Remembering Sunderland’s seaside in the 1980s

Wave dodging at Roker
Wave dodging at Roker
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THE changing face of Sunderland is the focus of a new book of old photographs.

Wearsider George Plemper snapped seaside views and street scenes during visits home while working as a teacher in London more than 30 years ago.

Now a collection of his work, featuring long-gone scenes such as Roker Park, are featured in new book Sunderland and South Shields in the 1980s.

“I have to admit that the 1980s don’t really seem that long ago to me, but most of the places shown have changed – or disappeared,” said George.

“I used to visit Seaburn and Roker as a kid and loved the seafront and the fair. But by the 1980s, things were running down – as my photos show.”

George, son of Liverpool House upholsterer George Plemper and his wife Ella, was born at Sunderland General in 1950 and grew up in Castletown.

After studying sciences at Ryhope Secondary Modern, the teenager took a job as a lab assistant at ICI in Billingham, hoping to become a chemist.

Instead, he ended up with a degree in science from Surrey University, and then trained as a teacher at Goldsmith College in London in 1973.

“I returned to Sunderland for Christmas that year, after getting my first teaching job in Kent, and that’s when I bought my first camera,” he said.

“I still remember standing outside Dixon’s wearing my Sunderland AFC scarf, looking at the cameras. Then I went inside and bought a Chinon for £79.

“That was a lot of money in those days. It marked the start of a life-long interest in documentary photography – focusing on people and places.”

Photographic portraits of pupils at his school on the Isle of Sheppey formed the basis of his first foray into photography – with great results.

“People started saying that they liked the photos and that there were just something about them,” he said.

“So I kept on taking more and more.

“After moving to a new school in Thamesmead, I used photography as a way of building up the self-esteem of pupils, and it really seemed to work.

“Years later, in 2008, the photographs were included in the BBC4 documentary The Great Estate, a programme about the history of council housing.”

Although George eventually left teaching for a new career in industry, his interest in photography never wavered and his trips up north continued.

“Each summer and winter I would return to Sunderland to photograph the town and area; the bulk of the pictures being taken in the 1980s,” he said.

“But the need to earn a living meant I had to give up my hope of producing a social documentary of Britain and I ended up storing the photos away.”

The advent of the digital age was, however, to change George’s interest in photography forever.

“It meant I was able to scan my photos and put them on the internet via Flickr in 2007. The interest in the pictures has been remarkable,” he said.

“They have received over two million views and attracted positive comments from people from all over the world – bringing back memories for many.

“My photos were taken at the dawn of the Thatcher era and, while some streets haven’t changed much, the industries – and Roker Park – are all gone.”

Such is the continued interest in George’s photos that Cafe Royal Books is to publish four volumes of his work, the first featuring bygone Wearside.

The paperback volume includes 18 double-page images of the Sunderland area, including the docks, funfair, Millfield, Hylton Castle and Marsden Rock.

“One of my biggest regrets is that I didn’t take more photos of the town, as so much has disappeared – like the Town Hall and ropeworks,” he said.

“But the photos I did take show just how much Sunderland has changed, even in recent years.

“I hope they bring back many happy memories for readers.”

l Sunderland and South Shields in the 1980s, by George Plemper, is published at £7. It can be bought via the website