Articles from the Back Issues


July/August 2008



Welcome to the Society's July/August (2008)edition of the bi-monthly newsletter.

Please note that the Society's coffee/research mornings are still being held fortnightly on Saturday morning, 10am until noon in St. Columba's schoolroom in Cornhill Road, Southwick, where the archives are stored. They will continue throughout the summer. For your guidance the next is on Saturday, 5th July and fortnightly thereafter.

Our programme of talks has ended for the summer and will re-commence in September. These will continue for the moment to be held at Ashbrooke Social Club. A programme of speakers for the new season commencing September will be included in the next Newsletter.

The last two talks were given by George Patterson (The Music Halls of Sunderland) and Maurice Chadwick (West Hall Farm at Cleadon).  Both were excellent. They very well attended, informative and most enjoyable. Our sincere thanks to George and Maurice.


The Minster Move

Unfortunately, it seems that the move to the Minster will not be proceeding in the immediate future. No decision has been made and one does not seem forthcoming. 

For the time being, therefore, the Society must remain at St. Columba's. Efforts will continue over the course of the next few months to see if there is any alternative. I will inform all members if there is any change to the current situation.



Thank you to all our members who renewed their subscriptions for the new year. We are continuing to work hard to improve your Society and to this end six bi-monthly newsletters will be sent to all members as well as a copy of the Society's Annual Journal, ‘Sunderland History'. Work is continuing on seeking grant funding and hopefully a website will be ready for the new season. If you have not yet renewed and wish to do so, a leaflet is included for completion and return to the Society's Treasurer, Mr Robert Hope.



Geoffrey E. Milburn



Our Society lost a great friend and supporter with the death of Geoffrey Milburn on Christmas Eve 2006. He was born in Hutton Rugby in Yorkshire, educated at Northallerton Grammar School and gained a degree in Medieval History from Manchester University. He moved to Sunderland in 1970 to become a Lecturer in Victorian Studies at Sunderland Polytechnic and quickly forged links with our Society. Geoffrey was a local Methodist preacher for over forty years and his life-long interest in Methodism led him to write numerous articles and books on the subject, including his own life story in ‘A Methodist Childhood.' From 1974 Geoffrey regularly contributed articles to the Society's journal and  he eventually became the editor, helping to arrange their publication.

    His contributions to the Society's Journal included:


Vol XXV1       Wesleyanism in Late 18th and 19th Century (1974-76) Part 1

Vol XXV11      Wesleyanism in Sunderland Part 2 and

                         Diary of John Young

Vol XX1X        Thomas Dixon (1994)


   In addition, Geoffrey was a member of the Durham County Local History Society regularly contributing to its Bulletin. In 1988 in conjunction with his colleague, Stuart Miller, he published Sunderland: River Town and People, a definitive history of the town. In 1995 he collaborated with Margaret Batty to produce Workaday Preachers, a compilation of articles on various aspects of local preaching from the days of John Wesley to very near the end of the twentieth century.

Geoffrey had few, if any, peers when it came to the subject of Methodism and could even tell who and where Methodists were preaching at any time in the late 19th/early 20th century. His last publication was on Primitive Methodism, the branch of Methodism in which he had been brought up.

   Geoffrey had accumulated a large collection of books, pamphlets and slides which his wife, Mary, and daughter Andrea, have conscientiously distributed to the appropriate libraries and archives where they can be made available to future generations.  We are grateful for the donation of a large number of Geoffrey's books and items to our own Society, including Geoffrey's vast lecture notes. They will be preserved together as ‘The G.E. Milburn Collection.' for future generations to enjoy.



A Few Notes on Lighting in 19th Century Sunderland


In the early nineteenth century the streets of Sunderland were lit by oil lamps, each in an iron crane fastened to a wall or the corner of the house at the end of the street or lane. These lamps were trimmed every morning and supplied with fresh oil with the lamplighter using a ladder to get to the lamps. Occasionally, if there was a strong wind, the lamps would not be lit and the town was left in partial darkness.  People who went out after dark generally carried a lantern for the street lamps were so far apart. Matches were then unknown and tinder boxes were generally used.

At this time the town was patrolled by watchmen who were generally known as ‘Old Charlies.' These men went on their rounds every half-hour and, during the night and early morning, they could be heard calling the time and the state of the weather - "Past one o'clock: fine morning: all's well!" The last hour called was five in the morning.

