The Wearmouth Bridge

For most of its history, Sunderland consisted of three separate settlements: Monkwearmouth on the north side of the river Wear; Bishopwearmouth on the south side of the river; and the port of Sunderland on the south side, at the mouth of the river. Until the late eighteenth century, those wishing to get between Monkwearmouth and Bishopwearmouth needed to get ferries and boats across the river. In poor conditions, the journey could be dangerous.  This detail from Rain’s Eye Plan of the riverside in the 1780s shows the ferryboat crossing point, with the busy shipping lanes offering yet more danger to those attempting a north-south crossing of the river.

11n Ferry boats Rain

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

11f Bodlewell Lane - Ferry steps - 28 Feb 1884 copy

Sunderland ferry landing on the south side of the river at Bodlewell Lane in 1884. Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

The ferry was run under licence from the Ettrick family, who themselves rented the land from the Bishop of Durham.  As the only way to cross the river, it was constantly ‘improved’ in that larger ferries were introduced during the 18th and 19th centuries. The location of the ferry landing on the north side of the river is now just outside the library of the St Peter’s campus of the University of Sunderland.  Even after the bridge was built upstream, there continued to be demand for the ferry which was in service until the 1950s. The last ferryman, W. F. Vint, made the final four-minute journey across the river in 1957. Since then, all traffic has crossed using the bridges that now span the river.  A sculpture of a cormorant now marks this spot on the south side of the river.

11L Ferry landing 2021

The bridging of the river goes back to the late 18th century.  In 1790, the election for County Durham returned Rowland Burdon and Ralph Milbanke as MPs. Burdon helped to push the necessary legislation through parliament in June 1792, allowing a bridge to be built across the river Wear. He originally planned for the bridge to have a stone arch.

11a Allum Old Wearmouth Bridge 1832

This engraving shows the the bridge looking downstream in an original painting by Thomas Allom, engraved by William le Petit (1832).

The bridge had a surprising revolutionary connection. Thomas Paine was originally from Thetford, Norfolk, but emigrated to Pennsylvania in 1774, assisted by Benjamin Franklin. He helped to inspire the restless American colonists to rebel from British rule with his pamphlet Common Sense (1776) and encouraged the Americans during the War of Independence with a series of pamphlets called The American Crisis (1776-83).  He is regarded as a Founding Father of America.

Paine would become a notorious radical as a result of his book Rights of Man (1791-92), which defended the French Revolution, mocked monarchical and aristocratic government as corrupt, opposed war, and proposed a prototype version of the welfare state. In 1792, Paine was invited to join the French revolutionary government in the National Convention and left for Paris. Meanwhile, in England, he was tried for seditious libel in Rights of Man, Part Two and found guilty in his absence.

From 1787, Paine had travelled to France and England in an attempt to get financial backing for his design for an iron bridge. He had a model of his proposed bridge built in Lisson Green in London during 1790, in the hope of gaining investors. Unfortunately, while the design gained many admirers, faults in the model discouraged financiers. However, Samuel Walker and Co. proposed an iron bridge to Rowland Burdon, adopting much of Paine’s design. Burdon eventually agreed to an iron bridge, with Thomas Wilson of Sunderland as the architect. Iron from Paine’s model bridge seems to have been recycled and used for the Wearmouth Bridge. Burdon contributed £19,000 to the project.

The foundation stone was placed on 24 September 1793, and the bridge completed in 1796. It was 236 feet long and 32 feet wide and used 250 tonnes of iron, making it the largest single-arch cast-iron bridge in the world at the time.

The bridge was only the second such bridge to be constructed, and was much larger than the world’s first at Iron Bridge. As the bridge spanned the river at a suitably narrow point, it dissected the ship yards and factories that stretched from further west to the coast.  In order to cause minimal disruption to ships sailing up and down the river, scaffolding was designed to allow free passage during construction.

