Charting 2,000 years of Sunderland’s history

The building of the Queen Alexandra Bridge.
The building of the Queen Alexandra Bridge.
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A NEW book is shining the spotlight on key events which helped shape Wearside’s history.

A NEW book is shining the spotlight on key events which helped shape Wearside’s history.

Sunderland has a rich history, and I’ve tried to feature a mix of social, criminal, industrial and sporting events.

Robert Woodhouse

Sunderland in 100 Dates, by retired teacher Robert Woodhouse, features important, quirky, amusing and even eccentric facts from the city’s history over the past 2,000 years.

Hundreds of snippets of information - gleaned from old newspapers, archives and books - are featured within the 124-page volume, together with several illustrations and cartoons.

“I’m hoping it will keep people both entertained and informed,” said Bob. “Sunderland has a rich history, and I’ve tried to feature a mix of social, criminal, industrial and sporting events.

“I’ve embraced the unexpected, highlighted the genius of people such as inventor Joseph Swan and picked out key dates which tell the story of the city - from football to science.”

Hunter-gatherers made Sunderland their home as far back as prehistoric times, but the earliest recorded history dates to 674 AD - when Benedict Biscop constructed a monastery.

St Peter’s, at Monkwearmouth, quickly developed a reputation for scholarship, with the Venerable Bede - today known as “The Father of English history” - among its students.

Further developments followed around a decade after the monastery was established, when Biscop was granted more land - this time on the southern bank, where a township grew up.

But, as the communities were split “a sunder” by the River Wear, it has been argued by historians that the division lead to the name “Sundered-Land” - later shorted to Sunderland.

The next few centuries brought two attacks by the Vikings, one by the Scots and the discovery of “black diamonds” - with coal being shipped down the Wear by the 1300s.

Ships were being built by the 1370s as well and, in 1589, businessman Robert Bowes formed a partnership with a Norfolk merchant to invest £4,000 in building ten salt pans.

“The early decades of the 17th century saw an increase in coal exports, which reached 80,000 tons a year by the outbreak of the Civil War in 1642,” said Bob.

“And, in the late 18th century, an increasing amount of Sunderland’s coal was transported in locally built ships - with industrial growth spreading to Monkwearmouth and Southwick.”

As Sunderland’s industry boomed, so did its population. By 1801, more than 12,000 people called the town home - a number which soon swelled as new shipyards and pits opened.

Just a few decades later Sunderland became Britain’s leading producer of wooden ships and, at the turn of the 20th century, more than 20,000 men were employed in its many shipyards.

“Other industries to prosper included rope-making, pottery and glass-making, while the firm founded by Cuthbert Vaux rapidly became Britain’s second largest brewery,” said Bob.

“The growing importance of Sunderland as an urban industrial centre was acknowledged by the grant of county borough status in 1888, but the 20th century brought economic decline.

“By the 1930s, 29,000 men were unemployed - a high percentage being shipyard workers.

“The industry then declined, until 1988 - when the last Wear-based yard stopped trading.

“Rope-making had already ended, the closure of Wearmouth pit saw coal exports cease and the closure of Vaux marked the end of Sunderland’s dependence on traditional industries.”

The future, however, was not all bleak. The 1980s brought Nissan to Wearside, a developing university and a range of thriving small businesses - while city status was granted in 1992.

“This transition is perhaps best reflected in the construction of the National Glass Centre and, on the site of Wearmouth Colliery, the building of the Stadium of Light,” said Bob.

“I have included all these things, and many more, in my book. It took me about six months to write and research it, and I hope people find it of both practical use - and entertaining.”

l Sunderland in 100 Dates, by Robert Woodhouse, is published by the History Press at £7.99. It is available at Waterstones and Amazon.