Reminiscing on whale sausages and concrete castles in Sunderland

The concrete castles.
The concrete castles.
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If it’s old stories of Wearside you’re after, a new book has them by the dozen.

Alan Brett’s latest offering looks at everything from the days of the tiger moth flying over Sunderland on air days, to the time when the city had more than 100 fish and chip shops.

The cover of the new book.

The cover of the new book.

It looks at the time when concrete castles abounded.

Although they were demolished almost half a century ago, older residents of Hendon will remember the Concrete Castles which could be found in Spelter Works Road.

They were not the residences of princes or wealthy landowners but a pioneering experiment in the use of a new building material.

That material was used to build workers’ houses in 1875.

A Sunderland-born Australian wrestler, a local lady who became a Tiller Girl, a footballer who was named after a war hero who became a war hero himself and find out why a 64-year- old zither player was all the rage at the Rink in 1950.

Alan Brett

And although they underwent a series of extraordinary fire tests before they were occupied, for those living in the castles, the problem was dampness and rain seeping through the flat roof.

This story and many others are featured in Canny Old Sunderland Revisited which is the work of Alan Brett, and is the latest book from Black Cat Publications.

Today, we look at some of the other worthy tales which fill the pages of Canny Old Sunderland.

l One concerns a Sunderland man who was determined to give evidence at the Nuremberg Trials which happened at the end of the Second World War.

Soldiers were recruited by the thousand.

Soldiers were recruited by the thousand.

After being captured at Tobruk, tank driver Frederick Davison spent time in Italian and German prisoner of war camps before ending up in Auschwitz.

His experiences in the concentration camp made him determined to see those responsible being brought to face justice.

That time came in 1947 when he went into the witness box at the trial of managers of the chemical firm who operated a factory in Auschwitz.

Find out more in the new book.

l In 1959, Breeda Sheehan closed the last clog-making shop in Sunderland.

It brought to an end almost a century of her family’s shoemaking business in the town.

Clogs for workers and dancers had been first made by her grandfather, John Conrad Sheehan, when he came to Sunderland from Ireland in the 1860s.

His sons followed him into the trade and one of them, John Patrick, taught his daughter, Breeda, to become a clogger.

The book tells much more about Breeda and her skills.

l When the First World War began in 1914, Sunderland already had a Territorial unit of the Durham Light Infantry based in the town.

Soon, local men volunteered in great numbers. A month after war was declared 13,000 men had enlisted at recruiting stations set up at Havelock House and the County Court.

l Before air shows attracted huge crowds to the seafront at Roker and Seaburn, Air Days were held inland at Sunderland Airport (it’s where Nissan is today).

In 1969, spectators were entertained by the RAF Provost formation team, a Tiger Moth and Chipmunk aircraft and the Blue Star free fall parachute team. Canny Old Sunderland tells us more.

l The book also takes a nostalgic look back to the days when crackets (small wooden stools) were present in even the poorest of households.

To the days when trams ran in the streets (on one occasion without a driver) and there were one hundred fish and chip shops in Sunderland.

For those who did not fancy a fish lot, they could have whale sausages or horse flesh in meat roll followed by a dessert of Valente’s ice cream washed down with a glass of zolokone from Powley’s or a bottle of Vaux’s India Pale Ale.

l And to add to all that, there’s plenty of local faces whose tales are highlighted.

Some of the characters featured in Canny Old Sunderland include a Sunderland-born Australian wrestler, and a local lady who became a Tiller Girl.

There’s the story of a footballer who was named after a war hero who became a war hero himself. And you can find out why a 64-year-old zither player was all the rage at the Rink in 1950.

Canny Old Sunderland Revisited is available from Waterstone’s, Sunderland Museum, Sunderland Antiquarian Society and online at

The price of it is £4.99.