The first gas lights came to the streets of Sunderland on 9th March 1824, the original gasworks being in Low Street at the bottom of what was known as Beggars Bank. The original works of the Monkwearmouth Gas Company were situated in Strand Street but in 1856 the Sunderland Gas Company was formed, buying up the works and plants of the old companies.


Sunderland Celebrates Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee


On Tuesday, 22nd June 1897 the whole of the country celebrated Queen Victoria's Diamond Jubilee. She had been on the throne for sixty years and people of Sunderland made a real effort to celebrate in style as the day was designated a public holiday.

   It was a gloriously fine summer's day and the streets of the town were decorated with colourful flags, banners and streamers. It seemed that every building in the town had bunting of some sort. The front of the Town Hall was a blaze of colour with illuminations spelling out ‘Nil Desperandum, Loyal Sunderland, and God Save the Queen 1837-1897' and rows of streamers stretched from side to side in Fawcett Street. The Liberal Club (Athenaeum) frontage had flags, banners, festoons of flowers and was illuminated. The Constitutional Club in John Street seemed to be one mass of decoration and featured transparencies of various members of the Royal family which were lit up at night. The Museum and the bandstands in parks had also been well decorated. Bridge Street and High Street from Bishopwearmouth Church down to the docks had bunting stretching from side to side across the streets.

   Wearsiders sported ribbon and rosettes and even their bicycle frames were covered in red, white and blue ribbon. Babies in their prams were dressed in the colours and one or two dogs could also be seen wearing ribbons or rosettes on their collars. The shipping in the river and docks also displayed bunting.  Roker beach was packed from early morning, the unfinished Roker pier was opened up and from early dawn crowds thronged the streets and parks where brass bands were playing.      

   A Dispensary Carnival had been arranged and this left Newcastle Road at 3pm for a procession over Wearmouth Bridge and through Fawcett Street. No motor cars could be obtained to take part but despite this there was a wonderful parade of cycles, carriages and trade exhibits. The parade was led by the Northumberland Yeomen, followed by the cycle section with almost 150 cycles taking part, twenty of them ridden by ladies and all machines were decorated with flowers and ribbons. Following the cycles were four carriages decorated to represent England, Scotland Ireland and Wales. These were followed by a giant penny farthing cycle 15 feet in height. Alongside it was an old boneshaker whose rider was swathed in bandages and fake blood.  The procession then included an individual giving an exhibition of Indian club exercises and he was followed by dozens of trade exhibits. The streets were packed as thousands turned out to watch. Prizes were awarded for various categories with the First Prize for Most Grotesque Costume going to T. Stokle and G. Smiles who rode tandem as the characters ‘The White-Eyed Khafirs.'

Sports events were held at Hendon early in the evening and carnival and sports were also arranged at Fulwell where almost three thousand spectators turned out. It was held in a local field loaned by Joseph Lee and began with the local schoolchildren parading from schools to the field.

    The largest crowds, however, gathered at night in Fawcett Street for the switching on of the illuminations which adorned the main buildings. This was due at 9pm and the crowd was entertained by a band playing in front of the Athenaeum. The National Anthem and Rule Britannia seemed to be played constantly. Once the lights were switched on the crowds at each end of the street surged towards the Town Hall and a crush began. Women were screaming and a few fainted. Thankfully, no-one was trodden upon and order soon was resumed.

   At 10pm a number of very large bonfires were lit around the town with the largest being at Tunstall Hills and Fulwell (Sir Hedworth Williamson provided the material).  

   The Mayor, Alderman Burns, held a Tea in Monkwearmouth Hall for 300 old people and similar events were held in Rectory Park School (400) and St. John's Schoolroom (330). The old sailors and widows from Assembly Garth and Trafalgar Square were given a reception in the Seamen's Hall in Church Street and each presented with a pound of tea and two ounces of tobacco. Four hundred children had tea in Malings Rigg Chapel and the Mayoress visited the Orphan Asylum, presenting each child with half a crown and a Jubilee Medal. The Mayoress had a very busy day for she then went onto the Union Workhouse to present more medals. The inmates there received a special dinner and were given permission to wander about the grounds as they pleased. The final visit by the Mayoress was to the Girls' Industrial School in Tatham Street where she presented each girl with a medal and a Jubilee cup and saucer.

