How Sunderland Illuminations started and why they attracted FOUR MILLION visitors in 1949

Ever wondered how the Sunderland Illuminations started?

Monday, 26th October 2020, 1:43 pm

Here’s how! We have the story of the lights back to the very first year thanks to Philip Curtis of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“Initially the lights were confined to Roker Park with a small charge for entry. A number of the Corporation trams which travelled along the seafront were decorated and lit up.

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Sunderland Illuminations started in 1936.

"The venture proved successful and it was agreed that the illuminations would become an annual event.”

But the hopes were dashed when the Second World War broke out and ‘the blackouts brought an end to the displays,” said Philip.

The lights returned in 1949 for a 30-day season and this time the seafront at Seaburn complemented the display in Roker Park which boasted gondolas, Disney characters as well as wood nymphs and hobgoblins.

“During the first weekend the lights attracted almost 250,000 visitors and, by the end of the four weeks, the number had risen to almost 4 million.”

Preparing the display in 1936.

A land of fairies, gnomes and pixies as well as Marley’s Ghost have all featured in Roker Park and in 1950, the lights extended to include Roker seafront.

By 1951, the season had been extended to six weeks.

In 1952 an exchange scheme between Sunderland, Southend and Morecambe authorities brought a 100-yard long display of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs to Wearside with music from the Walt Disney cartoon film to accompany it.

There was also an Enchanted Garden, Pan and Wood Nymphs and a Fairy Grotto.

Dragons, goblins, pixies and more in this illuminations scene.

But visitor numbers went down and ‘the the novelty seemed to be fading,” said Philip. “This pattern carried on and, over the years following, the rates were increasingly having to subsidise the cost. In addition the local residents were complaining about the late summer invasion of their area.

“The decline in visitors continued and 1959 saw the final display following which the equipment and tableaux were sold off to other resorts.”

It would be almost another 30 years before the illuminations were re-introduced. The Government agreed to help with the cost and, in September 1986, they were back.

Visitors flocked to Roker and Seaburn and the new illuminations proved so successful that, in the following year, Sunderland was awarded a top tourist award.

An illuminated tram in 1949.

But in 1994, the illuminations were cancelled again as the cost was becoming increasingly prohibitive.

There was a return in 1995 thanks to a last-minute subsidy from the European Community as well as traders but this was the end.

In 2012, the lights returned on a smaller scale to Roker Park and these proved so successful that they were gradually extended once again to Roker and Seaburn - the illuminations were back!

Philip gets our thanks yet again for his help on Sunderland history.

To find out more about the history of Sunderland, visit the Antiquarian Society’s Facebook page or its website at

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Sunderland Illuminations in Roker Park in 1952.

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The illuminations in 1952.
A brochure for the 1938 illuminations.