Today's Object of the Week is a plaque which highlights a regional rivalry which has persisted for centuries.

The growth of Sunderland in the 17th century took place despite centuries of fierce resistance from the wealthy town of Newcastle - which held a royal charter restricting coal shipment from nearby ports.

Sunderland - and places like South Shields, North Shields and Gateshead - found their efforts to develop successful port facilities thwarted by intimidating Newcastle merchants.

But during the Civil War, an opportunity arose for Sunderland, Newcastle’s biggest emerging rival, to make a challenge to that city's regional supremacy.

Newcastle was staunchly Royalist but in Sunderland there was some significant support for the Parliamentarian side.

A powerful family of Sunderland merchants called the Lilburnes were influential.

‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne, a close associate of Oliver Cromwell, was the founder of the radical Levellers movement who claimed everyone was born with “freeborn rights”. He would go on to write a suggested constitution for England in 1649.

The Northern Echo: ‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne WAS a close associate of Oliver Cromwell‘Freeborn’ John Lilburne WAS a close associate of Oliver Cromwell (Image: THE NORTHERN ECHO)

His uncle, George Lilburne, was one of a number of merchants in Sunderland that opted to support the Parliamentarian cause in the English Civil War.

In 1642, Sunderland received a garrison of Scottish soldiers – Covenanters – who supported the Parliamentarian side.

The Scots, nicknamed ‘Blew Caps’ (blue caps) from their attire, set up a camp south of the river in Bishopwearmouth on a site near the present Wearmouth Bridge (though there was no bridge in those days). It is thought there were already a significant number of Scots living amongst the Sunderland inhabitants at this time.

A plaque near the bridge in an area once called Bishopwearmouth Panns records their presence here.

Sunderland became a centre for Parliamentarian military campaigns against the Royalists in the North East, the most significant of which was arguably the great siege of Newcastle in 1644.

For a time, the walled Tyneside town held out against Parliamentarian forces that included Scots from the Sunderland garrison. Despite heavy resistance, the defences of Newcastle were eventually crushed by the constant bombardment of cannons from the Gateshead side of the river.

Sunderland’s stance in the Civil War aroused much bitterness from Newcastle Royalists.

Writing in the 1820s, the Durham historian, Robert Surtees mentioned the following rhyme in connection with the Newcastle residents’ reaction to the Scottish siege:

Ride through Sandgate, up and doon; There you’ll see the gallants fighting for the croon; And all the cull cuckolds in Sunderland toon; With all the bonny blew caps cannot pull them doon.

The authenticity of the poem may be in doubt, as Surtees was not above making up a verse or two to illustrate a historical point.

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Whatever the truth behind the ballad, the role of Sunderland and Newcastle in the Civil War was of extreme importance as Newcastle was the major supplier of coal to London.

If Sunderland-Wearmouth had followed Newcastle and supported the Royalist cause, the essential supply of coal to Cromwell’s London would have been virtually cut off and perhaps the outcome of the Civil War may have been different.

One result of the Civil War, was that Sunderland and its coal trade began to rapidly expand while Newcastle, though it remained the premier coal exporting port of the nation, began to lose its monopoly hold on exporting North East coal.

  • Thanks to local historian David Simpson for his help in compiling this feature.

For more on the history and culture of the North East visit his website at