The Port of Sunderland sits at the mouth of the River Wear on the North Sea in England’s metropolitan county of Tyne and Wear about 25 kilometers north of the Port of Hartlepool. With some of the country’s poorest areas, the area suffers chronic unemployment, although it is faring better than other areas in the northeast. In the early 20th Century, its centuries-long coal mining industry reached its peak, with 170 thousand miners in the historic County Durham in 1932. After World War II, demand for coal began to fall, and the last coal mine closed in 1994.
At one time, the Port of Sunderland was known as the “Largest Shipbuilding Town in the World,” where ship-building powered the economy from the 14th to the 18th Centuries. The Port of Sunderland has been a glass-making center for about 1500 years, but even that industry failed due to international competition, and the Corning Glass Works and Pyrex manufacturing closed in 2007. Since the 1980s, the Port of Sunderland has gained new service industries as well as a new Nissan car factory. It is also on the “shortlist” of the world’s first seven “intelligent cities” for the use of information technology. In 2004, almost 283 thousand people lived in the metropolitan borough that is home to the Port of Sunderland.
Archaeological evidence suggests that Stone Age hunters and gatherers inhabited the area of the Port of Sunderland. During the Neolithic period from 4000 to 2000 BC, rituals and burials took place on Hastings Hill at Sunderland’s western border. Historians believe that Brigantes lived in the area during the era of Roman occupation. There is evidence that the Wear was an important supply point for the Roman army.
In the 7th Century, an Anglo-Saxon nobleman, Benedict Biscop, founded a monastery on land granted by King Ecgfrith of Northumbria at the north bank of the River Wear. Bringing in glaziers from France, he re-established the tradition of glass-making in Britain. In 686, Ceolfrid took over the settlement, making it an important center for learning for Anglo-Saxon England.
During the 8th Century, Vikings raided the coast, and the monastery was abandoned. In 930, to the south of the river, Bishopwearmouth was granted to the bishops of Durham. For a time, Wearmouth was the only port, trading fish and salt, for the bishopric. The village of Sunderland, located nearer the river’s mouth, was a small fishing village.
In the late 12th Century, the Port of Sunderland was granted a charter, and in 1634, it was incorporated as a borough. When mining was expanded in the river valley in the 17th Century, the town began to grow quickly as a center for the coal trade. By late that century, the Port of Sunderland was exporting 180 thousand tons of coal per year.
In 1589, salt-making was introduced to the Port of Sunderland, as they heated large vats of seawater with coal in a process of salt panning. Coal mining emerged in the area to support salt-making. Since salt-making needed only lower-quality coal, the high-quality coal was exported from the port, stimulating growth.
In 1642, King Charles I granted east England rights for coal trade to Newcastle, just 15 kilometers northeast of the Port of Sunderland, slowing Sunderland’s growth and putting economic pressure on the town. Resenting this action, local nobles allowed Scottish soldiers to station there in 1644, and conflicts soon arose. When Parliament blockaded the River Tyne and crippled Newcastle’s coal trade, the Port of Sunderland once again began to flourish.
The Port of Sunderland’s ship-building industry began in the 14th Century, and by the middle 18th Century, the Port of Sunderland was most likely Britain’s leading ship-building center. The town was also an important center for the manufacture of pottery and glassware.
In 1831, the Port of Sunderland became the first British town to fall victim to the “Indian cholera” epidemic, and citizen William Sproat was the first Englishman to die. The town was quarantined, and the port was blockaded; however, the epidemic still spread throughout the country, killing some 32 thousand people.
In 1833, the Victoria Disaster took place in the Port of Sunderland’s concert venue, Victoria Hall. During a variety show, children in the audience rushed to a staircase to get treats, but the doorway was partly blocked, and children at the front were trapped and crushed. By the end, 183 children from three to 14 had been asphyxiated. Today, a memorial stands in Mowbray Park to memorialize this terrible event. The positive outcome was in the law requiring outward-opening emergency exits and in the invention of push-bar emergency doors, a law still in force. In 1941, German bombs destroyed Victoria Hall.
Hudson Dock was built in 1850 to add to the Port of Sunderland’s ship-building facilities. One of the most famous vessels launched was the Torrens that carried author Joseph Conrad as he started his first novel.
The Great Depression of the 1930s brought severe unemployment to the Port of Sunderland when the ship-building industry failed. Between 1939 and 1945, almost 250 merchant ships were launched from the shipyards. But the yards fell victim to international competition, and the last yard in the Port of Sunderland closed in 1988. The city realized the critical need to diversify its industrial base.
During World War II, the Port of Sunderland was heavily bombed by Germany. Much of the town center was destroyed, but many old buildings survived, including the 18th Century Holy Trinity Church, St. Michael’s Church, and St. Peter’s Church (part of which dates from the 7th Century Monkwearmouth monastery).
After 1990, the Port of Sunderland underwent major re-growth with the development of residential, retail, and business centers on the old ship-building sites. The National Glass Centre was built, and the University of Sunderland built a new campus.
The Port of Sunderland’s current economy is based on manufacturing, including electronics and automotive engineering, and the service sector is growing rapidly. The local seaside resorts of Seaburn and Roker are also important to the local economy. In 2008, Sunderland was thought to be the home of more broadband and digital TV viewers than any other place in the United Kingdom.
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