Gruesome story behind the name of the Cat and Dog Steps – and the doomed rose garden nearby

For as long as anyone can remember, the Cat and Dog Steps which intersect the cliff at Roker have been a popular destination for Wearsiders on sunnier days.

Monday, 5th July 2021, 10:21 am

Sunderland’s glitterati can often be seen disporting themselves at the bottom of the steps, which lead to a magnificent sandy beach. But what a peculiar name.

We should say at the outset, no one knows with absolute certainty why the 49 winding steps were so called. However, there is a favourite among the possibilities.

Unfortunately it’s not a remotely appealing tale. Nor does it, as might be hoped, involve some charming Doctor Dolittle or James Herriot figure. It’s actually rather gruesome.

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What a peculiar name.
What a peculiar name.

It has been claimed, somewhat optimistically, that “cat and dog” is a 19th Century corruption of “cannonball” rocks; the near-spherical limestone shapes found nearby.

Unlikely. Our ancestors were perfectly capable of uttering the simple word “cannonball”, without resorting to some other phrase which is neither easier to say nor particularly similar sounding.

A second suggestion is that it was a convenient spot for drowning unwanted pets. In fairness, pets might have been unwanted because they were seriously ill or injured when “veterinary arts” were simply unaffordable.

This horrendous explanation doesn’t sound likely either. Why would the site be any more suitable for this grim purpose than other locations along Sunderland’s coast? Or any other local body of water?

The Cat and Dog Steps before the promenade was built. Image, Sunderland Antiquarians.

Nevertheless, this is very close to what is generally supposed to be the real reason why the steps got their name.

When we say very close, we mean that pet owners were depositing their expired or sick pets into the River Wear, rather than directly into the North Sea. It may well be that the corpses were washed up at what we now call the Cat and Dog Steps.

This conjures up an appalling image of canine and kitty carnage there. But like many good stories it probably got better with every telling.

Roker has had a south pier since 1730 (not the current one); a north pier since 1796. Therefore, while the occasional deceased cat or dog could credibly have washed up there in the 19th Century, there surely can’t have been the hordes as supposed by what became mythology.

The Cat and Dog Steps in 2021.

We know how these things work. It would only take one person to see a single cat and dog there, then tell everyone in the pub. The story subsequently makes its own way in life and one unpleasant, but not necessarily traumatic discovery becomes a tale of mass slaughter.

Incidentally, have you ever wondered why the section of promenade beside the Cat and Dog Steps, where the wonderful Hideout coffee house now stands, is so much wider than the rest of it?

In 1911 Sunderland Corporation decided to build a rose garden there. Lovely, but a silly idea. The trouble was that those making the decision seemingly didn’t notice the North Sea, the adjacent half-million square kilometre expanse of water.

The flowers didn’t stand a chance. The sea (then called the German Ocean before a name change for obvious reasons in 1914) soon exterminated the flora. Within two years the site was cleared, leaving the extra space for a stroll that we enjoy today.

Probably taken in the early 20th century, it's hard to imagine how this woman carrying the child could be more impractically dressed. Image, Sunderland Antiquarians.

The whole promenade was completed in 1922.

* Many thanks to Philip Curtis of Sunderland Antiquarians

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It seems a nickname became the official name.
The ill-fated rose garden when it first opened in 1911. Image, Sunderland Antiquarians.
The site of the short-lived rose garden today.
Allegedly a popular spot for drowning pets. Image, Sunderland Antiquarians.