The Places
Sunderland
Modern history: 1500-present

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. This influx of Scots may at some point prove relevant to the origin of the Sunderland Ottersons, since the surname and its derivative names are more common in Scotland than in England. Any link has yet to be proved, however.


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 War Commissioners were appointed in 1717 - a move which led to steady improvement of the harbour, the construction of piers and, later, the installation of docks.


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 looked to the port as the best option to steer 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 neighbouring boom towns like Gateshead and South Shields. By 1828, a government report ranked Sunderland as the fourth port of England. 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 Sunderland today, it is difficult to believe that it 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 Wear today is to seem to be in an almost rural setting. Riverside walks extend for sizeable 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 Premier League 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.


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.

About 1956: Gathering sea coal off the beach at Roker (Sunderland Echo photograph).

Above: Bishopwearmouth village, 1810, when Sunderland, Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth were still three distinct villages. Watercolour by George Fall from a painting by H. Davison.

Above: The first Wearmouth Bridge in the 1850s, in a photograph by Edward Backhouse. It was the second iron bridge in the world and a source of wonder for observers.

Above: Sunderland quayside, 1885. Photograph of an oil painting by Thomas M. M. Hemy, in the Sunderland art gallery.

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

Right: Coal gathering at Roker Beach (Sunderland Echo photograph). 

Below: Wearmouth Bridge in the 1950s, built in 1929 at the same site as the old bridge. Note the coal staithes on the river bank on the right and compare the same stretch of river in the adjacent colour photograph taken in 2009. All of the river-based heavy industry has now gone.

Below, far right: There is something poignant about the stillness and quite of this section of the River Wear, where so many once earned their livelihood and where only mud-embedded rotting timbers now remain.