A look inside Sunderland’s historic orphanage

THEN: The once-grand staircase at the orphanage.

THEN: The once-grand staircase at the orphanage.

A HISTORIC landmark earmarked for a revamp is today the focus of Wearside Echoes.

Plans to transform the Grade II-listed East End orphanage into a dementia care facility were unveiled last year – and a banner promoting the development has just been pinned up outside.

The move is set to preserve the shell of the Victorian institution in Moor Terrace, which is currently on the Heritage at Risk Register, although sections will have to be demolished.

“Sunderland Boys’ Orphanage is one of the most iconic buildings in the city,” said local historian Carol Roberton. “It is just a shame that it has been left to stand empty for so long.”

The old orphanage, which stands on the edge of the Town Moor, rang to the sound of fifes, drums and the drilling of dozens of young boys in nautical ways during Victorian times.

Later, the building was filled with the hubbub of activities run by the East Community Association and, after East moved out in 1999, Hendon Young People’s Project moved in.

In recent years, however, the once grand old building has fallen into disrepair – as these candid shots by Sunderland photographer and local historian John Brantingham reveal.

“There is paint peeling from the walls, parts of the ceiling are rotten and there were several dead birds inside when I had a look round,” said John, a volunteer at the Donnison School.

“It is such a shame to see what was once a marvellous building end up in such a mess. I would like to see it restored to its former glory, as it such an important place.”

The orphanage was founded in 1861 following the Sunderland Orphan Asylum Act, at a time when one in five men went to sea and seafaring was the most hazardous occupation of all.

“Sometimes, shipowners over-insured ships of questionable seaworthiness, so they gained whether or not they delivered their cargo,” said Carol, author of several local history books.

“These vessels, known locally as ‘coffin ships’, left many widows unable to provide for their children. The Orphan Asylum was set up to look after the sons of those who perished at sea.

“Bed, board, clothes and a nautical education were offered, but what those poor mothers felt at having to hand over their lads to train to follow their dads to sea can only be guessed at.”

The institution, which became known as the Boys’ Orphanage, quickly gained a nationwide reputation for excellence.

Indeed, dozens of pupils went on to have outstanding naval careers.

In recognition of the huge response by locals to the creation of the Royal Naval Reserve, the Lords of the Admiralty even gave the masts, spars and rigging of a 10-gun brig to the home. Not to be outdone, the Secretary for War arranged for 10 “handsome six-pounder guns and their carriages” to the asylum as well, so that the lads could be taught gun drill,” said Carol.

“The good ship Victoria – named in honour of the Queen – was built in the playground and, from the ‘waterline’ up, it was fitted with every details of a 10-gun brig.”

The brig was “launched” on December 16, 1862, with crowds gathering to watch a training exercise with 150 men, a 21-gun salute and a fife and drum band playing Rule, Britannia.

It went on to serve the orphanage for the next 20 years, until being wrecked in a gale. Local pirates stripped the wreck of anything of value, and pupils were left land-locked until 1884.

“Sir James Laing and Captain Pinkey raised money and materials from local shipbuilders to eventually restore it. Carpenters and riggers from Laing’s completed the job,” said Carol.

“But wind and weather took their toll over the years and, finally, after a training career of 45 years, the ship that never sailed the seas was dismantled in November 1907.”

l Look out for another Now and Then feature in Wearside Echoes soon.




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