   As the day came to an end the Mayor left the celebrations to catch a late train to London for a reception with the Queen at Buckingham Palace. By midnight the crowds had thinned out and the memorable day had ended.

Sunderland and the Winter of 1947


There is little doubt that the worst Wearside winter in living memory occurred in 1947 when that February became known in Sunderland as ‘Black February.' The blizzards and snow seemed to hit Sunderland unceasingly that month and Wearsiders' problems were added to with fuel and water shortages as well as electricity cuts.

   It all began quietly enough on 23th January when, following a slight fall of snow the previous evening, the Sunderland Echo headlined ‘SNOW - BUT IT COULD BE WORSE!' adding that there was little sign that it would hold. This could not have been further from the truth considering what followed.

   At this time there was a fuel shortage and lack of coal. Sunderland's problems began on 24th January when the Town Hall ran out of coal to heat the building and consequently the administrative staff spent the entire day wearing overcoats.

   The serious snow arrived on Sunderland on 26th January when an inch fell and the temperature plummeted. This continued the following week with three inches falling during the Wednesday night. The lack of coal began to affect Wearsiders by then and many homes were without fuel. Electricity cuts, which began that week, did not help matters, depriving homes of cooking facilities and hot water.

   However, the snow kept coming. Five inches fell on the 29th and 30th January and the Town's cleansing department employees were out in force covering roads with sand and ash. Many overhead tram wires were broken, trains were delayed and the morning trek over Wearmouth Bridge resembled a football Saturday. The overnight temperature on 30th January fell to minus 7degrees Centigrade and Sunderland was well and truly in the grip of arctic weather. The Echo reported that many women had taken to wearing slacks for warmth and men started to wrap their scarves around their faces.

   Local industry began to be affected and Hylton Colliery missed their output target owing to the number of men absent with colds and flu. Laundries were under threat owing to the 50% coal cut. Central Laundry stated that if they were not allowed more coal then it would have to close down and more than 20,000 customers would have to do their own washing. Coal rationing began on 1st February and harassed coal merchants appealed for householders to be patient. The ration was 15cwt per quarter and they added that it must be realised that merchants too were existing on a hand-to-mouth basis.

   By the 4th February the winter grip on Wearside had tightened. Shipping had become paralysed and all roads were snowbound. Overhead telephone wires were torn from their pylons and trains were almost at a complete standstill in the fierce blizzards sweeping the north east. Shops in the town were usually in darkness following the electricity cuts and newspapers were more than six hours late due to delays with trains battling their way through the blizzards.

   One of the brighter features of the storm was the huge harvest of sea coal to be washed ashore at Roker. On the morning of the 4th February, the coal lay inches thick on the snow-covered beach at Roker and dozens of unemployed men and housewives began carrying it away by bicycle, barrow and sledge. This went on throughout the morning and at 10am beachcomers could be seen collecting the coal whilst the beach was being lashed with snow and breakers 30ft high crashed against the pier. A lot of the coal was in large nuggets lying a foot deep in places but the icy wind and snow did not deter people from returning time and again to carry away sacks. In a time of fuel shortage the sea coal was a godsend and many Wearside coalhouses were filled that week. It was a sight to behold at Roker with scores of people tobogganing down the slopes with men toiling up the opposite way with sledges laden with the coal.

   However, the snow kept coming and by Wednesday, the 5th Feb, Durham Road was blocked and Burdon Village completely cut off. Overnight gales had whipped the area and snowdrifts which were hedge-row high blocked roads throughout the county. Mr Shipman from one of the farms near Burdon tried to ease the situation by sending farmhands across the fields to Ryhope. He claimed that there was milk for 1000 customers but could not get the supply out. The shipyards continued to be affected and most outside work ceased. Half the men in some yards were sent home and many firms registered high levels of sickness. The weather forecast that day simply stated, ‘More to come.'

   On the 6th February the town trams began to carry their own supplies of salt and sand in case they became embedded in the snow. Sunderland greyhound racing did not escape. During the Thursday meeting, the traps at the stadium failed to operate due to severe frost. In three of the races only four dogs got out of them and the races were declared void and bets returned.

