Discover Sunderland’s Secret Garden

OLD DAYS: The entrance to Silksworth House, now known as Doxford House, in the 1960s.
OLD DAYS: The entrance to Silksworth House, now known as Doxford House, in the 1960s.
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A CHANCE to discover the hidden history behind a ‘secret garden’ is on offer to Wearsiders this week.

Groundwork, The Friends of Doxford Park and Silksworth Heritage Group have joined forces to host a “Bring and Share” history event at Doxford Park.

“It is a chance for people to discover the park’s hidden history, and share their memories too,” said Groundwork spokeswoman Helen Cheetham.

“We call the park Doxford Secret Garden because no-one, but no-one, was allowed in when the Doxford family owned the land. It really was a secret.”

Indeed, the grounds of Silksworth House, now known as Doxford House, were kept out-of-bounds to ‘lowly’ townsfolk from the 18th to 20th centuries.

“Only the very rich were allowed to view the gardens. Even tradesman didn’t get past the yards,” said Helen, a senior project officer at Groundwork.

“A corrugated iron fence ran around the grounds, so you couldn’t even see in, and any would-be trespassers were evicted unceremoniously.”

Silksworth House estate was separated from Silksworth Hall manorial lands in the 1500s, and the mansion was built in 1780 by William Johnson.

Durham lawyer Hendry Hopper inherited the house from Johnson in 1792 and, when Hendry died, he left the estate to his nephew Thomas Hopper.

“The house and estate then passed down to Hopper’s daughter, Priscilla Maria Hopper,” said Douglas Smith, of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

“After she married General Beckwith in 1831, the couple developed the estate, including the walled kitchen garden now known as the secret garden.

“General Beckwith had been in the Peninsular War and at Waterloo, but is chiefly remembered in putting down the Bristol Riots.

“Mrs Beckwith became a Catholic convert and built St Leonard’s church in Silksworth, naming it after a chantry chapel which lay under her estate.”

After the Beckwith family moved to Shropshire in about 1890, the estate was leased to John Craven, of British Ropes,until his death in 1902.

“The shipbuilder Charles Doxford took a 99-year lease on the estate that same year, and his family made Silksworth House their home,” said Douglas.

“It is from that era that the magnificent park and gardens were developed which, in their day, were a paradise - a secret garden indeed!”

A team of gardeners and gamekeepers were employed to care for the grounds, and a lake was constructed by head gardener Harry Whiteley.

Harry, who trained at Lowther Castle in Cumbria, also developed a Holly Walk - a dark tunnel of holly trees - and a waterfall driven by a generator.

“The original stream was redirected, so that the waterfall produced two spectacular cascades which could be seen from the house,” said Douglas.

Sadly, the beauty of the lake, waterfall and heated glasshouses containing exotic fruits all remained hidden from sight until the late 1960s.

Only after the death of Doxford’s daughter Aline, who bequeathed the estate to Sunderland Corporation, was the secret garden finally revealed.

“The grounds were opened as a public park but, because the garden was kept such a secret, the original layout remains a secret too,” said Helen.

“It would be wonderful if someone could come forward with memories or photos of the original gardens, although so very few were allowed to visit.”

Heritage Lottery Funding has been used by the Friends of Doxford Park and Groundwork to help bring the lost garden ‘back to life’ in recent years.

And, to help celebrate the rebirth of Doxford’s ‘secret garden,’ a series of heritage and community events are to be held at the park this summer.

The first, which runs from 1-4pm tomorrow, will feature a display by Silksworth Heritage Group and a chance to try out traditional Victorian games.

“We are also keen for people to bring along their old photos of Doxford Park and shares their memories of it,” said Helen.

“It doesn’t matter if the pictures aren’t that old, we are just as keen to see how the park looked when it was opened to the public in the 1970s.”

Tom Cranston, chairman of The Friends of Doxford Park, added: “We want to put together a full history of the park, and need people’s help to do it.

“The park is a piece of Sunderland history. Visitors can find out how people used to live, as the grounds were virtually unchanged for centuries.”

Sidebar: History of Doxford House and park

* The estate was part of the Silksworth Hall manorial lands owned by the Robinson family, but was separated from the main estate before the 1600s.

* William Johnson built a mansion house - Silksworth House – on the site in 1780.

* Lawyer Hendry Hopper, of Durham, inherited the estate from Johnson in 1792.

* Hendry left the estate to his nephew, Thomas Hopper. Hopper’s daughter, Priscilla, lived on the estate with her husband General Beckwith from 1831.

* The Beckwiths built a new main entrance, a heated Winter Gardens, drained much of the surrounding land and created a walled garden.

* The estate was leased to John Craven, of British Ropes, in the 1890s.

* Shipbuilder Charles Doxford took a 99-year lease on the house in 1902, while his brother, Robert, bought Silksworth Hall.

* Doxford, helped by his head gardener Henry Samuel Whitely, laid out the gardens and lake of Doxford House in the years before the First World War.

* Doxford’s daughter Aline lived at Silksworth House after her father’s death in 1935.

* Aline bequeathed the house and estate to Sunderland Corporation following her death in 1968.

* The house was renamed Doxford House by the Corporation, in honour of the contribution made by the Doxford family to Sunderland.