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Sunderland City Council
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Sunderland
SR2 7DN

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Bishopwearmouth Parish Church, Sunderland

This Conservation Area encompasses all the area that once formed the original village of Bishopwearmouth, one of the three settlements that would eventually coalesce to form Sunderland. The earliest reference to the village is thought to  be about 930 AD when King  Athelstan gave "South  Wearmouth" and its appendages to the See of  Durham.  It thus came into the ownership of the Bishops of  Durham and became known as Bishopwearmouth.

It is believed that the first stone church was built upon St. Michael's rocky knoll around the middle of the 10th century.  Whether the church was built within an existing rural settlement or the village developed about the church   is uncertain.

During the middle ages, Bishopwearmouth grew into an important and thriving farming community and religious centre.  The village was quite small being contained within the area defined today by High Street West (then called  the  Lonnin) to the north, Vine Place (then known as the Back Lane) to the south, Crowtree Road to the east and the High Row and Low Row to the west of which ran the Howle-Eile Burn, (or Rector's Gill),  now disappeared into a culvert.

The Parish of which the village was the centre, was extensive and prestigious covering an area of some 20 sq.miles and included the settlements at  Ryhope,  Tunstall,  Silksworth,  Burdon and  South Hylton.  The little fishing port of Sunderland was also within the parish until the early 18th century when its rapid expansion necessitated the creation of  a separate parish with its own church, Holy Trinity, in 1719.  This was the first of many such divisions that the essentially rural mother parish was to experience as the church struggled to cope with its pastoral responsibilities in a period when the community was being utterly transformed by industrial and urban growth, a slow process in the 17th and 18th Centuries, but one that would rapidly gain momentum in the early 19th Century.  Around 1800 the population served  by St. Michael's, which seated several hundred, was between 7000 and 8000.

Bishopwearmouth Green has always been common land, lying at the heart of the medieval village with Durham Road, Chester Road,  Hylton Road, Stockton Road and High Street all converging on it.  Around the Green were a multitude of small houses and terraces, interspersed with workshops, corn mills, slaughter houses and tanneries. Bull baiting also took place on the Green.  A bull would be  tethered by a rope to an iron ring and dogs set upon him.  It was claimed  that the meat of the bulls so treated tasted better and such events were quite common place.  The last bull baiting occurred  on the Green in 1788.

The Rectors of Bishopwearmouth were usually well-connected gentlemen and scholars who lived well, paying curates to carry out their more onerous tasks.

The Rectory

The Rectory

The first development to occur outside the medieval bounds of the village seems to have been the building of a fine Rectory <6> to the north of The Lonnin.  The Rectory dated from the middle ages and was refurbished and extended in the 17th and 18th centuries to give it a handsome Queen Anne style.  To the rear was a small garden together with  three stables, a cow house, coach house, and a large tithe barn to hold the farm produce received by the Rector in payment  of tithe (ie., a tenth part of the produce of land and stock allotted to the clergy).  Behind this was Rectory  Park, some thirty acres in extent, falling to the river.  Rector Wm. Paley praised the Rectory saying "Such a house!  I was told at Durham  it is one of the best parsonages in England, there are not more than three bishops that have better". Sadly, the house was cleared in 1855.

As the two centres of Bishopwearmouth and, in particular, Sunderland expanded there was a tendency for ribbon development to occur especially along the north side of  The Lonnin.

This trend was exacerbated by the opening of the first Wear Bridge in 1796 that linked the two with Monkwearmouth and led to the development of the Fawcett Estates and the eventual coalescing of the villages into one town,  though they were not officially incorporated until 1835.

No architectural trace of the medieval village remains today except in the general street pattern and the remnant of  The Green now incorporated into the town Park.   Redevelopments of the Victorian Period have obliterated any other remnant of the village, its identity all but lost within the growing City.  However the Victorians left a fine legacy of terraced properties now used almost exclusively for commercial purposes, along with some notable Edwardian developments such as the Dun Cow P.H,  the Londonderry P.H, and the Empire Theatre.  The southern part of the village has become a centre of learning with the erection of the Priestman Building and the Galen Building both part of the University Campus although the Galen Building was converted to a Leisure use in 2003.

Until the 1960's the area still retained many of its industrial enterprises that were part of the mixed uses of the village;  for instance a flour mill was located to the rear of  Green Terrace and Low Row was the home of a toffee factory and a laundry.  Since then the primary enterprises in the area have been office based, retail and education.

Large scale developments took place in the 1990's with a new office development  being completed in 1992, on the site of the former High Street Baths and the adjacent site being made available for development.  The Bridges Shopping Centre was also extended including a multi storey car park on a derelict site on the south side of the Green.  Also, a Travel Lodge was completed in 2003 on the site of a former car park

   Round window in Bishopwearmouth Church  Arch Window in Bishopwearmouth Church  Gravestones at Bishopwearmouth Church

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