History of Sunderland: The Odd Story of the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse

The Wheatsheaf Hotel is a well known pub in Sunderland, be it for good or bad. The area around it has similarly been a transport nexus for thousands of years, as it was once the former centre of the ancient village of Monkwearmouth and of course, a thoroughfare route to South Shields and Jarrow. But did you know, once upon a time, there as a Lighthouse situated next to it? What was its purpose? Why was it there? Here we dive into the tale of the “Wheatsheaf Lighthouse.”

The year was 1870. A man named Walter Willson started up a successful flour business and purchased a property opposite the Wheatsheaf hotel (the first incarnation of the building). Walter, being a highly ambitious and determined businessman, wanted his headquarters to become an iconic site that would secure his legacy and lead all people to it. In doing so, he came up with the eccentric idea to build a lighthouse onto his property, mirroring the design of the former one on the old North Pier.

Willson therefore built a three storey lighthouse, designed to be fully functional, even complete with a furnace and cellars. However, Sunderland authorities denied him the opportunity to light it up claiming that it would create a hazard for shipping and misdirect sailors. Thus, it remained unlit for its life time, except for one night in honour of Walter when he passed away. Willson’s business nonetheless lived on, and became a grocery chain throughout the North East which continued to be based in the Lighthouse building for many decades to come. Later on, by the 1960s, the premises was occupied by a sweetshop

However, by the year 1970, the building itself became derelict and the local council opted to knock it down. This decision was hastened by the fact that on Bonfire Night that year, the building caught fire and ultimately burnt down, as it spread to the surrounding premises 60 firemen were required to bring the blaze until control. The lighthouse shined and glowed, but not in the way Walter could have ever imagined it to do so. What was left was ultimately demolished, and now all that remains of the Wheatsheaf Lighthouse is a green space adjacent to the Roker Retail Car Park.