Sunderland’s Forgotten Stones
For centuries Historians have debated the origins of a stone structure which once spanned the River Wear between North and South Hylton – but a definitive answer has yet to be found
Was it a Bridge, Dam, Causeway or Weir? Why was it built? When was it built?
Who would have had the motive, wealth, manpower and skills to construct such a massive piece of civil engineering?
There are reports that around 1713 there were complaints about “ye stones of the old bridge being a nuisance to the river“.
During Victorian times, after keel men complained of difficulties navigating the stones at low tide, the remains of the structure were removed by the River Wear Commissioners.
Some of these stones were so large and so well embedded that the dredger Hercules damaged its teeth and was put out of action.
That is when they engaged the famous Sunderland diver Harry Watts to raise the remaining stones.
Note (Andrew Carnegie the famous millionaire industrialist and philanthropist met with Harry Watts in 1909 and said afterwards: “I have today been introduced to a man who has, I think, the most ideal character of any man living on the face of the earth. You should never let the memory of this Sunderland man die.”)
It is recorded that Harry just didn’t bring up just stones, he also brought up a Roman Sword?
This Project has been made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant awarded to Castletown Neighbourhood Action Group. More information about the Heritage Lottery Fund can be found here: https://www.hlf.org.uk/about-us
In a specification written up by Tyne and Wear County Archaeologist and professionally supervised by accredited Archaeologists working with Volunteers and schools, our project will focus on the Heritage of what stones and timbers remain at this site and other nearby interlinked sites, as many of the stones (some in excess of 6 tons) have been removed, reused or dumped in other places and are now at risk.
A number of these stones have Lewis holes and were joined together (underwater) by Iron straps with molten lead butterfly cramps (opus revinctum), a method of construction discontinued after the Romans left Britain. Other stones are voussoirs as used in the building of arches.
We will investigate a large stone built slipway/jetty that leads out in to the river nearby to the South Hylton site.
We will also look at a nearby site where a Roman figurine, coins and pottery have been found.
We will also examine an adjacent site where a 2012 Archaeological Desk-based assessment, produced amongst other things, a 1950s arial photograph of a massive ‘parch mark’ in a field close by the river.
Note: There is a ‘’missing’’ Roman Fort Nerviorum Dictensium, believed to be somewhere between South Shields and Chester le Street?
We will carry out a Petrology report on the stones.
A 2014 Petrology report carried out by a freelance Petrologist and experts from Newcastle & Durham Universities at the Anglo Saxon church of St Peter’s, Wearmouth, Sunderland, states that there are reclaimed, reused, Roman stones in its construction. The Report also states that the sandstone used in some door and window frames at St Peter’s was quarried at North Hylton.
The authors ask where was the site of this nearby Roman fort, bridge or monument, as all the known ones (Arbeia & Segedunum ) are too far away, and too much of an arduous journey to transport heavy stones.
So if there was an abandoned stone structure at Hylton, would it be logical to assume that the builders of St Peter’s took some of the abandoned stones downriver along with the quarried sandstone?
We will look at the heritage of how the river got its name.
Bede writes in Latin in the History of Abbots of the ‘Fluvius Wiri’ – which translated into Saxon is ‘River Were’
‘Were’ is the Saxon word for – Weir (a structure built to raise water level) – could the river be named after such a large structure built across it?
Note: If the water level was raised, this could have made the river navigable up to Chester le Street a few miles upriver.
It is a fact that hundreds if not thousands of tons of dressed stonework was removed from the river at Hylton and this evidence can still be seen at nine visible sites.
Many of these stones were used in the construction of the old north pier and south dock. Some were sold off to help construct Seaham Harbour and it is believed that some were incorporated into the base of Penshaw monument.
We will be investigating these reused stones and those that are dumped as a breakwater by Roker Pier. These stones are being eroded by strong tides and storms, others are being used to block off car parks.
Some are still in the river very near the site of the original structure and only exposed at low tide.
The site of the very large ‘parch mark’ is in a farmer’s field very near the site of the original structure and close to the riverside site where a Roman figurine, coin and pottery shard was found.
Our project will focus on the nine sites individually, then bring together all the findings, information and knowledge gained, to be able to build a bigger picture and be able to tell the whole story of the forgotten stones, which could add to and open up, a whole new dimension to the history of the river Wear.
Denny Wilson. C.N.A.G
This site is being updated as new information is received. Our home page images show some of the many Brig Stones at Roker, a brig stone on the footpath leading down to the Potato Garth, and an image of the Golden Lion Pub near to the site of the old Hylton ferry and an image showing how the Brig Stones may have looked. (Photographs courtesy of author and historian Keith Cockerill).
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