A Lost Cemetery of Sunderland: When Roadworks Discovered a Quaker Burial Ground

In 17th century England the country was red hot with the religious fervor of Protestantism. With the increasing availability of print, the spread of the Bible into the hands of everyday people created dissent against established churches and led to a spread of dissenting groups. In England, one such group called “the religious society of friends” or commonly known as “the Quakers” emerged in the 1650s and although many would soon migrate to America, they quickly attained a following throughout the country.

By the year 1670, the Quakers had established themselves in the town of Sunderland. Led by a man known as William Maude who moved from Wakefield in Yorkshire, the Quakers established their congregation on what is now West Wear Street in the old east end of the town. The early Quakers naturally faced opposition, and in 1688 the building was destroyed in a riot and would not be rebuilt until 1718. However, the Quakers would go on to remain on the site for another century until 1822.

Whilst occupying the site, the Quakers also maintained their own burial ground due to theological differences. Early Quakers were not allowed to be buried in Parish Cemeteries. They also believed in simplicity and for the first two centuries of their existence, rejected using gravestones. As a result, every congregation came with its own burial ground. Eventually, the Quakers would compromise on headstones by the 19th century, and subsequently started using Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. However until then, they possessed up two burial grounds in Sunderland, one on West Wear Street and the other on Nile Street. Whilst the latter was closed in the 1850s, the former was ultimately lost to history as the Quakers sold the building in the 1820s, with the remains also apparently reinterred.

A marker of where Quaker bodies are located at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery

Then, in 1991, when roadworks were being conducted on West Wear Street, a number of bodies were uncovered by surprise underneath some concrete slabs. These bodies were contained in coffins made of wood, with wooden handles, in line with the doctrine of Quaker simplicity. This site is now occupied by grassland adjacent to Panns Bank, and the Halls of Residence of Sunderland University.