Sketching out Sunderland in the 1700s

RIVER WEAR: This part of the map shows ships on the Wear, as well as parts of the East End including Low Street and a sliver of Monkwearmouth shore.

RIVER WEAR: This part of the map shows ships on the Wear, as well as parts of the East End including Low Street and a sliver of Monkwearmouth shore.

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An Eye Plan chart of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth, sketched by parish surveyor John Rain between 1785 and 1790, is the focus of the £9.99 paperback.

Originally published in 1985, the book – by Geoffrey Milburn, Michael Clay and Stuart Miller – has been reprinted by Living History North East due to huge demand.

Bishopwearmouth Green: Featuring Little Gate, the village green and land owned by the Mowbray family.

Bishopwearmouth Green: Featuring Little Gate, the village green and land owned by the Mowbray family.

“The Eye Plan is a vivid and detailed evocation of 18th century life, retaining a freshness comparable to any photographic panorama,” said historian Stuart Miller.

“Indeed, Rain’s plan can be seen as superior to a photographic image, in that it is the product of an analytical and selective mind. It is also a unique source of information.”

John Rain – or John Raine as he is sometimes known – was born to John and Mary Rain, of Plains Farm, in 1760 and grew up to work as a farmer.

A job as a bricklayer followed, before he took on the task of parish surveyor at a time of four townships – Bishopwearmouth, Sunderland, Monkwearmouth and Southwick.

“He trained as a land surveyor and other work known to him includes estate surveys for the Goodchilds of Pallion and the Williamsons of Monkwearmouth,” said Stuart.

“But it is his Eye Plan of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth from the South which constitutes his claim to fame as a cartographer. It will be familiar to many people.

“From an imaginary aerial viewpoint, and depicting all features in elevation, he drew a long slab of terrain, including the old township and parts of Bishopwearmouth.

“His map also showed the ancient village of Bishopwearmouth, as well as a part of Monkwearmouth shore – the areas which became the heart of the growing town.”

It is believed John started work on his Eye Plan in around 1785. He then spent the next five years carefully cataloguing scores of streets, houses, firms and even fields.

Many of the homes of wealthier Wearsiders are marked on the map too, together with detailed listings of the dozens of traders to be found selling their wares near the port.

“At its most basic level, the Plan is a topographical directory of property and estate ownership – but it is presented as a perspective drawing on the area,” said Stuart.

“With the exception of a small number of millers and ropery-workers, the figures which populate the Plan inhabit the River Wear and its environs.

“It is the shipbuilding and trading activity which dominates Rain’s Plan, and the town itself, in the late 18th century.

“The setting out of the street plan is only partly accurate. But the distances between the streets is of secondary importance to street names, districts and notable property.”

Once complete, Rain’s plan measured around 21x84 inches, with a scale of roughly 4.5ft to the mile. It is believed, however, that the original was lost over the years.

Indeed, the map is only known today through copies reproduced in the 19th century, as well as a total re-drawing by architects Victor Bain and Norman Wigzell in 1909.

“The extracts in the new book are taken from a splendid re-drawing of the Plan by artist and sculptor Michael Clay, a co-author of our original book,” said Stuart.

“Rain’s map is the earliest detailed plan of the town, and remains one of the best and most rewarding to use. It also provides a valuable visual directory of settlements.”

The book features a full, pull-out, black and white copy of the map – as well as individual segments, each with in-depth historical facts and figures printed alongside.

Information on areas such as Rectory Gill and Sunderland’s enclosed fields are featured too, as are keels and keelmen, industrial development and the Town Moor.

“The plan is a unique source of information on Sunderland’s history,” said Stuart, a volunteer at the Living History charity, based at the Donnison School in the East End.

“If those new to it gain a fraction of the pleasure and interest that we have found in working on it and in producing this book then our labours will be amply rewarded.”

•An Eye Plan of Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth is published by Living History and costs £9.99 from the Donnison School, Church Walk, Sunderland, SR1 2BJ.