Sunderland’s World War One ‘Listening Ear’ officially reopens

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A historic gem dating back to the First World War is battle-ready for the first time in years – after a £68,000 revamp.

Fulwell Acoustic Mirror – also known as a Listening Ear – was placed on the Historic England Heritage at Risk register in 2011, after falling into disrepair over the decades.

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But a two-year restoration project involving Sunderland City Council, the Limestone Landscape Partnership and Heritage Lottery has lifted it out of danger, and it will officially reopen today.

“Fulwell Mirror is a very rare reminder of the home front in the North East during the First World War,” said Councillor John Kelly, portfolio holder for public health, wellness and culture.

“The restoration has give the mirror a new lease of life by preserving it for future generations almost a hundred years after it was built to defend our shores.

“This, along with new interpretative material, will make it more accessible to residents, groups, schools and visitors as a unique heritage tourist attraction and educational resource.”

It is an incredibly important part of our military history and it’s especially fitting that this work has been completed when we are commemorating the centenary of the First World War.

Councillor John Kelly

The Fulwell Mirror was one of several Listening Ears built along the coast during the latter years of the Great War; designed as early warning devices to help keep Britain safe from Zeppelin attacks.

The concrete dish was carefully shaped to detect the noise of approaching airships and planes up to 15 minutes out to sea – a forerunner to modern radars – with any threat producing a warning signal.

Sadly, the mirror was built too late to save the lives of 22 Wearsiders, who died when Zeppelin L-11 dropped a deadly haul of explosives over Monkwearmouth on April 1, 1916.

But the device did provide warning of another potential attack in 1917, allowing enough time for the airbase at North Hylton to launch a counter attack - chasing the Zeppelin away from the town.

Despite its success, however, the development of new technology eventually left the acoustic mirror obsolete. As the years passed, it became covered in weeds - and started to crumble away.

“The mirror’s inclusion on the “at risk” register triggered a partnership between the council, Historic England and Limestone Landscape which has led to its sympathetic restoration,” said Coun Kelly.

“It is an incredibly important part of our military history and it’s especially fitting that this work has been completed when we are commemorating the centenary of the First World War.”

A site clean-up spearheaded by Groundwork North East and Southwick Neighbourhood Young Peoples Project - dubbed “The Battle of the Brambles” - helped clear most of the weeds, brambles and greenery covering the mirror in 2012.

Sunderland Council then secured funding from Historic England the following year, as well as Heritage Lottery Fund cash, to allow restoration work on the wartime relic to begin.

Gravel pathways, grassed picnic area, information panels and a wildflower meadow are among the improvements made at the site, while diluted sheep droppings were used to “tone in” repairs to the concrete.

Now the mirror - one of the city’s ten scheduled ancient monuments - is no longer classed as at risk and Kate Wilson, Historic England’s principal adviser for Heritage at Risk for the North East, said:

“This has been a very successful partnership to repair and reveal the mirror’s history. It will take a step towards making sure the acoustic mirror will survive for many more years to come.”

l More than 20 people died, 105 were injured, houses flattened and a tram destroyed when L-1l floated silently across Sunderland on April 1, 1916.

“Violent explosions, the collapse of buildings, and the outbreak of fires clearly indicated the good effect of our attacks,” claimed the German Admiralty.

Among those killed were magistrate Thomas Shepherd Dale, a Wheatsheaf tram inspector and two siblings from Eden Street – Henry and Gertrude Patrick. The teenagers lost their lives after being hit by shrapnel, shell and glass.

Tram conductress Margaret Holmes later recalled “The bomb fell through the tram. I was blown right out and I came to rest in water coming from a burst main.”