By Friday, snowdrifts in the outlying countryside were ten feet deep and on Saturday, 8th February, seven degrees of frost was registered in the town and at least six inches of snow lay throughout the town streets. Sunderland AFC was due to play Portsmouth that weekend. The match was in doubt but the heavy covering of snow had kept the turf warm and on the morning of the game over one hundred men and boys cleared the pitch. Incredibly the game went ahead but a low crowd of 20,500 watched a dull goalless draw played out in bitterly cold conditions.

   The blizzards continued and, in order to save on heating and lighting, a number of Sunderland churches began holding services in their halls. Among these were St. Georges and Roker Presbyterian. The local park ponds were frozen solid and hardy folk enjoyed ice skating on the six inches thick ice on Roker Park pond.

   On 18th February the Cleansing and Highways Dept counted the cost of the weather. Each day 360 additional men had been employed in the snow clearing and this had cost an additional £6,000 in wages. The men were working from early morning until 10pm and many places had to be visited four or five times because of new drifts, with the worst spots being Shields Road, the Mile Bank and Chester Road right up to Grindon.

   By Thursday, 20th February, the record was broken for the longest continuous February frost of the century and the sun had not been seen for eighteen consecutive days. Worries grew that the electricity time-rationing was not working and a warning was issued to Wearsiders to switch off or else. That Thursday one snowplough took an hour to clear the stretch of tram-line from the Wheatsheaf to Barclay Street and the 7.10 train from Sunderland to Durham became embedded in a snowdrift a mile west of Hylton Station. There seemed no end to the bitter weather and at dawn that day the temperature was minus 8 degrees and six more inches of snow fell overnight.

   Another record was broken on the 24th of the month with the longest recorded spell of continuous frost being experienced since 1841. The previous night was the coldest of the winter so far with 12 degrees of frost.

   Unbelievably, the 26th February saw the fiercest blizzard seen for years engulf Sunderland in snowdrifts five feet deep. It brought all the collieries to a complete standstill and once again all local transport was abandoned and even the snowploughs were snowbound. Absenteeism in the local pits reached 50% increasing the fuel crisis and milk failed to reach the town which was by then at a standstill with some drifts being seven feet high. As a result the number of snow clearers was increased to 600. They were known locally as ‘snow commandos' and were working non-stop.

   During Black February an incredible 36 inches of snow fell on the town. It was estimated that 25,000 tons of snow were cleared from the streets with most of it being dumped into the sea at Hendon and Grangetown.  Once the end of the month arrived hopes were raised that perhaps the weather would relent but it did not. On the 4th March Sunderland had its coldest day since January 1940. Nineteen degrees of frost were recorded in Mowbray Park. This was close to Sunderland's coldest night ever recorded which was 10th February 1895 with 26 degrees of frost. To make matters worse a water shortage began. The Water Company explained that this was caused by people leaving their taps running in order to stop pipes freezing. Gales and blizzards continued to hit the town and there seemed no respite. Many ships had struggled against the weather and it was no surprise when a collier, the Regfos, ran aground on Whitburn Steel in a snowstorm. It had overshot the port in poor disability and was stuck on the rocks. However it wasn't holed and was eventually escorted into the Wear by tugs.

   Official Summer Time arrived on the 15th March and the clocks went forward but the weather forecast that day stated that more snow was expected. However, the season was changing and on the 17th March the Echo proclaimed, 'Freeze-up Time is Over.' The temperature rose and Sunderland basked in 46 degrees, the highest for fifty nine days! The winter of '47 was over...Black February was over... but not forgotten!





As always, donations to the Society's archives are always very welcome - newpapers, photographs, postcards, books, documents, artefacts - even if just a single item. Recent additions have included:

Peter Reynolds   -  Article  Origins of Boy Scout Uniform

Alan Burns         -  3 signed books -A Sunderland War Diary

                                                          History of Sunderland's Anti-tank Regiment

                                                          Sunderland Mariners lost at Sea 1939-45

David O'Dair     - N.E. Coast Exhibition Catalogue 1929

Coles Cranes      - Queen's Award to Industry

Douglas Smith   - Durham Biographies Vol 5

                             Bishopwearmouth Church Souvenir of Consecration and Opening 1935

More in next newsletter.


Remember - don't throw it out, throw it here. Arrangements can be made to collect material.