Wearside Echoes: Stepping back in history

Young bookworms, from left; Aidan Evans 9, Eema Khatum 9, Viktoria Szerson 9, Leon Hussain 8, Jack Muse 8, and Thomas Bainbridge 9, enjoying the new local history book by Sunderland author Keith Gregson at Richard Avenue Primary School, Sunderland.
Young bookworms, from left; Aidan Evans 9, Eema Khatum 9, Viktoria Szerson 9, Leon Hussain 8, Jack Muse 8, and Thomas Bainbridge 9, enjoying the new local history book by Sunderland author Keith Gregson at Richard Avenue Primary School, Sunderland.
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THE pupils of Richard Avenue Primary School have a new class favourite – The Children’s History of Sunderland.

Written by historian, author and musician Keith Gregson, the detail- and picture-packed book documents Wearside’s history from Roman times to the present day.

“It is a fantastic resource,” said Pat Lamb, a personal, social and health leader at Richard Avenue. “Not only can it be used in history lessons, but also across many other subjects too.

“The children are even choosing it for their free choice reading periods. The book appeals to everyone, adults and children alike, and I have to say I’ve enjoyed it as much as them.”

The Children’s History of Sunderland is one of five books produced by former teacher Keith, who lives in Ashbrooke, over the past few months.

Published just before Christmas by Bath-based firm Hometown World, it sold out at local bookshops several times over the festive period – and proved an instant hit on the internet too.

“I received a phone call out of the blue from the publishers, asking if I was interested in writing a book for children on Sunderland’s history. I told them yes, I’d be delighted,” said Keith.

“It proved a bit of a challenge, as there was just so much history to fit in. The city of Sunderland is such a diverse place, with so many areas of historical interest such as Houghton and Washington.

“But I just thought it was important to write something like this. Not many children really know how Sunderland ‘came to be,’ and it was a chance to explain all about its origins and other history.”

Keith’s book starts with a look at Roman Sunderland, when a fort and dam may have been built near the River Wear, then moves on to articles on Saxon times and the Venerable Bede.

Tales of Vikings, the growth of Sunderland from fishing village to cosmopolitan city, the Civil War, sea battles, mines, shipyards, salt making, sport and war are all included too.

“I’ve been amazed, and delighted, with the book’s reception. It seems to be flying off the shelves so far, which really proves just how popular local history is now,” said Keith.

“I think the idea is that people can learn about national history through local history. National history is ‘just a lot of local history put together,’ as I was once told at university.”

Keith’s greatest concern while writing his Children’s History was not the struggle of compressing hundreds of years of history into just a few pages, but making a mistake while doing it.

Indeed, he even roped in several Wearside historians to cast a critical eye over the final draft copy, before eventually allowing the book to be published.

“It’s just so easy to make a mistake, and I couldn’t let that happen,” he said. “When you are writing for school children you need to ensure the details are correct. That is very, very important.

“I think a lot of history is about having a picture in your mind about what happened and, of course, that has to be the right picture. Thankfully, the children who have read it seem to have enjoyed it.”

Keith is now looking to the future and the publication of another Children’s History, this time about Northumberland, as well as a book on sporting ancestors – timed to coincide with the Olympics.

“It took me several months to write the Sunderland history book,” he said. “The Local Studies Library in Sunderland proved invaluable with my research over that time.

“Having worked as a teacher for 30-odd years, I knew what to look for in drawing up an interesting and enjoyable lesson. I then employed these tactics when writing the book.

“Anything that can give people an overview of Sunderland’s history is valuable, I believe. The shipyards, mines and other parts of the city’s history should never be forgotten.”

* The Children’s History of Sunderland is available from Waterstones in The Bridges at £4.99. It is also available on-line at varying prices.