11m Wearmouth Bridge scaffolding
East view of the Cast Iron Bridge over the River Wear at Sunderland in the County of Durham, by Robert Clarke (artist) and J. Raffield (engraver).

The bridge was opened to the public on Tuesday, 9 August 1796. Burdon was a prominent Freemason (a Grand Master of the Lodge). The European Magazine for November 1796 reported that the opening ceremony included a ‘Grand Procession, and Masonic ceremonies, amidst an immense concourse of people (computed at 50,000 persons)’. The opening ceremony also involved speeches by clergymen representing Masonic lodges and Burdon ‘addressed the Brethren’ of Masons, and paid tribute to ‘Brother Wilson, the Architect of the Work’. The bridge was regarded as a triumph of British engineering, and reported nationally, with engravings of the bridge widely available, as shown above. The foundation stone of the bridge featured an inscription in Latin, which the European Magazine translated:

At that time when the mad fury of French Citizens, dictating acts of extreme depravity, disturbed the peace of Europe with iron war, ROWLAND BURDON, Esq. aiming at worthier purposes, hath resolved to join the steep and craggy shores of the river WEAR with an Iron Bridge. He happily laid the foundation on the xxiv. day of September, in the year of Human Salvation M,DCC,XCIII. and the XXXIII. of the reign of George the Third, in the presence of William Henry Lambton, Esq., Provincial Grand Master, with a respectable circle of the Brethren of the Society of Free and Accepted Masons, and of the Magistrates and principal gentlemen of the County of Durham; attended by an immense Concourse of People. Long may the vestiges endure of a hope not formed in vain!

The anti-French sentiments in this inscription are ironic, given the bridge itself was built using materials from pro-Revolutionary Pain.

This is not the only connection between Sunderland and the revolutionary United States.  If we look at one of the powerful Sunderland families, the Lilburnes, George Lilburne was Mayor of Wearmouth during the 1630s.  George was uncle of John Lilburne, a founder of the Levellers and close associate of Oliver Cromwell.  In 1649, John Lilburne wrote a suggested constitution for England, centered around the concept that everyone is born with ‘freeborn rights’.  Although not adopted in Britain at that time, it provided ideas and inspiration for what eventually became the Constitution of the United States.

During the English Civil War, George Lilburne had sided with the Parliamentarians.  This gave him the opportunity to break from the monopoly for coal shipping trade that the was held by the Royalist-supporting Newcastle.  The Royal Charter that entitled this monopoly to Newcastle was the cause of long-running disputes between the merchants of Sunderland and Newcastle.  When a garrison of Parliament-supporting Scots (‘Blew Caps’) arrived in the area, they were enthusiastically greeted in Sunderland and set up camp in Bishopwearmouth Panns, just below the area now occupied by St Mary’s car park on the south side of the bridge.  Today, this is marked by a blue plaque.

11k Civil War plaque

The Scottish army was led by General Leslie, who set up camp in Panns Fields in March 1644. One relic of this time can be found in Barnes Park, where a canon was dredged up from the river and put on display there in 1909.  A century later, it was in such poor condition that it had to be re-mounted to better support the deteriorating metal by embedding it partially in the plinth, giving it something of an air of a beached whale.

The conflict between Newcastle Royalists and Sunderland Parliamentarians is recorded by early 19th century historian Robert Surtees, in a verse he claimed was part of a ballad from Newcastle’s Sandgate area:

Ride through Sandgate, up and doon

There you’ll see the gallants fighting for the croon

And all the cull cuckolds in Sunderland toon

With all the bonny blew caps cannot pull them doon.

Even if there is some doubt as to the authenticity of this verse, the fact remains that it was the highly influential Lilburne family that led the Parliamentarian cause both locally and nationally, and thus is said to have been one of the influences behind the socialist ethos underpinning the United States constitution.

