Often to peoples surprise, the site formerly known as Galley’s Gill can be found only a handful of metres upstream from Sunderland’s Wearmouth Bridges, approximately two miles from the mouth of the River Wear where it meets the North Sea.

Photo: Riverbank view downstream from Galley’s Gill towards the Wearmouth Bridges

Photo: Facing northwards from ‘deep inside’ Galley’s Gill under Gill Bridge – the top of Sunderland Football Clubs’ “The Stadium of Light” can be seen centre left

Covering a relatively small area of a few hundred square metres, its location on the steep rising south banks of one of the North East of England’s principal waterways has witnessed considerable land use change over the last millennia, and provides valuable insight into the social, industrial and environmental events in Sunderland from even earlier historic periods.

Indeed, more broadly, as Moffat and Rosie (2005) state quite plainly, “…the ice shaped the landscape of the North-east and the landscape remembers it” (2005:11). Geologically, Magnesian limestone remains the prevailing feature at Galley’s Gill, this limestone capping (Permian scarp) rising from a sandstone succession with accompanying coal measures (House 1969:101).

The River Wear remains arguably Sunderland’s most pivotal landmark and as a result of Galley’s Gill position alongside this meandering river, historic associations are largely testament to the strategic influence of the river as a conduit to transport, military defence and industry.

Photo: Contemporary view upstream from Galley’s Gill towards the Liebherr Sunderland Works, at its Ayres Quay base on the south bank of the River Wear.

Known to the Romans as Vedra, commentators differ as to the origins of the River Wear’s name, with Dodds (2001) suggesting the possibility of it deriving from the Iron Age, from the Celtic word meaning ‘water’ or ‘river’, and others suggesting a derivation of the word for ‘bend, curve’. Irrespective of etymology, the River and its associated sites can lay claim to earlier lithic remains from the Stone Ages; the log boat (exhibited at Sunderland Museum) similarly provides human activity in the late Bronze Age.

Evidence of Roman occupation around Galley’s Gill relates to the suggestion of a Roman signal station where Dodds (2001) cites a variety of scholarly authorities to suggest that such an installation on Wearside may be at the site of the former Vaux brewery at Castle Street – now part of the new Siglion project. As projected plans for the very same site continue to be developed, what would appear to remain a certainty is that, as House (1969) stated so emphatically fifty years ago, “…the dead hand of the past continues to pose the planner with the need to transform the traditional cultural landscape, developing here, controlling there, running down and planting over elsewhere” (House 1969:94)

Photo: The single span iron  Wearmouth Bridge (1793 – 1796) with the steep sided limestone escarpment leading to Castle Street on the right.

The Boldon Book provides a picture of the social and economic conditions of the bishopric of Durham at the end of the 12th C. The episcopal borough of Wearmouth (Bishop- and Monk- ) lay either side of the River Wear and were later absorbed by the younger coastal settlement of Sunderland. Bishopwearmouth, the parish where Galley’s Gill is located, formed part of the ancient patrimony of St Cuthbert and it is without doubt that the situation at the mouth of a navigable river by all three settlements and the “increase of commercial relations which marked the 12th Century that a sea-port village would naturally grow into a borough that served as the focus for the concentration of an industrial and commercial population” (Cookson and Page 1905:14). Indeed, “the staple articles of trade at a growing Sunderland were salt and herrings” (Bowling 1969:26) before the shipbuilding industry started to really take off around the mid-1300s. Productivity was largely connected with global depressions and periods of boom, and undoubtedly the reprecussions and demand associated with various wars – from the Napoleonic wars (1801 – 1815) through to World Wars I and II.

