IN THE SHADOW OF A YANKEE SETTLEMENT-Southwick in the years 1831-1881

‘The village, which contains a post-office, is very pleasantly situated, commanding a view of the windings of the River Wear for a considerable distance, with the busy establishments which crowd its banks; whilst to the east, the prospect extends to the port and the German Ocean. The "Wear Lime Works" are on the north-west of the village, which contains a ropery and seven public houses.'

This is how William Fordyce described High Southwick in 1857, in the second volume of his book on the history and antiquities of County Durham.

The village was located on an elevated position and built around a green that dated from medieval times when Southwick had belonged to the monks of Durham Cathedral Priory.

From near the west side of this built-up area, Stoney Lane descended to a riverside industrial suburb of much more recent origin, of which Fordyce recorded: ‘Low Southwick is situated on the north shore of the Wear, and contains twelve ship-building yards, a saw mill, two earthernware manufactories, a crown glass and a bottle manufactory, five public houses, and four beer shops.'

High and Low Southwick both lay in the township of Southwick (which included a number of farms) whose fortunes in the mid 19th century paralleled those of Wearside as a whole. Of course, pride of place among local communities belonged to Southwick's mighty neighbour, Sunderland, made a municipal borough in the mid 1830s and by far the most populous and important centre on the river.

In 1855 (when Sunderland's burgeoning population numbered approximately 70,000) it was observed in Sketches of Public Men of the North that: ‘For all practical purposes, Sunderland is as new as an Australian or Yankee settlement. . . . . We like the fresh-coloured vigour that characterises everything in Sunderland. There is no dreamy . . .indolence about the place.'

Although overshadowed by Sunderland, the same could be said of Southwick which likewise experienced rapid growth. According to the census of 1831, its population then numbered 1,301. This was more than double the total at the start of the century, and fast growth continued. So much so that by 1881 Southwick's population had soared to 8,178 and land between High and Low Southwick had been covered by development.

The rate of population increase was one of the fastest on Wearside and certainly outstripped Sunderland. While the municipal borough's population almost trebled between 1831 and 1881, Southwick's grew by more than sixfold!

Immigration was the decisive factor responsible for this demographic explosion. Many newcomers came from elsewhere in the North East. Others included Scots and Irish. For example, by 1851 just over 3 per cent of Sunderland's population had been born north of the border and an even larger number, almost 6 per cent, had first seen the light of day across the Irish Sea.

The situation was comparable in Southwick. Peter Gibson comments that ‘according to the 1851 census, two thirds of Southwick's residents were immigrants.' Scots accounted for 3 per cent of the population and a larger number, 8.5 per cent, were from Ireland. Consequently, ‘one person in twelve in Southwick was Irish born.'

Although some of Southwick's inhabitants lived in substantial homes (Camden Street, built in the 1840s, is a case in point) many lived in cramped, ill-ventilated dwellings and squalor was widespread. ‘Should Southwick be visited by the cholera', declared an anonymous observer in late 1848, ‘I have no doubt from the filthiness of the place, that the visitation will be most fatal.'

The following year, cholera did indeed strike Wearside and 11 deaths occurred at Southwick. Two of the fatalities were seamen aboard vessels quarantined in the river at Southwick, a point that led Henry Scott, a prominent Suddicker, to observe, ‘in connexion with this, it is thought well to draw particular attention to the extraordinary course pursued in bringing all infected vessels away from the borough of Sunderland to perform quarantine close to and on the beach at Southwick; and the comparatively little ill effect produced thereby goes far to show the general salubrity and healthiness of Southwick.'    

Scott's statement appears in a report published in 1851 by a government official named Robert Rawlinson, who believed that Sunderland's municipal boundary should be extended to include Southwick. However, at a public meeting held by Suddickers on 7 December 1849 it had been ‘unanimously resolved to oppose such extension by every lawful means.' In the event, this desire for independence prevailed.   

At this date, most Suddickers obtained water from wells. Two were located at the west end of High Southwick and another well, whose contents were polluted by surface drainage, existed at Low Southwick and provided slop-water. In addition, water carts also supplied residents of the township. However, change was at hand. During the 1850s piped water reached Southwick, thanks to the newly formed Sunderland and South Shields Water Company.

Several years later, in 1863, Southwick received its own Local Government Board-a body set up to administer its affairs-and one of the board's founding members was the shipbuilder Robert Thompson junior, who had been born in Sunderland and had opened a shipyard at Low Southwick in 1854. Thompson set up his shipyard a couple of years after the Wear's first iron ship had been launched. Nevertheless, timber construction continued for many years and Thompson's first iron ship, the SS Irishope, was launched in 1868. Indeed, William Pickersgill's yard, which launched its first vessel at Southwick in 1854, only built its first iron ship, Camargo, in 1880!

          Southwick's most imposing place of worship was Holy Trinity Church. In 1831, Southwick lay in the Anglican parish of Monkwearmouth. This had been the case for centuries, and continued when the Dean and Chapter of Durham built Holy Trinity in the years 1842-43. Initially, the building (whose appearance betrays the resurgence of interest in medieval architecture that had recently commenced nationwide) served as a daughter chapel of St Peter's, Monkwearmouth. In 1847, however, Holy Trinity was elevated to parish church status when Southwick parish was formed-Fordyce mistakenly believed that it was still a chapelry in the mid 1850s.

          During the 19th century a body known as the National Society established numerous Church of England schools nationwide to educate working-class children, and one of these schools was built at Low Southwick in 1837. According to a government inspector, in June 1854 the average number of boys in attendance was 85 and the average figure for the girls was 75. The inspector concluded that teaching methods were ‘capable of improvement' and described the quality of discipline and instruction as ‘fair.' Modest fees were charged for attending the school. At this date school attendance was not universal, for elementary education only became compulsory in 1880 (a decade after Forster's Education Act of 1870), by which time of course Southwick differed significantly from the days when the National School had first opened its doors.

G.L. Dodds