How Elizabeth I and the Salt Industry Spurred the Rise of Sunderland in the 16th century

What we now know as Sunderland entered the Tudor era as an insignificant series of villages perched upon the River Wear. In the 1550s, it was estimated only 155 people lived in the town of “Sunderland” itself (then separate from Bishopwearmouth) to the East.

A small fishing settlement, its population was smaller than Durham, Gateshead and Newcastle, and was perceived by a Royal Commission as being even less significant as a visiting port than Hartlepool. The River Tyne on the other hand was a strong centre of commerce.

But England was changing. The Tudor era ushered in a series of economic developments which ended the feudal society of land ownership, created commercialisation and also dissolved the monasteries, which as it happened owned significant amounts of land on Wearside.

In this new economic environment, England under the Tudors began to compete with Scotland commercially and one new industry which emerged was the practice of iron salt panning, where the usage of an iron pan made it easier to separate salt from seawater by heating it up. This practice originated in Scotland and rather than being reliant on imports as demand surged, England copied it.

Now, if you are going to pan salt, you need a source of heat to so, and in the 16th century the cheapest and most convenient way to do so was through coal. This meant if salt panning was to get off the ground in England, it needed a source of water and a source of coal…

And it would be in the year 1587, under a commission established by Elizabeth I, that the salt panning industry was created in Sunderland on the banks of the River Wear, which of course had a water source, a port and a supply of coal which came from the village of Offerton to the west. By the 1590s, Sunderland was exporting 3000 tons of salt annually.

It would be from this new industry that the name “Panns Bank” and “Bishopwearmouth Panns” emerged. However more consequential was the fact that this development marked the beginning of Sunderland as a commercial town and ended its existence as an obscure medieval village.

Sunderland’s rise and development begins here, an industry which set in motion a chain of events which transformed it into one of the largest settlements in the North East and an industrial giant. These events of course also set in motion the rivalry between Sunderland and Newcastle, because the rise of the coal industry on the River Wear challenged the privileges of the Tyne, leading Newcastle merchants in the coming centuries to try and block Sunderland’s development.

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