A History of Sunderland

By Tim Lambert

Sunderland in the Middle Ages

Sunderland was made a town in 1154 when it was granted a charter. (A document granting the townspeople certain rights such as the right to hold a weekly market). Sunderland slowly grew. However, it only had a population of a few hundred in the Middle Ages. It would seem tiny to us but settlements were very small in those days.

Sunderland, like all other towns in Medieval England, suffered severely from the Black Death in 1348-49 when perhaps half the population died but it soon recovered.

By the 14th century, salt was being made in Sunderland. Seawater was heated in iron vats until it evaporated leaving behind the salt. Shipbuilding also began in Sunderland in the 14th century.

Sunderland 1500-1800

However, Sunderland was small and unimportant until the 17th century. In 1565 a writer described Sunderland as ‘a fishing town and landing place which has 30 householders and is governed by Robert Bowes and the Bishop of Durham and ships and boats are loaded and unloaded but there are neither ships nor boats (belonging to the town) and only 7 fish cobbles that belong to the town occupying 20 fishermen. This town is in great decay of buildings and inhabitants’.

Sunderland changed after 1589 when Robert Bowes and John Smith started making salt at Sunderland. The salt was made in iron pans at the place later called Panns Bank. They owned their own coal pit at Offerton. They used poor-quality coal for evaporating seawater. The better quality of coal was exported to London and East Anglia. Bowes Quay was built for this purpose. Soon Sunderland became famous for exporting coal. It was second to Newcastle, of course, but exports of coal and salt grew rapidly.

There was also an industry making lime for fertilizer and building in Sunderland in the 17th century. Alum and copperas were made in Sunderland and exported to be used in dyeing. By the end of the 17th century, there was also a glassmaking industry in Sunderland.

The town grew rapidly. By the mid-17th century, Sunderland had a population of around 1,500. By 1700 the population of Sunderland, Monkwearmouth, and Bishopwearmouth was about 5,000.

In 1717 a body of men called the Wear Commissioners was formed. In 1723 they built a pier on the south bank of the Wear. In 1797 another pier was built on the north bank. Wearmouth Bridge was built in 1796.

In the 18th century, the shipbuilding industry in Sunderland boomed. Georgian Sunderland also had a flourishing rope-making industry. In 1798 for the first time, a steam engine was used to power rope-making equipment in Sunderland.

Sunderland in the 19th Century

In 1801, at the time of the first census, Sunderland had a population of 12,412. By the standards of the time, it was a fairly large town. Furthermore, the population of Sunderland soared in the 19th century. By 1901 it had risen to 146,000.

The building of a bridge over the Wear in 1796 led to the growth of a middle-class suburb north of the river in the early 19th century but in Sunderland, itself horrid working-class slums were created. Like all towns in the 19th century, Sunderland was dirty, overcrowded, and unsanitary. There were Cholera epidemics in Sunderland in 1832 and in 1849.

However, there were some improvements in Sunderland during the 19th century. Gas was first used to light the streets in 1824. The first modern police force in Sunderland was created in 1837. The Penshaw Monument was erected in 1844.

Sunderland Water Company was formed in 1846. A network of sewers was built in the 1850s and 1860s. The Theatre Royal was built in 1855. Mowbray Park opened in 1857. Sunderland Museum, Library, and Art Gallery opened in 1879.

Also in 1879 horse-drawn trams began to run in the streets of Sunderland. n Roker Park opened in 1880. A Town Hall was built in 1890. In 1895 Sunderland gained an electricity supply.

During the 19th century ship making boomed in Sunderland and the town became world-famous for this industry. Other important industries were glass, pottery, and rope making. Exports of coal also boomed.

In the 19th century, large amounts of coal were mined in Wearmouth. The first colliery at Monkwearmouth opened in 1835. It was followed by Ryhope Colliery in 1859, Silksworth Colliery in 1873, and Hylton Colliery in 1900. The port continued to flourish and Hudson North Dock opened in 1837. The South Dock was added in 1850. Hendon Dock followed in 1868.

Sunderland in the 20th Century

By 1901 the population of Sunderland was 146,000. In 1900 the first electric trams ran in Sunderland. However, in the 1940s and 1950s, they were replaced by buses. The last trams ran in 1954.

Sunderland Technical College opened in 1901.

The Bede Memorial was erected in 1904. The Wear Commissioners Offices were built in 1907. The Empire Theatre also opened in 1907.

Barnes Park opened in 1909. Backhouse Park followed in 1923. Thompson Park opened in 1933.

Roker Breakwater was built in 1902. South Breakwater was built in 1914. In 1928 the boundaries of the borough were extended to include Fulwell and Southwick. A new Wear bridge was built in 1929. Also that year a General Hospital opened. Deep Water Quay was built in 1934.

In the 1930s the council set about slum clearance in Sunderland. New council houses were built to replace the slums in Ford Hall, Leechmere, and Marley Pots.

Then during World War II, 267 people were killed in Sunderland by German bombing. About 1,000 houses were destroyed and about 3,000 were damaged.

Many more council houses were built in the 1950s and the early 1960s. (This was partly to replace slums that were demolished at that time). In 1967 the boundaries of Sunderland were extended to include Ryhope, Silksworth, Herrington, South Hylton, and Castletown.

Sunderland Polytechnic was founded in 1969. It was made a university in 1992.

A new town hall and civic centre were built in 1970. A new police station was built in 1973. Monkwearmouth Station Museum opened in 1973. The North East Aircraft Museum was founded in 1974. A new General Hospital opened in Sunderland in 1978. The Bridges Shopping Centre was opened in 1988 and at the end of the century, it doubled in size.

Silksworth Leisure Centre was built in 1976. Crowtree Leisure Centre opened in 1978. Northumbria Sports Centre opened in 1987. The Seaburn Sports Centre opened in 1989.

Sunderland suffered severely in the depression of the 1930s when up to a third of the men were unemployed. Joblessness was much lower during the 1950s and 1960s but it was always considerably higher than the national average.

Mass unemployment returned in the 1980s. Shipbuilding came to an end in Sunderland in 1988 after a long decline. Coal mining declined rapidly in the late 20th century and Sunderland’s exports of coal plummeted. No more coal was exported after 1986. The last colliery in the area, Wearmouth Colliery closed in 1993.

However new industries came to replace the old ones. Sunderland is now noted for its car-making industry. (Nissan began making cars there in 1986). Other industries include electronic engineering, mechanical engineering, textiles, and paper-making.

Sunderland was made a city in 1992. Sunderland City Library and Arts Centre opened in 1995. The Stadium of Light was opened in 1997. The National Glass Centre opened in 1998.

Sunderland in the 21st Century

In 2002 the Tyne and Wear Metro was extended to Sunderland. In 2008 Sunderland Aquatic Centre opened. In 2023 the population of Sunderland was 303,000.