Sunday, November 8, 2015

Sunderland Point - Cotton and Slaves

by Annie Whitehead

According to Wiki, Sunderland point is "a small village among the marshes, on a windswept peninsula on the mouth of the River Lune and Morecambe Bay". Hardly a description to pique one's interest. But come with me on a little tour of a place that stands immune to the passage of time, beyond the fact that the ships no longer dock here, and the warehouses are now domestic dwellings...

On this virtual tour, your feet will stay dry, but in reality Sunderland Point is only accessible via a single-lane track, which, much like the Island of Lindisfarne, is submerged at high tide. (Although unlike Lindisfarne, it is not an island and is unique in being on the British mainland and yet dependent on the tides for access. The name Sunderland is reputed to mean "sundered from the land").

Local places nearby named 'Catchems' and 'Snatchems' hint at a murky past of Press Gang operation in the area.

Developed as an 'outport' for Lancaster by a Quaker named Robert Lawson in the 18thc, in its heydey, Sunderland Point was rivalled only by London, Bristol and Liverpool. Reputedly, it was the place where the first bale of cotton landed in Britain.

The stump of the Sunderland point cotton tree is preserved - According to legend, the Cotton Tree grew from a seed imported in a bale of cotton. Although the tree was not grown from a cotton seed, it might actually have come from the USA. It is not a tree normally found in this part of the country, and the female is relatively uncommon in England. It might have been brought as a cutting by one of the sea captains on a return voyage from America.The wood was also used for brake blocks, clogs and even arrows (a clutch was found in The Mary Rose.)

A short, circular walk from the end of the causeway takes you along 'First Terrace', from where you can turn and walk past Upsteps Cottage, where the 'slave Samboo (or Sambo) is said to have been lodging when he died there in 1736. The walk to his grave takes you past the chapel, where if you look closely at the sign you can see that services are 'subject to tides'.

The story goes that Samboo/Sambo was a slave. His grave is out on the middle of the point because as a non-Christian he had to be buried in non-consecrated ground. That much is probably true, but whether he died, as is rumoured, from a broken heart waiting for his master to return from sea, or whether he contracted an illness, is open to conjecture. It seems more likely that he was a crew member of a West Indian trading ship. Reverend James Watson's verse, written in 1796, is still visible on the grave, although the original plaque was, unfortunately, vandalised and had to be recast. It reads:

"Full many a Sand-bird chirps upon the Sod And many a moonlight Elfin round him trips Full many a Summer's sunbeam warms the Clod And many a teeming cloud upon his drips. But still he sleeps - - till the awakening Sounds Of the Archangels's Trump new life impart Then the GREAT JUDGE his approbation founds Not on man's COLOR but his worth of heart."

As you walk away from Sambo's grave, turn round and see a stark reminder of the current largest employer in the area: Heysham Power Station, looming on the horizon.

Returning to the village you can see across to Glasson Dock, which eventually came to serve Lancaster as Sunderland Point fell into disuse. In 1728, Robert Lawson went bankrupt. By 1830, over 10,000 tons passed through Glasson Dock, most of it taken then to the Lancaster canal, construction of which had begun in 1792.

But reminders of Sunderland Point's heyday remain. Rounding the point, one catches sight of Sunderland Hall, a now slightly faded building of grandeur, dating originally from 1683, but with a 'Colonial' style façade added at a later date.

Walking back along second terrace takes you past the old warehouses (pictured at the top of this page) and past walls and gateways that offer glimpses of otherwise hidden gardens. Many of the buildings here are Grade II listed, and the whole village is so untouched by modern building that it was used as a location for the television production of "Ruby in the Smoke".

A final reminder before we leave, is of the capricious nature of the elements. These elegant Georgian buildings testify to more than just their history; all have flood defences - modern technology which must surely be an improvement on the past.

But the village, still inhabited but with a large 'holiday home' population, remains quiet, undisturbed by modern development and has the air, especially 'out of season', of an abandoned film set. To walk here, especially on a quiet day, is to get a real sense of how it must have been centuries ago. But you must imagine the noise and bustle of the great days of the ships' cargo being unloaded into the warehouses. Today, an eerie silence is broken by the sound of seabirds calling, and the fishing boats seem to add to the air of abandonment.


Annie Whitehead is an historian, and the author of To Be a Queen, a story of 9th/10thc Mercia. She also writes regularly for magazines and is rarely happier than when discovering the little nooks and crannies of the British countryside and digging into their past.

Find Annie at Casting Light upon the Shadow.


  1. Very local to me, this place, and lovely to see it featured on this blog. It is beautiful to walk there in Summer, but I imagine it is very wild in winter, and wouldn't fancy the idea of being at the mercy of the tides. Further down the coast is a village that was washed away in a mini-tsunami in the 16thC, so they need those sea defences!

  2. Thanks Deborah - we must live pretty close to each other! Yes, the day I visited was a quiet, balmy September day and all was very calm. I'm not sure I'd like to live there, as they are very much at the mercy of the tides - must make going to work quite a challenge! Of course, back in the day all those who lived there would have been employed there too, so it must have been less of an issue.

  3. A fascinating article, but I'd be surprised if arrows from the wood of the Sunderland cotton tree can have been found on the Mary Rose, which foundered in 1545!

    The surviving Mary Rose arrows are mainly of poplar, but there are also some of ash, beech and hazel. I've never seen any mention of arrows made of cotton wood being found on the Mary Rose.

  4. Sorry, this was perhaps badly worded; what I meant to say was that this type of wood was used for making these various articles. (As I understand it, the cotton tree is a type of poplar).

  5. Very interesting. A village frozen in time.


  6. Lovely commentary about a mysterious sounding place. The "cotton tree" must be a Cotton Wood, which produces tufts of "cotton" to carry its seeds. This is entirely different from a cotton plant which would have been the origin of the baled fiber from which cloth is made. So the tree was probably a cutting or sapling that was planted. Cotton plants dry & die after seed production. As a native Texan, I see plenty of both types of plant. Thanks for the interesting read.


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