Extract from Buck's Map

Project Profile

Project Title :

Low Street, Sunderland

Client :

The Mandale Group

Type of Work :

Desk-Based Assessment, Evaluation,
Excavation and Post-Excavation Analysis

Project Gallery 

Old photograph Low Street   Low Street prior to development  
Old photo of Bodlewell Lane   Bodlewell Lane prior to development  
Old Photo of the north side of the High Street   High Street prior to development  


Low Street

Investigating Sunderland's Medieval Past - Low Street

In 2003 the Mandale Group engaged NAA to undertake a Desk-Based Assessment of a proposed redevelopment site situated between High Street and Low Street in the east end of Sunderland. The study concluded that the site lay within an area of medieval settlement which had seen intensive redevelopment during the 19th century when industrial expansion resulted in a massive increase in housing in the area. These buildings were subsequently demolished in slum clearance programmes in the 1940s and later the site was occupied by a fish processing factory.

Insurance plans suggested that the majority of buildings constructed in the late 19th and early 20th century had deep cellars which had the potential to seriously compromise the survival of any earlier medieval deposits. However, although it seemed that the chances of uncovering surviving medieval material were slight, the significance of such deposits, no matter how fragmentary, were considered to be of national importance and key to an understanding of the early development of the city.

Although a Roman fort is alluded to in the Notitia Dignitatum and Ravenna Cosmography, the earliest reliable documentary evidence we have for settlement at Sunderland is Bede's discussion on the foundation of the monastery at Monkwearmouth. The monastery was founded on land granted by King Ecgfrith to Benedict Biscop in AD 673. Bede records that the bishop made several journeys to Rome, and on his last visit brought back two silk cloaks which he later gave to King Aldfrith of Northumbria in exchange for the vill of South Wearmouth "which lay on the south bank of the Wear and so opposite the monastery".

By AD 716, the monastery's landholding was expanded by another land grant which included 400 acres on the south side of the river. According to Symeon of Durham, King Athelstan also gifted South Wearmouth and its associated land on the south side of the river to the see of Durham in around AD 930. Later, between 1179 and 1183, Bishop Hugh de Puiset granted a borough charter to "Wermuth" and mentions the rights of the burgesses of the settlement to common pasture. In 1358 Bishop Hatfield leased the borough, with its fisheries and Wolton-yare, to Richard Hedworth of Southwyk and by the time of the Hatfield survey, some 20 years later, the settlement on the south bank of the Wear had become known as 'Sunderland'.

In the early 15th century there are further references to Wearmouth. There are details of the monastic cell paying fees to a ferryman for passage from Sunderland, although the ferry is believed to have been in the possession of Bishop de Puiset as part of the Jure regalia. Later 15th century sources refer to a claim made by the Prior of Durham - the master of Wearmouth - to free passage by ferry. Following the Reformation Sunderland continued to develop, growing from a small village to eventually become a major port and shipbuilding town.

Following on from the Desk-Based Assessment, NAA undertook a programme of archaeological evaluation and excavation. This work did identify a small zone of preserved medieval features, fortuitously sealed beneath some of the buildings formerly fronting High Street. This material was of considerable significance, and so far represents the only archaeological evidence for medieval activity in Sunderland south of the River Wear.