Sunderland was always about more than coal. Though the shipping of coal to the continent, London and the rest of the country dominated the economy of the River Wear, it was the development of other skills and the exploitation of other relationships that made that development possible. The argument here is that without the development of a distinctive local culture, above all in political organisation and exploiting contacts and patrons, both regionally and nationally, the economy at the mouth of the River Wear could not have developed so successfully between 1700 and 1800. It required a cohesive local business and landed class, participation in the political networks of County Durham and the region with regard to handling the problems of the coal trade and industrial disputes, and the passage through parliament of many enabling pieces of legislation. The integration of the place and its leaders into local and national politics was fundamental to the economic development of the river and port. The communities at the mouths of the Rivers Wear and Tyne, though growing rapidly between 1660 and 1800, did not form an incorporated town or parliamentary borough. Yet the course of the River Wear was deepened through the powers of the River Wear commissioners set up by an Act of Parliament in 1717, and many other improvements were made by the powers granted in subsequent legislation. The Wear became the other coal-exporting river along with the Tyne, vital to London's growing need for coal, and providing at least the possibility of competitive prices. Its national importance, however, could not be taken for granted, and it was the formation of personal and political links that made it possible.
The area widely known as ‘Sunderland’ was not a single place or, officially, a community, but rather, three parishes, one ancient ecclesiastical borough, one major industry (though with others competing for space and attention) and one river. There was no civic authority that encompassed all the people at the mouth of the river, nor a single form of representation to the county or the nation. The challenge is how to make sense of a town without formal civic government which was, nevertheless, able to operate effectively at all the levels of parish, river, region and nation.