This community led archaeological project examines the briggstones which were located in the River Wear at Hylton and will examine various other sites along the river to provide evidence to underpin Sunderland history and heritage.
Sunderlands Forgotten Stones
The areas of Castletown, North and South Hylton and Ford have a rich history that can be traced back to at least the Norman Conquest.
The Hilton (later Hylton) family were resident in the North of England in King Athelstan’s time (c.895-939). During the Norman invasion the two sons of Lancelot de Hilton joined the Conquerors forces. One brother died fighting at Faversham and as a reward William the Conqueror rewarded the surviving brother with lands on the River Wear. Apart from the castle the land was mainly used for farming until the industrial revolution.
The villages of North and South Hylton grew up mainly in the 19th Century when the banks of the river were busy with shipbuilding yards, potteries and chemical works.
In the 1800’s Ford had two potteries and Castletown was a mining village.
The old road from Sunderland to Newcastle crossed the river between South and North Hylton and there was a ferry known as a ‘bovine ferry’ (large enough to transport cattle) which is known to have been in existence since at least 1322.
There is a mystery connected with the river at this point and it has caught people’s interest and imagination for hundreds of years.
For centuries historians and antiquarians have debated the origins of a stone structure that spanned the river between North and South Hylton.
It is thought that the stones had allowed people to cross the river, but they were almost completely removed in the 1800’s.
The details of whatever was built using the stones may be lost in the mists of time but the removal of the stones is well documented in meetings of the River Wear Commissioners(RWC), in the local press and in the meetings of the antiquarians at the time of their final removal.
Lister (a local shipyard owner) wrote a long letter about his memories of the stones in the Sunderland Daily Echo in 1881. His letter was in response to the further efforts to clear the stones from the river. Lister described the stones as having formed a bridge and he related how some of the stones were removed to his shipyard. Lister’s letter created lots of discussion at the time and he described the stones in great detail, the lead fixings removed from the stones and a plaque with writing on it that later went missing.
There is very little evidence now on the river to indicate where such a structure could have stood. Since the 1700’s the river has undergone significant changes and there has been persistent deep dredging until recent years.
Around 1713 there were complaints about “ye stones of the old bridge being a nuisance to the river“.
The stones referred to are known locally as briggstones or bridgestones and the earliest map available to make reference to them is one by Burleigh and Thompson dated 1737 where ‘Bridgestones’ are clearly marked running adjacent to the north bank of the river at Hylton.
In Victorian times the keel men working on the river complained of difficulties navigating the stones at low tide and the remains of the structure were removed by the RWC. The RWC were tasked with improving the river from the mouth up to and around Hylton. This was primarily to facilitate the trade in coal but there were other commodities (like pottery and glassware) and grindstones that were exported from Sunderland. There was great competition with Newcastle.
There were many shipbuilding yards and ship repair yards all the way from the mouth of the river to Hylton. The shipbuilders needed a good, straight, deep river free of obstruction to build bigger and bigger ships.
Some of the stones in the river were so large and so well embedded that it was reported in the newspapers that the dredger Hercules damaged its teeth and was put out of action when trying to dredge them up.
The famous Sunderland diver Harry Watts was employed to raise the remaining stones.
When Harry Watts was busy bringing up the stones he also found a bronze sword and the remains of an ancient dugout canoe in the River.
It was assumed at the time that the sword was Roman but it is now thought to be from an earlier period. The canoe can still be seen today not far from the entrance in Sunderland Museum and it is now thought to be mediaeval.
Where did the Briggstones come from?
They are likely to have been quarried in North Hylton. Some of the stones are marked with ‘X’ or ‘XII’ which could be old quarry marks.
But we don’t know how and when it was built and who built it…
One theory is that the briggstones must be from a Roman bridge built in the time of Agricola to assist the Roman army moving north to Scotland.
Another theory is that the Romans built a dam which would regulate river levels to help boats to reach Chester-Le-Street. These supply boats would be loaded with supplies of grain from South Shields and make their way up the river to the fort. This would be a quicker and less manually intensive method of transport than using carts and having to build roads for the carts.
Certainly the river was known in Roman times as it was mapped by the Ptolemy who named it ‘Vedra Fluvius’, but by the time of Bede the name of the river was recorded as ‘Fluvius Wiri’ and ‘wiri’ is interpreted as meaning a weir.
