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History – not such a thing of the past

Delving into our past has never been more popular than at present – so much so, that a local history book first printed two decades ago is being republished.

A book on the history of Southwick proved a surprise hit back in 1985 – a surprise, that is, to its author Peter Gibson.

"I don't kid myself it was my writing that was popular, it is just that the subject had never been covered before," he says modestly.

"But people really did seem to like it. I got bombarded with new information after that, which I used to write another four books!"

Indeed, such was the popularity of Southwick-on-Wear, An Illustrated History, that the first print run of 1,000 copies sold out within six weeks.

Another 2,000 were sold between 1985 and 1998, but the book has been out of print for the last 10 years – until now.

"I just thought the time was right to re-publish it," said Peter. "I don't think local history it has ever been so popular as it is now.

"There is also a new generation of readers coming up now, as well as a lot of exciting things happenings in Southwick."

Working nightshift at Austin and Pickersgill was what first prompted Peter, who grew up in Southwick, to explore the history of his area.

Peter, a welder, needed something to ease the boredom of his breaks, and decided to pass the time with a history book about Southwick.

"I can't explain how amazed I was when I found there were no books written on Southwick," he recalled. "There was absolutely nothing.

"I had so many questions, like why was The Green called The Green and why did the war memorial only have First World War names on it?

"It was only when one librarian finally told me that 'no-one has got around to writing one yet' that I decided to do something myself."

Peter had little experience of writing or historical research, having left school at 15, but he was fired up with enthusiasm for the project.

And the next few years saw his break-times pass in a whirl of fact-finding, as he pulled together long-forgotten details and memories.

"It was obvious, when I started doing the research, that The Green was called The Green as it used to be a village green," he said.

"The reason for the memorial names soon became clear, too. Southwick was independent in the First World War, and so honoured its own war dead.

"But, by the Second World War, Southwick was part of Sunderland, so our fallen heroes were marked by a memorial in the town instead."

Historian and Brain of Britain winner Tom Corfe, author of A History of Sunderland, helped mentor Peter in the early days of the project.

Once the first draft of the manuscript was finished, Tom edited it for Peter and provided help and guidance on taking the project forward.

"He really took me under his wing," said Peter. "Through his excellent suggestions, I learned to write more simply and communicate better."

Peter found the experience of writing a book so educational that, when the shipyards closed, he signed up for a degree in design and technology.

Today he works for Sunderland Museums, where he is constantly surrounded by history, but has no plans for a new book – at least not yet.

"I suppose you should never say never, but I've spent so much of my time on these books. They have taken up a big chunk of my life," he said. "But Southwick really does have a fascinating history. The variety of subjects is never ending and there is just so much out there still."

* Southwick-on-Wear, An Illustrated History by Peter Gibson is available from Sunderland Museum at 4.99. It can also be ordered directly from Peter on 548 3228.

Quarries and glassmaking thrived in Southwick

The lime trade was one of the earliest industries in Southwick, due to the abundance of magnesium limestone surrounding the area.

This was exploited from early times, but it wasn't until the 17th century that production was significantly stepped up and large quarries built.

"According to the 1746 map of the Grey estate, it is apparent Thomas Brunton was working quarries to the north of The Green," said Peter.

Wagonways were built to serve the lime trade and several early Southwick streets owed their shape to these railway tracks.

"Malaburn Terrace and the back of Grey Street, which was demolished in the 1960s, were built along the tracks," said Peter.

Glassmaking was established in Southwick in 1698, with the opening of Suddick Glasshouse. This produced glass until about 1740-50.

Other local glass firms included Wearmouth Crown Glassworks, which

opened in 1786, but fell foul of the recession of the 1880s.

Following its closure, the offices were converted into an isolation hospital for infectious diseases – but this was to prompt an outcry.

It was in 1901 that Southwick Authority discovered its patients were brewing up ginger beer in hospital, and selling it to shipyard workers.

"This practice of selling typhoid fever in a bottle must stop!" an exasperated councillor named Peter Inglis announced.

Southwick Bottleworks, which opened in 1846, was another industrial mainstay, with dozens of houses built to accommodate workers.

It survived into the 20th century, despite recessions and lay-offs, but eventually closed in about 1917, during the First World War.

The most successful industry, however, was shipbuilding.

"Henry Debord was registered as Southwick's first shipbuilder," said Peter. "The Customs Records show he built here from 1785 to 1797.

"Nevertheless, it is highly probable that ships were launched at Southwick earlier than this."

Eccentric characters in Southwick pubs

The public houses of Southwick in bygone days get a chapter of their own, from The Mill House Inn to The Alexandra.

"Many of us remember The Smiths, Auld Mill, The Welly, The Alex and The Banks of the Wear," he said.

"Older generations may recall with nostalgia the numerous bars of Low Southwick, and the eccentricities of some of the characters of frequented them."

The number of pubs and beer houses in Southwick increased at the same dramatic rate as its population in the 19th century – with 26 available in the 1890s.

Many, such as The Wellington tavern and The Alexandra, were demolished in the 1960s, but the Tram Car Inn, with its ornate frontage, is still serving pints on The Green.

The village green at Southwick was the site of the original farming village and, although it still remains today, a great many changes have taken place around it.

Originally surrounded by farmworkers' cottages, it later became the site of much grander homes for many of Southwick's new industrialists.

It can't, however, have appeared too smart in 1872, as the Bishop of Durham is said to have inquired: "What is that place like a dung heap in the centre of the village?"

By the turn of the 20th century, The Green had become so derelict that large dust clouds blew around the area in the summer months.

So great was the problem that, in 1909, it was proposed it should be tarred over. This was only rejected by the casting vote of Southwick Council chairman, John Priestman.

Another cause of annoyance for villagers was the regular appearance of travelling showmen, who would set up their stands on The Green and hawk their wares.

But these problems ended in 1912, when the council took over the site and the sons of shipbuilder Robert Thompson paid to have it laid out as a memorial to their father.

Southwick sent away 3,000 of its men to fight in the First World War, of which almost 1,000 were never to return home.

The famous battles and campaigns of The Somme, Ypres, Passchendaele, Gallipoli and the Dardanelles all saw Southwick men fight – and die – for their country.

Peter's book features personal memories of the Great War, including letters from soldiers and diary extracts, as well as a general description of life on the Home Front.

He has also included details of a terrible plane crash near The Green in 1917, in which five people died and many more were injured.

And the post-war suffering of Southwick folk is documented too, when The Echo ran stories of "Bairns in Need" as shipyards closed and industries ground to a halt.

"These were years of deep distress for many Southwick families," said Peter.

* Southwick was a farming hamlet of no more than 50 residents in the 17th century, but had grown to a small town of 13,784 by 1911.

* Dozens of shipbuilders set up shop at Southwick from the 18th century, including two women in 1842.

* The "studied ignorance of mothers" was blamed for the high infant death rate in 1903 by Dr J.J. Carruthers, the Southwick Medical Officer.

* Southwick Council requested the removal of "dangerous" trams from The Green several times, including in 1914, after a little girl was killed.

* Southwick Mill was demolished in 1879 and Gordon Terrace built on the site. Mill View cottage in Thompson Road, built in 1874, would have taken its name from the mill.

* The Wesleyans arrived in Southwick in 1822 and worshipped in a converted house on The Green until a chapel was built in 1865.