THE SUNDERLAND SAGA

Now here’s a tale of a proud new city.

Once a sundered land. Now sitting pretty.

Three hundred thousand ‘Mackems’ all bound in a ring,

With Washington, Hetton and Houghton le Spring.

Yet real success stories are ne’er without cost,

And throughout its long history many lives have been lost,

To Viking raids, bubonic plagues or Hitler’s deadly blitz.

‘Wearsiders’ have certainly learned to stand and take the hits.

The year six seventy four AD was when it all began.

The north bank of the Wear was granted to a nobleman,

By Egfrid of Northumbria in the Age now known as ‘Dark’,

When no one had even heard of ‘Sunderland Enterprise Park’.

Now Benedict (Benny to his friends – ‘Biscop’ was his name)

Built a monastery at Wearmouth achieving saintly acclaim.

He thought St Peter’s should evoke the style of Imperial Rome;

And soon all Light and Learning of England had found a spiritual home.

But Biscop wasn’t the only local lad to make a Saint.

A young monk at St Peter’s was working hard without complaint,

And soon he’d grown up to become ‘The Venerable Bede’.

Remembered to this day as ‘The Father of English History’.

Throughout this time the English coast lay vulnerable to attack.

A ninth century Viking raid saw the area violently sacked.

We’d wait two hundred years to once more hear St Peter’s bell,

When The Normans re-established it, Durham Cathedral’s monastic cell.

Now you’ll find no mention of Sunderland in King William’s Domesday Book.

He’d only have found a small fishing village there if he’d cared to take a look.

But the charter of 1154 then called it a Market Town,

And two hundred Wearside inhabitants had thrown their marker down.

The Middle-Ages were far from kind unto it’s kith and kin.

With famine and regular Scottish raids all taken on the chin.

And when the Black Death reached the town in 1349,

Half their people perished, though half recovered in no time.

See ‘Mackems’ then, like now, were nothing if not a resourceful lot.

They’d started making salt by boiling seawater in pots.

Then this was used to preserve their food all through the wintertime.

Well you couldn’t buy a ‘fridge’ at Curry’s in 1529.

With their salt in huge demand the town began to grow.

Their trade extended further by John Smith and Robert Bowes,

Who used poor coal from their own pit to boil the water down.

In iron pans, at a place soon known as ‘Pann’s Bank’ to the town. 

Bowes knew their coal was key if the Town was going to expand.

So in 1600 he built ‘Bowes Quay’ to deal with the demand.

Soon London and East Anglia both relied on their black stuff.

Despite Newcastle’s charter restrictions they still made more than enough.

Now driven by the taste of success they would not leave it there.

Exporting lime which protected walls from weather quite unfair.

Sunderland had now become England’s largest East Coast Town,

And the Wear’s own mouth had brought the means for nationwide renown.

But history tells us time and again that nothing lasts forever

And we must always be prepared for a sharp change in the weather.

For England suddenly went to war in sixteen forty one,

Not with France or Spain but with itself, the Civil War had begun.

Nowhere in England was tension keener than in North-Eastern parts.

With Newcastle fiercely Royalist, Sunderland took Cromwell to heart.

Old trade tensions resurfaced now in acts of dire brutality,

As ‘Parliamentarians’ attacked Charles’ strongholds, with many, many fatalities.

Had Sunderland followed their neighbour’s lead and supported the Royalist cause,

Cromwell’s essential supply of coal would have been at virtually nought.

But who could blame the Wearsiders for their Parliamentarian stance?

When years of Newcastle’s Royal advantage had led them a merry dance? 

By 1700 another new chapter had started to unfold.

Newcastle, due to its Royalist stance, had lost its trading hold.

Finally free to export at will Sunderland gained worldwide respect,

When with customary drive and no little skill shipbuilding was what it did next.

But a pier was required that could welcome all the big ships into port,

So the ‘Wear Commissioners’ were formed to see the town would get what it ought.

They built the first pier on the south of the Wear in 1723,

Adding a second, and then Wearmouth Bridge by the turn of the new century.

 Prosperous years were to follow thanks to a shipbuilding industry boom.

The four hundred shipyards on the banks of the Wear left little elbowroom.

A third of all ships in the Kingdom were built in a registered Wearside yard.

“The largest shipbuilding town in the world”, its impressive calling card. 

Yet the harm that is caused by industrial growth is not in mystery shrouded.

And like all the thriving towns at this time, Sunderland was soon overcrowded.

Unprepared as it was for the population surge; it paid a grave high price,

As dirty and unsanitary conditions helped deadly Cholera to strike twice.

Despite this misfortune the steam-driven age produced jobs like never before.

A new engine-powered ‘Rope-Making Machine’ brought demands for more and more.

The population grew tenfold throughout our great Victoria’s reign.

The Census of 1901 proclaimed a hundred and fifty thousand names.

But the Thirties depression and deep recession then hit this proud town hard,

One third of its workforce were soon unemployed and by rejection scarred.

Year after year, the town seemed to follow its industries into decline,

The community lifeblood so cruelly drained from shipbuilding and coalmines. 

But nothing’s more likely to rally the ‘Mackems’ than a bout of extreme bad luck.

An historic defiance now reflected perhaps in their passionate football club,

Whose capricious fortunes continue to echo the City’s own history?

Yes, Sunderland fans know only too well, the heartache required to succeed.

If you’d backed them for the Cup in ‘73 you’d have met with much derision.

Six months before, after ten straight defeats, they faced the drop from the second division.

Now Stokoe’s boys took on the mighty Leeds of Bremner, Giles and Gray,

And when Porterfield scored they were one-nil up…but still with an hour to play!

The Nation was gripped as wave after wave of Leeds attacks were mounted.

But the Sunderland ‘keeper Montgomery knew just how much his efforts counted.

Time and again, making world-class saves, he’d dived like a ‘black cat possessed’,

And when the whistle finally ended the game, near single-handedly beaten the best.

It was all too much for modest Bob Stokoe, who now set off like a hare.

Skipping with joy in his raincoat and trilby, it was obvious that he didn’t care.

He hugged his ‘keeper and danced a jig, as one hundred thousand fans stared,

And millions more of us watched on TV unable to utter a word!

Yet perhaps this moment has come to define what it is about ‘Mackems’ unique.

A humorous eccentricity belying a defiant, irreverent streak.

Forged in adversity throughout a long history it continues to serve their cause.

So take a bow now Sunderland, you’ve earned the world’s applause.

But what does the future for Wearsiders hold?

One billion invested or so we are told.

A new reputation via regeneration as a site of creative renown?

Whatever mutation, you never will keep the people of Sunderland down.

And for all of those who’ve played a part

In this city’s rich history, right back to the start;

Like Biscop and Gilpin, Robert Bowes and John Smith.

We honour your memory and salute you forthwith.

And when you are asked what has made you succeed,

You can quote from none other than the Venerable Bede;

With a strong ‘Mackem’ hand on your heart you can say, ‘Oh,

“Nil Desperandum Auspice Deo!”’

 

(c) Mark McGann, Drama Direct 2013

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