Wearside Echoes: Setting records in Sunderland

FUN TIMES: Roller-skating hockey players a The Rink
FUN TIMES: Roller-skating hockey players a The Rink
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THE tallest, the smallest, the fastest and the oldest – record breakers of all shapes and sizes have made their way to Wearside over the past 100 years.

One of the first to make an appearance in Sunderland was Charles Blondin, who brought his tightrope act to Hendon Valley Gardens in 1861.

“He was the first to walk across Niagra Falls on a wire – a feat he had achieved six years earlier,” said local historian Alan Brett, author of a new book called Sunderland At Work And Play.

The arrival of the Bertram Mills Circus in October 1932 gave townsfolk the chance to see more tightrope walkers, as well as dancing elephants and the world’s oldest man.

Thousands flocked to the Big Top on the Garrison Field to take a peek at Zaro Aga – who, it was claimed, had been born in the Ottoman Empire in the 1780s.

“That made him, allegedly anyway, over 150 years old when he visited Wearside,” said Alan, who provides details of the appearance – and dozens of other stories – in his new book.

The Rink in Holmeside – Wearside’s hugely popular roller rink – was the venue for two attempts at breaking world skating endurance records in the 1930s – with great success.

Billy Wetherall, from Warrington, launched a bid to break his own record on July 10, 1933. Two days later, an attempt on the ladies’ world endurance record got under way too.

Five ladies started out that day – Barbara Watson, Mae Dobbie, Mary Reay, Eleanor Bevan and Sylvia Murray. The first to retire was Sylvia at 17 hours, followed by Eleanor after 25.

“The other three carried on and, at the same time, Wetherall was still on course for setting a new world best. To help them through, the Rink was opened for spectators,” said Alan.

They broke the record on July 14 and Rink manager H. le Mounier wanted them to share the trophy, but the girls wanted to carry on to find a winner.  

Mae, 17, from Annie Street, lasted another hour before retiring from exhaustion.

Three hours later Mary, of Bramwell Street, collapsed and was taken unconscious to hospital. Barbara, of Broadsheath Terrace, went on to skate to new record of 41 hours and 10 minutes.

Despite taking a tumble, Billy Wetherall broke his own record.

The end of the Second World War saw the return of record-breakers to Wearside – with one of the most unusual entertainments provided by a show at the Empire Theatre.

“For a week in February 1949, several ‘Wonders of the World’ appeared at the theatre. These included a giant, wrestling lions and a film star chimpanzee,” said Alan.

“At 9ft 3½ inches the Belgian giant, Fernand Bachelard, was hailed as the tallest man in the world. The 26-year-old took on the role of Atlas during his appearance at the Empire.”

A musical record-breaker thrilled Wearside audiences in 1953 – when Melody Miles Fox broke the non-stop piano-playing record during a visit to the town that summer.

“Starting out on July 30, as a special attraction at the fun fair at Roker Blockyard, the man from Bolton carried on playing for six days,” said Alan.

“Melody Miles overcame stomach cramps, sore hands and a lack of sleep to set a new world record after playing for 133 hours and 17 minutes.”

Wearside man Thomas Reed fell just short in his attempt to break the world sausage-eating record. At Red House Workingmen’s Club on March 11, 1972, he was in the middle of his 22nd two-ounce sausage when his allotted 10 minutes were up – two shy of the record.

In 1980, ex-Sunderland footballer Alan Sproates, who played for SAFC’s youth team before transferring to Swindon in 1963, was coaching at a children’s camp in California when he used his soccer skills to break a record.

“He overcame a bee sting and a bleeding toe to keep a ball up 25,147 times, setting a new record in three hours and 44 minutes before a huge crowd of spectators,” said Alan.

Wearsiders are still setting records today – with former groundsman John Pearson, of Hetton, breaking the world leek record after growing a 20lb 5oz monster earlier this year.

“The saddest Sunderland entry in the Guinness Book of Records, however, relates to the Victoria Hall disaster of June 16, 1883,” said Alan.

“A total of 183 children died on the staircase of the building that day. The tragedy is listed in the record book as the highest number of fatalities caused by panic.”

l Read more about Sunderland’s record-breakers in Alan’s new book, which is published by Black Cat Publications at £9.99. Look out for further stories from the book later this week too.