In the late eighteenth century, the conurbation of Bishopwearmouth, Monkwearmouth and Sunderland on the River Wear, was a relatively new manufacturing centre that was expanding at a fast pace. As well as being a coal supplier, other industries including shipbuilding, glass making and potteries had enabled the area to emerge as an economic rival to its well-established ancient neighbour, Newcastle. In his A Sentimental Tour the Westmorland traveller, George Thompson, who visited Sunderland in 1796 conveys a sense of the energetic activity and development of the town in this period:

“I would gladly say how much the bustle, the active sinew of industry, and the fever of business among the shipping, and the noise of tongues, the vigorous repetition of axes and hammers, and a number of instruments uplifted, in all directions, for the purpose of improving this much favour’d spot, arrested my attention.”

Sunderland’s potential as a commercial outward port is summarised by The Universal British Directory published in the 1790s which notes that access to open water meant that ships from Sunderland had often left port, travelled to their destinations to deposit their cargo and returned home, before favourable winds had allowed ships on Newcastle’s River Tyne to pass the bar that blocked their departure to the sea. However, Sunderland was a town without formal government and lacked the traditional civic institutions such as the guilds and other bodies of civil society upon which identity and a sense of tradition and community typically developed. Actors from the Durham Theatre Company therefore stepped into this void, promoting charity and improvement as well as performing ceremonial duties, thereby helping to create traditions and establish new institutions.



Image by Edward Hastings, Sunderland Harbour from Roker, c.1850-1855 © Sunderland Museum & Winter Gardens