Shedding light on the Sunderland lamp that was never lit

The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse in the 1950s.

The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse in the 1950s.

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One man’s folly – the light that was never lit – stood sentinel over a busy Wearside junction for decades.

Today the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse is just a memory but, when it was built 140 years ago, it was immediately taken to the hearts of townsfolk.

The light that was never lit: The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse covered in scaffolding just before its demolition in 1970.

The light that was never lit: The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse covered in scaffolding just before its demolition in 1970.

“It became a landmark,” said Echo photographic archivist Susan Swinney. “People used it as a meeting place, and named their firms after it.”

The man behind the creation of the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse, William Wills, was born in Sunderland to customs officer Thomas and his wife Jane in March 1847.

William trained as a blacksmith but, after inheriting some money in the 1870s, switched careers to become a businessman, building premises in Roker Avenue.

“The focal point of his new shopping complex was, of course, the lighthouse. It stood proudly looking out over the Wheatsheaf junction,” said Susan.

The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse is in the distance in this photo, which features work on the tram lines - possibly in the 1930s.

The Wheatsheaf Lighthouse is in the distance in this photo, which features work on the tram lines - possibly in the 1930s.

“William used part of the premises as a shop, and he opened the lighthouse up as a cafe,l where his customers could enjoy a meal after shopping in his store.

“Various other firms also rented space in the property. One, the Lighthouse Upholstery Company, even had the advertising slogan ‘Let us light up your house’.

“But, sadly, the actual lighthouse lamp was never lit. William wanted to use it, but port authorities vetoed the idea, claiming it would mislead shipping.”

William, a member of the Union Congregational Church at The Royalty, as well as a lay preacher at the Bethel Church, eventually moved on to pastures new.

A fire blazing at the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse in November 1970.

A fire blazing at the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse in November 1970.

But, even after his death in 1924, his lighthouse continued to act as a local landmark – surviving a zeppelin attack in 1916, as well as a fire in 1947.

“Finally, in 1970, it was earmarked for demolition, to make way for a new road scheme. Before it could be dismantled, however, it went up in flames,” said Susan.