Wearside Echoes: Memories of Sunderland’s bygone farms

OLD SCENE: The farmhouse of North Hall farm, where John Surtees was born. Demolished in the 1950s.
OLD SCENE: The farmhouse of North Hall farm, where John Surtees was born. Demolished in the 1950s.
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A WEARSIDE Echoes competition has ploughed up years of happy memories for retired mechanic John Surtees.

Readers were asked to guess where this mystery photo was taken – sparking scores of answers including Durham Road, Ryhope Road, Seaburn and Seaham.

But John was spot on with his winning entry of “new” Chester Road, now known as The Broadway – and even pointed out the Grindon Mill pub in the distance.

“At the right of the photo, between the wiper blade and steering wheel, is a farmhouse. This farm was called North Hall, and the farmhouse was where I was born,” he said.

“To the left of the road is a cow field. In this field you can see a number of wooden bungalows, where farmworkers lived. My parents lived in one when they first got married.

“Years ago Chester Road used to run up Nookside, past where the Wavendon pub is now and across fields. It followed an old waggonway to Newbottle, not the route you see today.”

Farming ran in the blood for John, whose grandfather John George Dunn was hailed as “one of Sunderland’s best-known farm managers” following his death at 96 in 1976.

John senior had been born into a farming family in Cassop during the 1880s, later moving to Sunderland as a young man and finding work on farms across Wearside.

“He had a job at The Bents farm at Whitburn for a while, and another at Boldon before serving as farm manager for Springwell Farm between 1928 and 1936,” said John.

“By the mid-1930s, though, the council was starting to prepare the land for the new Springwell estate, by putting in roads, and I think my grandfather moved because of this.”

John’s next, and final, farming port of call was North Hall Farm – with his new home standing near the junction of Holborn Road and The Broadway.

“I remember the farmhouse as a huge old building, so big that it was divided into two,” said John. “My grandparents lived in one part of the house and my uncle in the other.

“But, although my parents stayed in a farmworkers bungalow at North Hall when they first married, they were actually working on a farm at Durham by the time I was due to be born.

“My mother, Sarah, returned to North Hall to have me, and I was born during an air raid on April 8, 1941. The nearest bombs dropped near the hospital – so I was lucky she didn’t go there!”

John and his parents returned to North Hall just two years later, to help out with the land.

“There was quite a lot of land, as you can see on that picture,” he said. “My grandfather used horses to plough these fields in the early days, and was a champion ploughman for the Northern Counties.

“My dad, Walter, used a tractor when he took over the farm after grandfather retired in 1945. I absolutely loved that tractor – anything mechanical fascinated me as a child.

“I remember hitching rides on it when I was about three, when I’d just fall asleep sitting there. Later, when I was about 11, I was allowed to drive it – which was great fun.”

John’s farming childhood finally came to an end at 16, when North Hall farmhouse was demolished and the land turned over to further housing developments.

The Surtees family – who for generations had farmed the land of Sunderland and County Durham – ended up in a council house in Farringdon with just a small garden to look after.

“I tried my hand at farming for a while, although I really wanted to be an agricultural engineer,” said John. “But there were just no jobs in Sunderland.”

He went on to work as a motor mechanic, vending machine service engineer and delivery driver but, despite the passing of several decades, has never forgotten the joy of farming.

“Everything has changed since those days, and I still miss it,” said John, who now lives in Castletown. “I loved the freedom of taking the tractor out for a drive across the fields.

“All the old farms are mostly gone now, and new houses stand in their place.

“Those homes were badly needed for the men returning home from the war – but I do miss that old countryside feel.”

l Do you have memories of bygone Sunderland? Write to Sarah Stoner, Sunderland Echo, Pennywell, Sunderland SR4 9ER or email sarah.stoner@northeast-press.co.uk