Sunderland residents will soon have the chance to learn about the north east’s fascinating, complex and often radical political history.

The Tyne-and-Wear section of Heritage Open Days – which is England’s largest free festival of history and culture – will open today (Friday 13th September) and last until Sunday September 22nd.

This ten-day extravaganza will include talks, activities and guided tours of the region’s buildings of historical, political and industrial significance. Over 40 of the festival’s events will take place in Sunderland.

One such event is ‘The Radical North’, which will be held on Saturday 14th September at Bethany Church, Bede Tower, Burdon Road, Sunderland from 10.00 am to 3.30 pm.

The Radical North – organised by the Sunderland Heritage Forum and Sunderland City Council’s Heritage Team – will see local speakers giving presentations on the theme of ‘people power.’

The talks will discuss influential local political activists such as John Lilburne, Thomas Hepburn, George Binns and James Williams. There’ll also be a talk on the Durham miners, discussions of the Peterloo Massacre, and even a little music.

Stuart Miller, the chair of the Sunderland Heritage Forum, said, “There is nothing new about the dilemmas and issues surrounding Brexit, and our speakers on Saturday at ‘The Radical North’ will argue that the early 17th and 19th centuries saw very comparable crises.”

“All the circumstances present today were present in the turbulent periods leading up to events such as the Great Reform Act 1832.”

“An Irish back-stop or ‘red line’, a seriously broken political system, in and out of European affairs, new social media such as handbills and newspapers, and emerging extreme radical and populist solutions – these were all present then as they are now.”

“Political and social history is very much about conflicting personalities, which are always present in a crisis.”

“Come along on Saturday and hear our entertaining and authoritative speakers describe how some of these local personalities helped influence the struggle for equality and human and workers’ rights on what is the 200th anniversary of the Peterloo Massacre, where 19 people lost their lives protesting for parliamentary reform.”

The full programme for The Radical North is as follows:

  • 10.30 – 11.20 am Retired university lecturer, author and member of the North East Labour History Society, John Charlton – The Wind from Peterloo
  • 11.25 – 12.10 am Former coalface electrician, member of the NUM and author of several books on the history of the Durham Miners, David Temple – Thomas Hepburn – Miners’ Leader, Preacher, Chartist
  • 12.10 – 1.30 pm Lunch break in the refectory (Buffet lunch is available but must be booked in advance or bring your own food.)  
  • 1.30 – 2.00 pm Music from The Silver Shantymen (in the main theatre)
  • 2.00 – 2.45 pm Former journalist, Sunderland Echo reporter and leading authority on SAFC and local political history, Graeme Anderson – George Binns & James Williams – Castor and Pollux of North East Chartism
  • 2.50 – 3.30 Liberation theology scholar and Chaplain to the University of Sunderland, Chris Howson – John Lilburne and the Agitators of Sunderland: Civil War and Radical Dissent

Other highlights of the Heritage Open Days in Sunderland will include:

  • Hard-hat tours of Holy Trinity Church, Church Street, between 10.30 am and 4.00 pm, Saturday 14th September
  • Heritage walks, which will take in Bowes Railway, Ryhope, Elba Park, Hetton and Roker. There will also be a ‘geology walk’ around Sunderland city centre.
  • Open days at Darwin Brewery, the Quaker Meeting House, Donnison School, Ryhope Pumping Station, Bowes Railway and Washington Old Hall.

Sunderland City Council’s cabinet member for communities and culture, Cllr John Kelly, said, “There are 40 tours, events and activities taking place across Sunderland to bring local history and culture to life during the regional Heritage Open Days programme.”

“There really is something for everyone, and I’d urge everyone to have a look at the website and see what’s on offer.”

Nationally, the Heritage Open Days programme is run by the National Trust, with support from the People’s Postcode Lottery, local councils and many enthusiastic volunteers.

The Tyne and Wear Heritage Open Days are organised by Gateshead, North Tyneside, South Tyneside, Newcastle City and Sunderland City Councils in partnership with the Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust, NewcastleGateshead Initiative, Sunderland Heritage Forum and the Newcastle-upon-Tyne Association of City Guides.

For more information, please go to or telephone Janet Robinson or Trina Murphy on 0191 561 8413.

(This article’s featured image shows a Chartist demonstration in 1848.)

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