Was the river named after an actual weir and if so where was it and was it the stone structure built at Hylton? We don’t have the answer to this.
There are several crossing points recorded along the river – for instance, the ferry at Hylton can be dated to the 1300’s and a ford at Baron’s Quay is marked on old maps. There were several ferry crossing points nearer the mouth of the river which are recorded as far back as the time when St Peter’s monastery was active as they are recorded in ecclesiastical records.
The river used to be a good salmon fishing river and there is also evidence of mediaeval and post-mediaeval fish weirs.
Some historians think that the structure might have been mediaeval and probably linked to the development of the area by the Hylton family.
There is written ecclesiastical reference to a ‘great flood’ in 1400 around the time of ‘Our Lady’s Nativity’ that affected the River Wear. It washed away ancient bridges in County Durham and the ferry crossing at Bodlewell near the mouth of the river was badly damaged. Could this flood have caused damage to the structure and collapsed the stones into the river? Are these the troublesome stones which remained in the river causing problems as reported later by the keelmen in 1713? In that case whatever it was had to have been built before 1400.
So far no written evidence has been found of who built it and why.
The Victorians did a thorough job of removing the structure so there is no physical evidence apart from the thousands of tons of dressed stonework at various sites along the river and a couple of the dressed stones at the site of the old ferry steps at North Hylton near to the Shipwrights pub. Whatever it was it would have been very large.
Many of the stones, once removed, were used in the construction of the old north pier and south dock. Some were sold off to help construct Seaham Harbour. It is believed that some were incorporated into the base of Penshaw Monument whilst others are still being used to block off car parks. Some stones were simply dumped out at sea to get rid of them.
Some of the reused stones, some in excess of six tons, are now at risk of erosion and loss to strong tides and storms.
These stones are important to assess as a number of them have Lewis holes with evidence that they were joined together by iron straps and molten lead butterfly cramps (opus revinctum). This is a method of construction that started with the Romans but is known to have been used again in later periods.
Other stones are ‘voussoirs’ which are the shaped stones used in the building of self-supporting arches. This method of building arches was originally Roman but again is known to have been used in later periods; a good local example is at Tansey Railway Arch near to Beamish.
Sunderland Forgotten Stones Project
During 2016-2018 the Sunderland Forgotten Stones Project was commissioned to examine nine sites along the River Wear in Sunderland which may lead to some answers about the stones and provide new information about the industry that lined the banks.
This Project has been made possible by a Heritage Lottery Fund Grant awarded to Castletown Neighbourhood Action Group (CNAG). 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, the project will focus on the story of the stones and the history of the industries and people who made their living along the bank of the River Wear between Hylton and the mouth of the river at Sunderland.
Credit must be given to Ian Stewart, Denny Wilson and Norman Kirtlan for driving the project forward.
The project has been supported by the Northern Archaeology Group and many other volunteers.
The appointed archaeologists for the project are Wardell Armstrong LLP. https://www.archaeologists.net/ro/1303-wardell-armstrong-llp
Some of the sites to be investigated are;
- A large stone quayside located at South Hylton and to the East of the Golden Lion Pub. This will be the first dig site and it is hoped that it will shed light on the stone structure that stood in the river near to this location. The opposite side of the river correlates with the stones marked on the Burleigh and Thompson map mentioned earlier. This site was known as High Ford Dock.
- A site in North Hylton in a field near to the Shipwrights Pub site where a 2012 Archaeological Desk-based assessment, produced amongst other things, a 1950s aerial photograph of a massive ‘parch mark’ in the field. This field is near to the site of the old Maling Pottery and in the past there has been evidence provided on maps that there were extant farm buildings nearby.
- A large stone built slipway/jetty that leads out in to the river near to the South Hylton site will be investigated and additionally two other sites nearby where bronze age and mediaeval finds have been reported.
- The archaeologists will visually examine other sites along the river at Baron’s Quay and nearer to the Port where there have been river crossings and reported finds. Some of these sites have protected plants and it will not be possible to conduct any investigation that disturbs the ecology.
