How Sunderland could have looked – and it’s very different

The ferry landing at South Hylton in 1936.
The ferry landing at South Hylton in 1936.
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Most of the wonderful buildings and public spaces in Sunderland came about because town planners chose one design above dozens of others.

A look through the archives at the Sunderland Antiquarian Society gives a tantalising taste of what the town would have been like if some of the other designs had been accepted.

The original plans for a swing bridge.

The original plans for a swing bridge.

Norman Kirtlan, from the Society, explains more.

Mowbray Park is a tribute to what Victorians did best – build grand designs on a massive scale for public good.

The original park sited around Building Hill, was built as a result of concerns about the health of local people.

A few years earlier, the cholera epidemic had spread like wildfire around the crowded and insanitary slums huddled along the river. What was needed was fresh air and lots of it.

Most of the wonderful buildings and public spaces in Sunderland came about because town planners chose one design above dozens of others.

Norman Kirtlan

Ordinary people rarely ventured out of their airless surroundings and local politicians were concerned that the crowded slums were breeding grounds for disease.

Strangely, the long stretches of sandy beaches and cliff top walks that were less than five minutes away from the old East End were rarely used by those who would benefit most.

A new public park, it was thought, would be just the ticket for getting people into the fresh air.

In the 1860s, land between Borough Road and the railway line was bought from the Mowbray family for a few thousand pounds. Plans were invited from designers and architects for a grand design befitting Sunderland’s new public park.

How Mowbray Park could have looked.

How Mowbray Park could have looked.

One young designer, believed to be William Dixon, slogged away at his drawing board for two years between 1862 and 1864, churning out dozens of proposals.

He even made little jig saw puzzles that he could slot in and out of the master plan in order to see which looked best – and all of his plans survive.

If the designer’s plans had been accepted, the grandest of them would have seen visitors to the town arriving at the old railway station (near to the present Civic Centre) and stepping straight out into Mowbray Park.

From a huge paved square, footpaths and tree-lined avenues would have taken the visitor through formal gardens into any part of the town that they desired.

Although the plan didn’t feature a lake, there were water fountains in the centre of each of the many paved roundabouts that would have been a feature.

But the plans would have been spectacularly scuppered if they had been accepted, as the town’s railway station was soon to be moved from the Burdon Road site, up into its present spot in the heart of town.

And as the original plan was to encompass all of the land between Toward Road and Park Lane, that would have meant that half of his park would have ended up as ballast.

Grand designs aside, a walk around Mowbray Park shows Victorian planners knew a thing or two.

When it was opened in 1866, a procession of councillors, soldiers and 1700 children took part in the ceremony.

Industry and commerce ground to a very temporary halt as townsfolk were granted a half days holiday to witness the spectacle.

Almost sixty years later, along at South Hylton, another plan came to light that would have seen Sunderland emulating its neighbour up north for moving architectural features! Yes, Sunderland nearly had its own swing bridge over the Wear.

Today, the building of the new bridge across the Wear gathers pace. Back in 1924, a steady increase in road traffic meant that getting across the river involved huge detours if you didn’t live near the two bridges situated at Wearmouth and Southwick.

Plans were duly offered to the Sunderland Rural District Council for a swing bridge that was to be built over the ancient ferry and ford near to the Golden Lion Pub at South Hylton..

Equipped with electric lights and a huge hydraulic motor that would have operated a mechanism allowing river traffic to sail past unhindered, the bridge would indeed have been a boon for travellers of the day.

Whatever the reasons that the council put forward for turning down the plans, it was to be a long time before the poor old South Hylton motorist could drive his Bull-Nosed Morris Cowley directly to the lesser-known city up north.