10 bizarre facts you might not know about Sunderland

Dating as far back 1179, Sunderland is a city with a long and interesting history.

Friday, 27th October 2017, 10:05 am
Updated Tuesday, 12th December 2017, 11:45 am
Inside St Peter's.

Some of these bizarre facts about the North-East city might just surprise you.

Sunderland has presidential connections

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Sign up to our daily newsletter

The i newsletter cut through the noise

The first President of the United States, George Washington, had ancestral connections to Sunderland. Several generations of his family lived at Washington Old Hall on the outskirts of the city. The Washington family crest, which features red and white stripes and three red stars, is thought to have inspired The Stars and Stripes.

In 2006, Sunderland and Washington D.C. signed a Friendship Agreement to mark the unique historical connection between the two cities.

Sunderland also has another bizarre presidential link. On the night President Abraham Lincoln was assassinated at the theatre, he was watching Our American Cousin, a play written by Sunderland-born Tom Taylor.

It’s home to the first municipally funded museum outside of London

Washington Old Hall.

When it was founded in 1846, the Sunderland Museum and Winter Garden was the first municipally funded museum to open in the UK, outside of London. One of the museum’s early acquisitions was a painting of the new South Dock, commissioned by the Sunderland Corporation in 1850. It’s thought that this is one of the first examples of a town council commissioning a piece of fine art.

The Sunderland Museum remains one of the most popular museums in the UK. It’s also home to the only known British example of a gliding reptile (the oldest known vertebrate capable of gliding flight), which was discovered in the nearby Eppleton Quarry.

A Sunderland footballer was banned from going to space

When Sunderland signed Swedish footballer Stefan Schwarz in 1999, they included a bizarre ‘Space Clause’ in his contract. Schwarz was known to have an interest in space travel, and it was reported that one of his advisors had secured tickets for the first passenger space flight, due to take off in 2002.

An image of the Victoria Hall disaster.

Worried about safety and performance, the club banned Schwarz from travelling into space, and warned that doing so would result in the immediate termination of his contract. Schwarz ended up retiring in 2002, before any potential space flights became a reality.

The first stained glass in England was made here

England’s first ever stained glass window was made in Sunderland for St Peter’s Church in 674 AD. According to historical sources, the Abbot of Monkwearmouth travelled to Gaul, on the Continent, to find glaziers who could teach the technique to the English.

Although the original windows are no longer in one piece, fragments of the stained glass can still be seen at St Peter’s Church, as well as the Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens and the National Glass Centre.


Sunderland was home to an infamous female serial killer

Born in Low Moorsley in 1832, Mary Ann Cotton was a serial killer who was thought to have murdered around 21 people, including three of her husbands and 11 children. She took out life insurance policies on her family members, before poisoning them with arsenic and collecting the insurance pay-outs.

She was only tried for one murder (of her stepson Charles Edward Cotton) but people were very suspicious about the high number of mysterious illnesses in her family. She was found guilty by a jury in less than 90 minutes, and was hanged at Durham County Gaol in 1873.

Alice in Wonderland was inspired by Sunderland

Lewis Carroll’s sisters, Elizabeth and Mary, lived in the Southwick area of the city and the author often came to visit them. It’s claimed that Carroll found lots of inspiration for his tales in the North East - including Alice in Wonderland - and he also wrote extensively while staying with his family.

Apparently Jabberwocky, the famous nonsense poem, was written after a family verse-making game at Whitburn, and The Walrus and the Carpenter was dreamed up after Carroll spotted a stuffed walrus at the Sunderland Museum.

Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens.

Sunderland is not in the Domesday Book

The famous Domesday Book, a historical survey of England and Wales dating back to 1086, does not include Sunderland, despite settlements here dating back to at least the 670s. Much of the North East was missed out of the Domesday survey because it was classed as a ‘wasteland’ due to William the Conqueror not taking control of the area.

Instead, information about Sunderland and many other North East towns is recorded in the lesser-known Boldon Book of 1183. This was around the same time that the village of Sunderland was granted a royal charter, making it an official settlement, in 1179.

It was one of the UK’s most-bombed cities during the Blitz

Thanks to Sunderland’s reputation as one of the biggest and busiest shipbuilding ports in the UK, it became a prime target during World War Two. The shipyards produced approximately a quarter of all the UK’s tonnage of ships during the war.

Sunderland became the seventh most bombed town in the country, and 267 civilians lost their lives during the war. Several thousand homes were destroyed, as were around 90 per cent of the town’s municipal buildings.

The Victoria Hall Disaster was the worst of its kind in UK history

After a show at the Victoria Hall in 1883, prizes were being handed out to audience members as they exited the venue. Over 1,000 children rushed towards the staircase, but the door at the bottom (which opened inwards) had been bolted to allow only one person through at a time. In the rush, children became trapped and were crushed under the weight of people continuing to pile down the staircase.

183 children, between the ages of three and 14, were killed by compressive asphyxia. As a result of the tragedy, emergency exits are now always built to open outwards so they can easily be opened if there is a crowd behind the door.

The first Japanese car factory in Europe was opened here

In 1986, Japanese car makers Nissan opened a factory in Sunderland - but what you may not know is that it was the first Japanese car factory to be opened in the whole of Europe. The 799 acre site was previously used as the Usworth Aerodrome.

The factory currently employs around 6,700 people, and it remains one of the most productive car plants in Europe.

Washington Old Hall.
An image of the Victoria Hall disaster.