In recent times, the rivalry between the two big cities of the North East has been largely restricted to the regions two main football teams – Sunderland AFC and Newcastle United. The relationship between the two sets of fans is mostly one of peaceful hatred which on occasion over the last hundred or so years, has boiled over into violence and even rioting.
However the rivalry goes much further back in time, far beyond the 120 years of North East football history. Sunderland, which has the distinction of being the largest urban conurbation on the east coast of England and the biggest city between Leeds and Edinburgh, developed largely due to its growth as a coal-exporting town using the River Wear for its output. The expansion of Sunderland occurred despite centuries of stern resistance from the prosperous and dominant town of Newcastle upon Tyne, which was in the privileged position of possessing a Royal Charter, inhibiting the shipment of coal from nearby competing ports such as the one in Sunderland. As a result of the Civil War, the competition between the ports of Sunderland and Newcastle intensified as Newcastle pinned its colours firmly to the Royalist mast.
In Part, Sunderland’s attitude was influenced by its large contingent of traders from Scotland as they sided with Oliver Cromwell’s Parliamentarians. The town received a battalion of Parliamentarians from Cromwell in 1642, this battalion was composed mainly of Scot’s. As a result, Sunderland became the centre for Cromwell’s assaults on Newcastle upon Tyne and Durham City, which had also sided with the Royalists.
The roles of both Sunderland and Newcastle in the Civil War were of tremendous significance. Newcastle was the main supplier of coal to London, if Sunderland had joined Newcastle in its support for the Royalists, the supply of coal to Cromwell’s London would have almost completely dried up, and the outcome of the war may even have been different. It is not too surprising that Sunderland placed its loyalties with Cromwell rather than the Royalists as it was a Royal Charter that limited the towns trade and provided Newcastle with a hugely unfair advantage in the competition between the two ports. For Sunderland, the major advantage of the Civil War was that its coal exportation expanded rapidly while Newcastle lost its monopoly forever.
In today’s peaceful modern age, both cities hold a Royal Charter and the coal industry is a memory, but strong feelings still exist. Sunderland and Newcastle are now partners in the county of Tyne and Wear, though the majority of Sunderland’s residents will testify that there is far more Tyne than Wear in this partnership. In previous times, Newcastle was the dominant force in the county of Northumberland and Sunderland ruled the roost in County Durham, but a government decision in 197_ clubbed the two together in the unlikely ‘marriage’.
Two main bones of contention rile the Sunderland population, the first of which is the Tyne and Wear Metro system. Sunderland Rate payers pumped millions of pounds into the system over a 25 year period and the intention during the construction of the rail network was that it would serve Sunderland as well as Newcastle, at the ‘completion’ of the system it soon became apparent that the system paid for, primarily with Sunderland money, did not come anywhere near Sunderland! Finally, in the year 2000, the Metro system is linking to Sunderland, but it still has to be said that the areas being served are very limited in comparison to the comprehensive Newcastle network.
The second major cause of concern in the Wearside half of the county, is the International Airport, located where else, but to the North West of Newcastle. Again, the majority of the funding for this enterprise came from Sunderland, a 20+ mile drive away. The name of the airport? Newcastle International Airport!
Bitterness and rivalry between the two big cities of the North East will continue to exist until the blatant Newcastle bias shown by the various Tyne and Wear bodies and the local media ceases. Even when this unlikely day arrives, the football teams and fans will be going at each other hammer and tongs.