Edwardian Sunderland

The Edwardian period was undoubtedly an important time for Sunderland, particularly in its role as a shipbuilding centre. It is estimated that in the three decades leading up to the First World War an incredible one in three ships in the world were built in the North East shipyards and Sunderland was the nation’s foremost shipbuilding town.


In 1901 there were 13 shipyards in the town, a year in which 77 ships were launched on the River Wear and in 1906, the peak year for Sunderland shipbuilding, there were 91 ship launches in the town, amounting to 366,000 tons.


At that time the industry, including its suppliers, accounted for up to 40% of the male labour force. Not that shipbuilding was new to Sunderland of course. This was a Sunderland industry that could trace its origins back to the thirteenth century, but it was in the nineteenth century that it really started to grow, reaching its peak in Edwardian times. By this time it had created widespread employment for the masses and helped to blossom a thriving and populous middle class. There were of course other industries that had contributed to Sunderland’s wealth. Coal mining, rope making, glass making and a number of extensive potteries were amongst the many Sunderland industries, though the potteries were in decline by the early 1900s.


Although the later part of the decade saw some serious industrial recession, the Edwardian period was a time of great optimism that was reflected in Sunderland’s civic developments of 1907. It was the era that saw a significant growth in Sunderland’s suburbs and saw the introduction of electric trams that became a convenient means of transporting the bustling Sunderland workforce from these outer reaches. It was an age that saw the introduction of the exciting and entertaining new medium of cinema to Sunderland and the era that saw the building of the Queen Alexandra Bridge - then the heaviest bridge in the United Kingdom. It was also the Edwardian age that saw the introduction of electric street lighting to Sunderland. Sunderland residents could look upon this last innovation with particular pride as it was a Sunderland man, Joseph Swan, who had invented the first electric light bulb back in 1878. Swan is now widely credited with beating his American rival Thomas Edison in creating this world-changing invention.


So it was in this remarkable Edwardian decade that public and private funds that were traditionally focused on industrial growth in the town were now made available for civic development. In the words of the Sunderland historian Tom Corfe: ‘The Edwardian decade placed an architectural crown upon Sunderland’s century of growth’.


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