Sunderland Guide: The East End

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Location: Starting on High Street East, to the East of Sunderland City Centre

The East End is the historical centre of the City of Sunderland, and up until the second half of the 20th century was the true “core” of the town, which gradually moved westwards. The area was where the settlement known as “Sunderland” was born and emerged, and was home to the majority of the area’s population. Although the East End suffered a decline in population and significance following the redevelopment of Sunderland after World War II, it nonetheless remains a golden era of historical interest which contains many of the city’s oldest buildings and institutions.


An artist’s depiction of a medieval map of Sunderland

The East End was the origin point of the village known as “Sunderland”. Emerging as a small fishing village on the Southeast bank of the River Wear, it has been hypothesized that its name refers to a “Sundered” or “separated” land. Life on the original settlement was situated around the Town Moor, a stretch of open free land that was home to commercial and sporting activities.

For most of its history, the village of Sunderland was under the parish of Bishopwearmouth, situated to the west. The two areas were connected by a single road known as “Kings Road”, soon to become “High Street”. However, from the 1600s, the sleepy village of Sunderland began to grow as the Tudors commissioned a salt panning industry on the banks of the River Wear. This shift transformed Sunderland from a small village into a commercial town.

A drawing of Sunderland in the 18th century

By the 1700s, Sunderland was a growing settlement and its first parish Church, the Holy Trinity Church, was built in 1719. The early town spanned across two main streets, “High Street” on the upper bank of the river, and “Low Street” on the lower bank. As the years passed, the settlement of Sunderland slowly expanded westwards and gradually merged with the neighbouring Bishopwearmouth. By 1796, the first Wearmouth Bridge was built, connecting the area with Monkwearmouth to the north, and the name “Sunderland” subsequently grew to refer to the area as a whole.

As Sunderland became an industrial and port town, thriving on shipbuilding and the export of coal, the East End became the booming centre of all residential and commercial life. Massive population growth and inbound immigration seen Sunderland rapidly become the 15th largest settlement in Britain by the 19th century. However, everyday life was hardly ideal for its working class population. In what was normal for Victorian Times, the East End was overcrowded, dirty and many people lived in slums in very narrow streets. A census from the 1840s in Baines Street shown as many as seven families living in a single home! The poor quality of life, and being a port town, led to Sunderland becoming the entry point of the Cholera epidemic in the 1830s.

Malings Rigg in the Old East End

By the 20th century, Sunderland began to expand further outwards, with social housing schemes being created to clear out slums and alleviate the pressure on the old East End. The first of these projects was Ford Estate in the 1930s. Likewise, the area expanded southwards with the creation of modern Hendon and Grangetown. Then, after World War II, the government of Clement Attlee pursued a large scale expansion in social housing schemes which seen all of Sunderland’s westward suburbs be constructed. The East End subsequently declined in population, and many of its old overcrowded streets and garths were knocked down.

Things to see and do

In the present day, the East End of Sunderland is a quiet residential area, but that does not mean there is nothing left to see. Many areas of historical interest remain. This includes the Holy Trinity Church, no longer a place of religious worship, but an events and community organization known as 17Nineteen. Its old church yard, with most of the graves removed, contains the bodies of over 100,000 people, with a notable headstone remaining commemorating the local hero, Jack Crawford.

Next to it is the Donnison School, a historic school house for poor girls built in 1796, and next to that is the original Trafalgar Square, a place of residence for disabled and aging Navy Veterans which was created for those who fought in that monumental battle, created before the monument of the same name in London. Other places to see in the East End include Angel’s Place, another 18th century building, now the meeting club for the local Hells Angels chapter, the Boars Head Bistro, purportedly a lasting tradition since 1724, and the Clarendon, which claims to be one of the city’s oldest operating pubs.

Continuing on from that, you can also visit Phoenix Hall, another gem from the 1700s which is the oldest continuously operating Masonic Hall in the World,. Then finally, there is Sunderland Maritime Heritage, a small museum and charity dedicated to promoting the city’s shipbuilding history. Beyond historical sites, in the East End you can also walk across the beautiful Quayside on the South bank of the River Wear and explore the Old Town Moor. Above all, the East End is an incredible nostalgic trip, a window into Sunderland’s heritage and past.