It is worth underlining at this stage the importance of the Church in the Middle Ages, with the parish church of St Michael and All Angels [today’s Sunderland Minster] belonging to the Bishop, “who appointed its rectors, the priests responsible for providing services and pastoral care in return for income derived from property and church dues.” (Meikle and Newman 1969:76). This is of further significance to our understanding of Galley’s Gill, given its more commonly used name until the 1850s – Rector’s Gill, or Rectory Gill, as featured on the Rain’s Plan for Sunderland. [The Eye Plan of Sunderland and Bishop Wearmouth from the South, (known as Rain’s Map), is one of the earliest maps of what we now refer to today as the City of Sunderland]. Drawn between 1785 and 1790 its section on Bishopwearmouth portrays the rectory, which the earlier Ordnance Survey maps of the mid 1800s start to refer to as Galley’s Gill. The reasons for this name change are not clear, but various conjectures exist. See “What’s in a name?”.

By the early 1600s, “the rector of Bishopwearwouth, formerly the community’s most important figure, now had to compete for influence with an influx of gentleman entrepreneurs”, namely those directly invested in the expanding salt and coal trades (Meikle and Newman 1969:109) as well as shipbuilding and associated trades such as “pulley-maker, shipwright, sailmaker, boatwright and boatbuilder.” (Smith and Holden 1953:15).

Photo: Aerial View over Galley’s Gill showing the Lambton Staithes. The current Gill Bridge ican be seen crossing across the Gill. Read more about the fascinating history of Gill Bridge.

Innovative railroads built to transport coal from County Durham and Northumberland collieries further inland to ports such as Sunderland began to replace the keel-boats that continued to use the waterways method. With the introduction of the steam engine in 1712, coal industry wagonways using steam locomotives instead of being horse drawn, were able to keep pace with the burgeoning demand for industrial coal from London and other cities and home and abroad.

The Galley’s Gill area showcased this as well as anywhere else (see photo below), and was heavily banked with many retaining walls and criss-crossed by colliery railways in cuttings and tunnels running to the coal drops on the river, namely the Lambton and nearby Hetton Staithes. [It is worth noting that reference made by Smith and Holden (1953:15) to the ‘Jackdaw Rocks’, the site where the Lambton Drops were erected – any information on this would be appreciated]. The original bridge across the Gill was built around 1848 (Gill Bridge) between Gill Bridge avenue and Farringdon Rd for pedestrians to cross.

Photo: Looking towards Galley’s Gill form the north bank of River Wear. Note the Lambton drops, and coaling staith railways in the foreground, with Gill Bridge seen in the background.

The closure of the staithes in 1967 changed the landscape considerably and the area more recently named Riverside Park and earmarked for more recreational activity (see Google image).


Photo: Google Earth image over Galley’s Gill (now Riverside Park). Note the straight edge river bank sections that provide evidence of the former Lambton Staithes.

Interestingly, the notion of the area being used as a park is not remotely novel, as the following article from The Sunderland Echo, Tuesday, September 9, 1879 demonstrates.

And so the landscape of Galley’s Gill lies before us today – in whatever guise and under whatever name but with the enduring legacy of an area that provides a window into a bygone parochial and industrial age but one that must surely be considered as perfectly featured to embrace the challenges and opportunities of the future. A new public park anyone?




Bowling, H.G. 1969. Some chapters on the History of Sunderland.

Burnett, J. 1830. The history of the town and port of Sunderland and the parishes of Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth.

Cookson, G & Page, W. 1905. A History of the County of Durham Vl. One. The Victoria History of the Counties of England. Constable: London.

Dodds, Glen Lyndon. 2001. A History of Sunderland. www.east-durham.co.uk/gall/?/Other+Towns+and+Villages/Sunderland/Deptford/DEP+006.jpg

House, JW. 1969. Industrial Britain, The North East . Newton Abbott, David and Chalres.

Meikle and Newman. 2007. Sunderland and its Origins Monks to mariners

Pamphlets Volume D 1. County Durham Records Office. Durham.

Moffat, A and Rosie, G. 2006. Tyneside: A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times

Smith, JW and Holden TS. 1953. Where Ships Are Born : Sunderland, 1346-1946: a History of Shipbuilding on the River Wear. Thomas Reed Publishing, Sunderland.

Wilson, B.R. Recollections of Sunderland in the 1820s by Robinson Crusoe an East End Captain (Capt. Bracey Robson Wilson). Produced by Sunderland Antiquarian Society.