Sunderland Characters

To begin with, this page is all about Sunderland characters from the olden days. However, if there are any modern-day famous characters you would like to highlight, let us know. Obviously, if you wish to add any other Sunderland characters to this page, you can do so. All you need do is provide some information when you fill in this form. An image or two will be helpful too, of course.

Sunderland Characters

Peggy Potts

Peggy Potts - East End, Sunderland
Peggy Potts was born Margaret Potts in Low Quay in the East End of Sunderland in 1789. Furthermore, she always claimed that she was related to General Havelock of the Indian Mutiny fame.
But her own fame came with her ability to outwit the law anyway she could. Obviously, the aim was to make her some money, mainly by smuggling.

Indeed, she would sell fish and cheese from a stall in the Old Market as cover for her smuggling activities. Once, Peggy was carrying a keg of contraband drink when a customs officer arrested her. Then, as he took her back to Bodlewell police station, she wanted to go behind the bushes to relieve herself.

While behind the bushes, she emptied out the keg and filled it with her urine. So that when the customs men examined the contents at the station they had no proof of her smuggling. Of course, again, Peggy had outwitted the law.

When old age crept and Peggy could no longer work, the Parish Workhouse in Church Walk took her in. Indeed, she died there on 10th October 1875 at the age of 86.

Sunderland Characters – The French Onion Seller

Monsieur Paul Grall - French onion sellers
The French Onion Sellers were once familiar people in Sunderland. Most of the sellers came from Brittany in France. However, Monsieur Paul Grall was the most famous of these characters.
Indeed, he would came to the East End of Sunderland every year for over thirty years. Furthermore, he would take over premises as a base in High Street East, Sunderland.

From here, he would then organise his other 15 French salesmen. In short, their jobs were to sell their better quality onions to the people of Sunderland.

These Frenchmen came to Sunderland from as far back as the 1800’s. In those days they strung their onions over a pole, balancing a bag at each end, of course. In the later years they acquired bicycles and strung the bags over the handlebars. High dock charges and carriage rates soon made it impossible for the onion sellers to come over and make a profit out of their onions. So they gradually disappeared from the scene.

Eliza Lang

Eliza Lang - Pear Lady
Eliza Lang was also another famous Sunderland character from the olden days. Indeed, she would sit by her door in Flag Lane in Sunderland’s East End selling pears to the passers by.

Hot Potato Man

Hot Potato Man in Sunderland
People in Sunderland also knew Mr Reay as the Hot Potato Man. This is because he sold hot potatoes from his barrow outside the Theatre Royal in Bedford Street. Indeed, they tasted great with a sprinkling of salt and eaten straight out of the bag.
Children and adults loved him for his efforts, of course. He sold his hot tatties for for 65 years, 6 days a week every week no matter what the weather.

So it was a sad day on 25th September 1953 when he collapsed and died at the age of 74. But, his son Tommy soon took over the business.

Maggie O’Hare

Maggie O'Hare - fishwife
Maggie O’Hare was a popular Sunderland fishwife but her real name was Mrs Bulmer. While fishwives were beginning to wane, Maggie continued and was one of the last in the area. Indeed, her favourite selling place was close to the Sunderland Echo offices.
This, of course, is at the end of the Wearmouth Bridge, where the Echo 24 building stands now.

Elizabeth Rackstraw

Elizabeth Rackstraw - midwife from Sunderland
Mrs Elizabeth Rackstraw was a famous Sunderland midwife of the early 1900’s. Born in 1868 she delivered 7,000 babies until her death in 1942. However, her own daughter, Henrietta, died at her home in Henry Street East.
This was in 1925 by her boyfriend who committed suicide after he murdered her.

The Crab Woman Sunderland Characters

Crab Woman - Crowtree Road
The Crab Woman sat in Crowtree Road in the town centre selling fresh boiled crabs. However, she used a pram to sell them from. So she was a familiar figure for her efforts and people loved her for this.
Indeed, children often walked along the street picking the crab meat out of the crab legs with a hairpin. It was the fathers who usually grabbed the nippers, of course. The mothers then took home the back and pocket of the crab to make sandwiches for the tea.

Hatter Matter (Atta Matta)

Atta Matta - Hatter Matter East End woman
Indeed, Hatter Matter or ‘Atta Matta’ lived in Hendon, Sunderland. Furthermore, her name was Shirley, daughter of the George Street Rat Catcher. Many people say that she had a speech impediment but was a kind woman all the same.
When people were unhappy she would say “atta matta”, the translation being “what’s the matter”, of course.

Atta Matta was unkempt and on many occasions people would give her things to wear. However, more often than not she would sell these things for beer money. However, she was no bother at all and indeed takes her place as one of the great Sunderland characters.