- A limited number of the stones lying at Roker and along the river will be laser scanned. It is not possible to scan them all as there is too many and some stones have been incorporated into the piers or lie in the sea.
It is hard to ignore the tantalising references to Romans made in connection to the stones. Old books concerning Sunderland reecord Roman finds and Roman pavements in the area. Roman coins and artefacts have been reported as being found in small quantities throughout Sunderland. One of the best finds is a small Romano-British statue (found in Fulwell) which is displayed in the Great North Museum (with a copy displayed at Sunderland Museum).
It might be logical to think that Romans must have been active in Sunderland because they built large forts and granaries all over the North East – why not in Sunderland?
When the Project started everyone hoped that the stones would prove to be Roman.
If evidence was found to support the theory that there was a Roman bridge or dam at Hylton the site would be of world-wide importance and interest.
Disappointingly to all, from the investigations to the sites carried out so far there has been no evidence of any Roman activity, but as the Project progresses the rich history of the areas industrial past is becoming evident and this is proving to be just as exciting.
This history of the river at Castletown and Hylton is being lost as time progresses and previous uses and activity fade from people’s memories. The river is reclaiming its banks. The quaysides and moorings that would once have thronged with industry and workers are slowly becoming concealed and unnoticed.
2017 – South Hylton riverside and North Hylton field sites
The project started with several opportunities for volunteers to visit the archives in Sunderland Newcastle to look at the RWC records and any records relating specifically to the sites involved in this project.
School visits were conducted to involve local children.
65 stones were laser scanned and we are awaiting the report.
During 2017 the two main sites, identified as being areas of prime interest, were examined by the archaeologists and volunteers, including the Northern Archaeology Group.
Site one at High Ford Dock, South Hylton completed on 18th August 2017. This area had been identified as the most likely site to find insitu evidence of the briggstones.
It was a challenging site to examine as there was only access at low tide and the mud was very slippy and difficult for the archaeologists and volunteers to work on. Site safety was of paramount importance. Before the dig could start an environmental/ecological permission had to be granted. The Crown Estates had to give their consent for the river frontage to be disturbed.
It took a couple of weeks before the bank was fully uncovered showing the evidence of what had been there previously.
The archaeologists produced a detailed drawing of the stones they had excavated along the river bank and reached the conclusion, along with the findings of Gary Bankhead (a specialist archaeological diver from Durham University) that this was the site of the former Wighams Ship Repair yard.
Gary found some large dressed stones running underwater along the north bank of the river (which may be the Bridgestones marked on maps, but would need further investigation) as well as other artefacts probably related to Wigham’s slipway but his dive was limited due to the river conditions and weather.
On the last day at the site Dave Jackson (the lead archaeologist for this site) summarised the findings;
He explained that the site excavation produced lots of finds mostly dating from the 1800’s and 1900’s consisting of bricks, small shaped stones, clay pipe fragments, bits of pottery, glass and rusted metal items (that look like big nails or tools).
Dave explained that the river must have been used by Romans due to their activity in South Shields and Chester le Street, but on this initial site excavation no evidence of Roman activity had been found and there were no finds unearthed dating to the period of the Romans in Britain . He realised that would disappoint many people, but he explained that what had been found was very interesting.
It was hoped that a further dive could be arranged to examine further the artefacts of Wighams yard still in the river and to have another look at the stones along the North bank.
Dave explained that he hoped that with the re-discovery of this site that there should be renewed interest in this the history of South Hylton and that because of this site our knowledge of Sunderland’s very important history of ship building and ship repair would be expanded.
To our knowledge the site of an old ship yard has not been archeologically examined previously in Sunderland.
You can read our blog page here about the initial findings: http://www.sunderlands-forgotten-stones.com/site-review-18th-august-2017/
Dave explained that all along the river he could see evidence of Sunderland’s industrial past just slowly rotting and being over taken by vegetation. This would one day be lost forever.
The second site examination completed at the end of October 2017. This dig was timed to coincide with half-term to allow children to participate and local schools were contacted to remind them of the opportunity.
It was made possible by the landowner allowing access to his land.
The main feature of the second site examined was a large crop mark that had been identified from an aerial photograph taken in the 1950’s. It was difficult to determine from the photograph what the crop mark was.
