Old Sunderland in the spotlight in new book

The carpark at Roker Park circa 1920.
The carpark at Roker Park circa 1920.
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Fresh light has been shed on Wearsiders’ struggle to survive and thrive between the wars.

Hopes of happier times followed the end of the Great War but, as new book Sunderland in the Roaring Twenties and Troubled Thirties reveals, nothing proved easy.

Sunderland East End market in 1930.

Sunderland East End market in 1930.

“People looked forward to a prosperous peace, however the inter-war period saw traditional industries suffer a fall in demand,” said author Trevor Thorne.

“For those in employment it was an era of widening leisure opportunities, including access to improved housing and an increasing range of consumer goods.

“But for those left jobless in the Great Depression it was a case of just trying to survive – often while living in some of the worst housing in the country.”

One of the first changes to hit Sunderland after the war involved fashion, with dreary Edwardian dresses being switched for Cloche flapper hats and high heels.

All aboard for Blacks Theatre in Crowtree Road in the 1920s.

All aboard for Blacks Theatre in Crowtree Road in the 1920s.

A new Art Deco building style proved popular in the town too, with inter-war examples including the plush Ritz cinema, Ryhope Road Synagogue and the Eye Infirmary.

But the first signs of trouble appeared just two years after the war ended, when shipyard owners tried to reduce wages to gain orders – sparking a strike.

“By 1923 there were 14,000 unemployed, rising to 19,000 by 1925, half of them shipyard workers,” said Trevor, a director of TTR Barnes Chartered Accountants.

“The recession worsened in 1925-26 with yards such as Sunderland Shipbuilding Company passing out of existence, and Doxfords having no launches at all in 1925.”

By the time 1930 arrived, the recession had become a depression – hitting Sunderland hard.

Most of the yards were idle and unemployment reached 29,071.

Other industries to suffer during the depression included mining and glass-making – although Pyrex bucked the trend to expand twice in the inter-war years.

And, as more and more people fell on hard times, so unrest and riots soared – eventually prompting the introduction of the UK’s first police boxes in 1923.

“The chief constable, FJ Crawley, introduced the boxes to reduce time wasted by officers on duty returning to their station for meal breaks,” said Trevor.

Sport, however, was one topic which united rich and poor.

Thousands followed the fortunes of Sunderland, while others were die-hard boxing, tennis or golf fans.

Politics proved a hot topic too, with Sunderland’s first female MP – suffragette Marion Phillips – being elected as a Labour representative for the town in 1929.

And leisure activities such as cinema and theatre trips were enjoyed by thousands, with stars such as Will Hay and George Formby treading the boards in town.

Beauty pageants, marching bands, carnivals and regattas helped keep Wearsiders entertained as well and, from the mid-1930s, the illuminations were introduced.

“Sunderland made its first application to be a city in 1932, when it was thought status and profile would be given a boost in times of difficulty,” said Trevor.

“The application was unfortunately unsuccessful, and it would be another 60 years before city status was eventually granted.”

Other things to change during the inter-war years included a move from trams to buses, the rebuilding of Wearmouth Bridge and creation of the Deep Water Quay.

And, while many businesses struggled to find work between the wars, firms such as Binns, Ford Paper Mills and Vaux Breweries thrived against the odds.

“During the inter-war period there were never less than one million people unemployed, but at the same time one million new cars were purchased,” said Trevor.

“The immediately recognisable images of the 1920s and 30s include distinctive fashions at one end of the scale, and hunger marches at the other.

“My book attempts to show in more detail the events that took place on Wearside during this often ignored period of its history.”

l Sunderland in the Roaring Twenties and Troubled Thirties 1919-1939, by Trevor Thorne, is available for £9.99 from Waterstones, Sunderland Museum and Sunderland Antiquarian Society.