Benjamin Redfern

Benjamin Redfern - ferrymanFerryboat on the River Wear called FB Vint
Benjamin Redfern was born in Church Street in Sunderland’s East End (1856). He was famous because of his work as a ferryman crossing the River Wear on the ferryboat, ‘Vint’. Of course, the Wear ferry, Vint was in service up until the late 1950’s.

Benjamin must have been old on the Vint because it didn’t come into service until 1926. In fact, in July 1957, the Vint made its last journey to and from Bodlewell Lane.

Of course, this was the last time the River Wear would have such ferries.

Bagman – Sunderland Characters

Bagman or Bag Man with carrier bags
The Bagman of Wearside is obviously a contender for the Sunderland characters hall of fame. Although he doesn’t appear to be a sociable chap, he is pretty harmless. Many people have tried to chat to him but he never seems to reply. So, what’s in his bags?

Bagman or Bag Man is often around the town carrying many bags around with him, thus his famous name. Indeed, many people take him for a Billy Connolly lookalike. Sometimes he has that many bags he seems to shuttle a few forward, then goes back for the rest. Nobody knows much about the famous Bagman and he doesn’t talk, so the mystery goes on.

Jimmy Jesus

Jimmy Jesus - tramp - Sunderland Characters
We believe that the real name of  Jimmy Jesus is Tony Lydon so if you know better, let us know. People would often see Jimmy Jesus roam the Sunderland streets from Red House and Southwick. Of course, people gave him a wide berth.
This is because his matted hair was in tats and he was generally unclean. Obviously, he got the name because of his appearance.

In fact, Jimmy Jesus struggled with his walking which suggests some problems with his feet or legs. The rumours are that he broke up with his partner then ended up in this sorry state. He may have slept in an outhouse rather than sleep indoors but this was his choice.

Brian Moore – The Spectre

Brian Moore - The Spectre
Brian Moore was a painter who came to Sunderland in the 1970’s and then got the name the ‘Sunderland Spectre’. He would often dress up in a Victorian style complete with top hat and tails. Brian also had a cane to match as well. Indeed, he stood tall and proud.
Furthermore, Brian Moore was a very sociable character who would always have time to stop for a chat.

Indeed, Brian came to Sunderland from Yorkshire and made the town his home. He was also always a regular visitor to the town centre and on most occasion was in his Victorian attire. In fact, he would regularly visit the pubs and even the night clubs in town.

He continued this through to his twilight years and would often sell sketches in the pubs for £1. This he would do in order to pay the bills. Sadly, Brian Moore died in July 2016 at the age of 77. Of course, many people paid their respects as his procession made its way through the city centre.

Other Sunderland Characters

Obviously there are many other Sunderland Characters specific for certain areas and who don’t visit the City Centre. Therefore, if you can supply a paragraph or two, fill in this form. Please, ensure that you don’t knock the person, of course. Indeed, just tell us a few characteristics that make them special in some way. It would also help if you upload a picture or two as well.

Here are a few other names that people have sent in but provided no information about. So, if you can help out with a few details, please do so.

Dave The Rave
Billy Dodds
Ronnie White


Wearside Online is proud of our region and people, of course. We will continue to write about the history of the area and the people that make our region special. Have you tried out the Sunderland Message Boards (SMB) yet? Our Sunderland Forum allows local people to socially interact with others, So, pop over and have your say.

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4 Responses to Sunderland Characters

  1. ruth mckeown says:

    Our mother Winnie Davis, was born in Sans Street in 1927 (one of 10 children). She had 6 children of her own. and as well as being a caring and loving mother, she found the time and energy to improve the lives of people in her local community (Hendon and the East End of Sunderland).

    She was instrumental in establishing a range of community projects for children and young people of the area, including Bangladeshi children. These projects included the East End Play scheme, Hendon and Young People’s Project, and the well known East End Carnival.

    Throughout her active years in the community (until reaching the age of 80 years) she served the people of the area. She also worked for Social Services supporting vulnerable families in the East End.

    Her commitment and enduring voluntary work for the people of the area was rewarded by being given the honour of an MBE. She accepted this on behalf of local people rather than for herself.

    Winnie is now 93 years of age and in good spirits and has many happy memories!

    We have photographs of Winnie but not sure how to upload here. I can copy a few and post them to you if you can email me a postal address on my email address below Thanks

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  2. paul says:

    Jimmy Crawley / peas and barley was his nickname and frequented the pubs in the town.

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  3. Mike says:

    Brian Moore, the Sunderland Spectre was a lovely man. I only met him once and a real gent. RIP Brian, a loss to Sunderland.

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  4. Sid says:

    Brian Moore (spectre) great guy ,had the pleasure of serving him in the brewery tap.

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