This link between Sunderland and a wider political world is intimated in John Bell’s Rhymes of Northern Bards (1812) which include a poem called ‘Sunderland Bridge’, written by ‘M.W. of North Shields’.  This celebrates the bridge but also worries about the threat of invasion from France:

Ye sons of Sunderland, with shouts that rival ocean’s roar,

Hail Burdon in his iron boots, who strides from shore to shore!

O may ye firm support each leg, or much, O much I fear,

Poor Rowland may o’erstretch himself in striding ’cross the Wear!

A patent quickly issue out, lest some more bold than he,

Should put on larger iron boots, and stride across the sea!

Then let us pray for speedy peace, lest Frenchmen should come over,

And, fol’wing Burdon’s iron plan, from Calais stride to Dover.

In slightly more peaceful times, the bridge was sketched by J.M.W. Turner in 1817.

Robert Stephenson was engaged to resolve some structural issues with the bridge, including levelling the hump in the centre, between 1857 and 1859.

11bBridge Street - Football match day - April 1927 copy

Photograph showing the football crowd crossing Stephenson’s bridge for the last time before it was demolished in 1927. Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

In 1879, the railway bridge extended the line into the centre of Sunderland. The railway bridge was designed by Thomas Elliot Harrison. Harrison was chief engineer of the North Eastern Railway and had settled in Monkwearmouth. Opened in 1879, the bridge finally linked the north and south railways across the river. At the time, it was described as the ‘largest Hog-Back iron girder bridge in the world’.

11c Railway bridge

The current road and foot bridge dates from 1927-29, and was built to accommodate the increasing traffic into Sunderland.  Remarkably, the bridge was kept open to traffic throughout this building period and the new bridge was built over the top of the old one. This photo, taken from the south-east side, shows how this was done.

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

It was finally opened on 31 October, 1929.  The photograph below shows the bridge as it looks today.

11e Wearmouth Bridge

At the middle of the bridge, the Latin motto ‘Nil desperandum, auspice Dei’ (‘Do not despair, trust in God’) comes from Horace’s Odes, Book I, Ode vii, and can also be found on the city’s crest. The ornate ironwork crests that adorn the railings in the middle of each side of the current bridge are copies of those that stood in a similar position on Stephenson’s bridge.

11d Bridge motto

Monkwearmouth Station

On the north side of the river, just beyond the bridge, stands this impressive railway station. It was designed by Thomas Moore in 1848 at the behest of George Hudson, the so-called ‘Railway King’.  Hudson is one of the most colourful characters of this period of 19th century industrial history.  He was one of Sunderland’s two Members of Parliament, elected in 1845.  Hudson was a leading entrepreneur in the ‘railway mania’ of the 1840s and 50s, where he led investors in a large number of speculative railway companies, primarily on the East coast of Britain. At the peak of his power, Hudson controlled 1,450 miles out of a total national railway of 5,000 miles in 1849, and campaigned to create a unified national rail network.  However, his financial creativity was revealed when the ‘railway bubble’ burst and he was found guilty of embezzling huge amounts of money from his various companies (Simmons, 1986).

11f Monkwearmouth Station

Hudson’s contribution to Sunderland’s industrialisation was motivated by his desire to ensure better transport facilities to serve his new docks (Hudson Docks, opened in 1850) and other burgeoning businesses. At this time, the railways had not crossed the river and so this location marked the point at which the railway from South Shields and Gateshead met close to the toll-paying Wearmouth Bridge. It was not until 1879 that the rail links crossed the river. The toll house continued to collect fees until 1885 but then was converted to use as a shop in various guises over the years until it was finally demolished in the 1930s.

11h Toll House shop

The Toll House Shaving Saloon on the south side of the river in the late 19th Century. Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Monkwearmouth Station building remains in use today, where it houses a museum that focuses on the history of Sunderland AFC. The grand Gothic station in the town centre, behind High Street East, took over as the main station.

11j Railway Station - graphic

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

The new station in the town centre was extensively damaged in German bombing raids in the Second World War and, when rebuilt, was constructed as an underground station with shops and offices above it.

11i Railway station bombed

Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.