The site was previously on part of the old Woodhouse estate, which was at one time owned by the Maling family. The estate was used for farming but the Malings operated a pottery from the site from 1762 until 1815 when the family transferred the pottery to Ouseburn in Newcastle. Afterwards it operated for a short while as a pottery but eventually closed.
There were a couple of large houses on the Woodhouse estate apart from the farm buildings. One of the houses which can still be seen by the river is known as Mansion House just along from the Shipwrights pub.
The shipyard belonging to the Potts family used to be nearby.
When the field was investigated the dig revealed the remains of a post mediaeval farm house. There were some interesting small finds spanning from the post mediaeval to 20th century. These finds included lots of pottery shards and saggers which came from the pottery on the riverside.
The archaeologists think that the pottery shards and saggers came to be in the field because they were dumped there.
Saggers are a type of kiln furniture made out of clay which are used to protect pottery during the firing process.
The archaeologists are excited about this site because this area has not been examined in depth before and there is a lot of historical evidence which has still to be unearthed and a story to be rediscovered.
The ancient estates of Woodhouse and Hylton were closely related to the story of the development of the river in Sunderland as it turned from a sleepy shallow river with small villages along the banks to one deeply affected by the industrial revolution and the redevelopment of the river by the RWC.
Shipbuilding and pottery were two of the main industries in Sunderland and on this site there is evidence of both of these activities.
There is a large collection of Sunderland Pottery in Sunderland Museum but only two examples in the Museum’s collection are thought to have come from this site.
Maling Pottery became one of the largest richest potteries in the world in its time after it moved from this site to Newcastle at Ouseburn, but not much is known about where it all started.
During the examination of both of these sites there was lots of volunteer involvement without which the project would not have gone ahead;
- visits to the archives
- working with the professional archaeologists on the sites (actually digging)
- Coordinating visitors to the sites and explaining why the sites were being examined
- school children were encouraged to visit the field site to meet the archaeologists and become involved in the dig and washing of finds
- photographers were encouraged to visit the sites, record the activities and finds and send in their photos for inclusion on the website,
- finds washing
- supplying tea, coffee and sweets to the diggers (which was very important when working on the cold wet riverside at Site 1)
- a small team coordinate the website and social media and to Graham McCarroll for helping with the technical aspects of the website.
- Keith Cockerill ( a local historian and author of several books about the river and Sunderland) and Kath Fall (from East Durham Photographic Association) provided many of the photographs and allowed them to be used on this site and in social media. This was important as it allowed a wider community to see what was happening on the sites.
There has been involvement from community history groups like Sunderland Antiquarians, South Hylton Local History Society and good press and media coverage.
We also need to thank the Crown Estates and the landowner of Woodhouse farm for allowing access and the National Heritage Lottery Fund for providing the funding.
At the South Hylton site many visitors from the local area shared their memories and local knowledge with the archaeologists.
January 2018 update
The project has been dormant during the Winter as it is difficult to work on the sites in bad weather and in the short dark days.
Wardell Armstrong are preparing site by site reports which have not been published as yet.
During the Winter the archaeologists from Wardell Armstrong, Ian Stewart, Denny Wilson, Norman Kirtlan, CNAG, the Heritage Lottery Fund and Northern Archaeology Group and other volunteers have been busy taking stock of where the project is to date and what needs to happen next.
During 2018 the remaining site examinations identified in the original project specification will be completed.
It is proposed that a larger physical examination is made of the Maling Pottery site area as well as desk based research on the pottery, associated wharf and the extent of the ship building in that area.
We will be looking at the people involved at this site and their historical context in relation to the development of the area and contribution to Sunderland.
It is hoped that this examination will provide evidence of the industrial development of the site and allow formal recording of some of the artefacts still in existence to be recorded properly before they disappear.
The Project will provide further opportunities for volunteers, schools and local community involvement and we will advertise opportunities in social media and on the website.
This website will receive funding for one more year.
Please look at our Facebook page, Twitter and the blog and news pages of this website for more information as the project progresses during 2018.
This site is being updated as new information is received. Our home page images show some of the many briggstones at Roker, d other images relevant to the project. Keith Cockerill has kindly permitted us to use an image showing how the briggstones may have looked crossing the river.
Please contact us via our contact form or by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org