, and in the next 200 years an intricate web of docks and warehouses crowded the banks of the river on both sides, and a mile along the sea shore to the south.

As coal mines opened all over County Durham, those near the mouth of the Wear steered vast quantities of coal to feed the fires and industry of London. And wherever coal was found, steam power and railways soon followed.

Between 1750 and 1830, shipbuilding, trade and population all doubled. In 1796 the Wearmouth Bridge was opened, and during the 1800s the reputation of Sunderland as a world-class shipbuilding port was established. Its pace of growth far outstripped neighboring boom towns like Gateshead and South Shields. By 1828, a government report ranked Sunderland as the fourth port of England, and by mid-century one third of all ships being built in the United Kingdom were from Wearside. Other manufactures included glassware and pottery.

Large sums were spent on public buildings in Sunderland, and churches began springing up across the urban area to meet the influx of people. Interestingly, as the number of churches increased, the number of pubs used by sailors and allied trades diminished. According to historian William Cranmer Mitchell, there were 41 public houses in Low Street in 1821, reduced to just 12 by 1888 and a mere three by 1916. In the port city, everyone had their chosen place of worship. Mitchell writes:

“The Unitarians had their place of meeting in Maling’s Rigg; the Jews had a synagogue in Vine Street, the Calvinists had a chapel down an entry near the old Corn Market; while the Roman Catholic chapel was in Dunning Street.”

The reference to the Calvinist chapel near the Corn Market is interesting. This was the chapel in Half Moon Street, where the children of the earliest known Ottersons - Thomas Otterson and the former Ann Spraggon - were christened in the 1750s.

Sunderland’s industrial boom came at a price, of course. In tandem with other rapidly sprawling urban centres, the pleasant “denes” or miniature valleys characteristic of the area, many of which abounded with flora and fauna, were overwhelmed and in some cases obliterated by housing supporting the growing industry. Hendon, once a distinct village but now a Sunderland suburb, was one such area dramatically affected.

Looking at the River Wear today, it is difficult to believe that Sunderland was built on coal mining and shipbuilding. During the Great Depression of the 1930s, its dependence on these heavy industries led to severe unemployment. Like other cities, Sunderland was forced to diversify. 

To stand on the north bank of the river today seems more like a  rural setting. Riverside walks extend for sizable distances, and trees and shrubbery now occupy the elevated banks. Monkwearmouth Colliery, the large coal mine that once occupied the heart of Sunderland, is gone for ever. In its place stands the impressive Stadium of Light, the home of Sunderland’s football club. Near to the stadium entrance, a giant replica of a Davy lamp - the famous miner’s lamp used by English miners for decades - marks the spot where so many men found the means to provide for their families.

Bishopwearmouth 1810
Watercolour by George Fall from a painting by H. Davison. Public domain.

Above: The village of Bishopwearmouth in 1810, when Sunderland, Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth were three distinct villages.
Below: The first Wearmouth Bridge in the 1850s. It was the second iron bridge in the world and a source of wonder for observers.

Wearmouth Bridge
Photograph by Edward Backhouse.
Wearmouth Bridge, 1910
Photo believed to be in the public domain.

Above: Wearmouth Bridge about 1900, looking north from Bishopwearmouth. Although tram lines are laid, horses and carts predominated at this time.

Above: Wearmouth Bridge in the 1950s. The bridge was built in 1929 at the same site as the old bridge.

Below: The bridge as seen from the same spot in 2009. Most of the river-based heavy industry of the last century and a half, including the coal staithes that lined the banks, has now gone. There is something poignant about the stillness and quiet of this section of the River Wear, where so many once earned their livelihood and where only mud-embedded timbers now remain.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above: Former coal staithes on the River Wear near Wearmouth Bridge. Robert Otterson (1881-1970) was staithmaster at this site when coal mining was synonymous with County Durham.

Nearby Wreathquay Road, once the home of senior employees of the River Wear Commissioners - and a street to which the Otterson history is tied - is now known as Millennium Way. Sunderland’s new industries are automotive engineering and electronics. As if to underscore its transformation, statistics at the end of 2008 noted that Sunderland had the highest percentage of broadband users and digital television subscribers in the UK.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson

Above left:  Monkwearmouth Colliery, so frequently mentioned in the history of the Ottersons and related families in Sunderland, and once such a central part of the economic and social fabric of the city, has long gone. In its place is the Stadium of Light, a facility worthy of a storied football club founded in 1879. Wreathquay Road which skirts the Stadium has been renamed Millennium Way (above), as if to focus on the future rather than the past. But Sunderland will always be inextricably associated with its history of ships and coal, railways and mines.

Left: Near the entrance to the stadium stands a monument to the miners and their families in the form of a heroic sized Davy lamp, its central flame always lit as if in remembrance. 

Below: Spring storm at Roker Pier, Sunderland, 2018.

Photo: Michael Otterson
Photo: Michael Otterson