Wearside Echoes: Sunderland as we were 200 years ago

RIVER VIEW: Old Wearmouth Bridge before 1927. John Thompson's grandparents watched this bridge being built from the windows of their Monkwearmouth pub.

RIVER VIEW: Old Wearmouth Bridge before 1927. John Thompson's grandparents watched this bridge being built from the windows of their Monkwearmouth pub.

A FORMER police inspector has turned detective to unearth a rare glimpse of Wearside life almost 200 years ago.

Shipwright John Thompson published three books featuring his Monkwearmouth memories towards the end of 19th century, documenting life in Georgian and early Victorian times.

Now Norman Kirtlan, a retired police officer and map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society, has tracked down copies of the rare tomes and republished them in one volume.

“John Thompson was a Barbary Coaster and local character who, towards the end of his life in the 1890s, bemoaned the lost Monkwearmouth of his youth,” said Norman.

“Eventually, he decided to put pen to paper and write a book about the shore and its folk as he remembered them in the 1820s and 30s. It proved such a success he wrote two more.”

Sadly, following John’s death, the books fell out of print. His vivid memories of pubs, prisons, shipwrights and scallywags looked likely to be forgotten – until Norman stepped in.

“Because the stories and characters were so colourful, and because Monkwearmouth has lost nearly all of its proud heritage, I decided to track down the few remaining books,” he said.

“I wanted to republish them in one volume so modern-day Wearsiders could look back at a time when Sunderland was filled with grand buildings, shipbuilders, traders and characters.

“So much of old Sunderland has been lost to developers and time. I believe it is important we never lose touch with those who were responsible for building this very special city of ours.”

Not all the memories, however, deal with grand buildings or schemes. Indeed, one of the plans featured – the Monkwearmouth Ark of 1839 – was dismissed as daft rather than grand.

“Just to the south of St Peter’s Church stood Palmer’s Hill in Victorian times – one of four ballast mounds which once towered so tall they threatened to bury the church,” said Norman.

“Down below, on the quayside, wooden ships were built and waterside space was at a such premium that entrepreneurs had to travel miles to find a suitable boat-building spot.

“That was until four young apprentices got together and decided there was one spot not yet built upon which would provide an ideal berth for their labours – the top of Palmer’s Hill.”

The fact that there were one or two rather large obstacles standing between the hill top and River Wear – such as Willy Nipper’s smithy – did not deter the boat-builders one little bit.

Indeed, pausing only to dig a trench in which the vessel would eventually sit, the young men set to work creating the wooden skeleton of a ship – attracting much interest along the way.

Even Lady Williamson, wife of MP Sir Hedworth, paid a visit to enquire as to their progress. She promised she would be back for the launch – an event much anticipated by keen locals. “The fact over 2,000 turned up, lining both sides of the river, showed what an attraction the Monkwearmouth Ark had become,” said Norman. “Few even believed a launch was possible.

“Having to negotiate a gradient that would have troubled a Land Rover was one thing, but three houses, mooring posts and various other obstructions also stood in the way of the ship.”

It was shipwright John Thompson who drew the short straw, climbing aboard the slippery and mud-spattered ship, axe in hand, ready to cut the ropes that tethered her to the moorings.

Below him lay 50 yards of steep gradient and a space that gave only a few feet of tolerance; if he got this wrong, the shoreline of Monkwearmouth could be changed forever.

“As the wooden chocks were hurled skywards, the vessel began its descent, slowly gathering speed until young Thompson was hanging on to the mast for dear life,” said Norman.

“The vessel narrowly missed the stone walls of quayside dwellings, before grinding her way onto the quay. She then launched herself, stern first, into the air and down into the cold river.”

The crowd went quiet as the ship disappeared momentarily from view but, seconds later, a huge cheer of delight rang out as the vessel emerged from the depths and righted itself.

“Sadly, the Barbary Coast Ark did not last as long as the biblical original – three weeks to be precise, for she was all but wrecked in the great storms of January 1840,” said Norman.

“As for John Thompson – well he lived to a ripe old age and wrote the three books I’ve just published. It is unlikely Monkwearmouth ever saw anything as daft as that launch again.”

Old Monkwearmouth, by John Thompson, costs £4. It can be ordered from Norman on 07765 635 128 and is available from Sunderland Antiquarian Society each Saturday between 9.30am and noon. Alternatively, send a cheque for £4.50, which includes postage, payable to Norman c/o Sunderland Antiquarian Society, 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX.




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