Exploring Sunderland’s architectural gems

HEALTH CUT: The Royal Infirmary on Durham Road - now gone.
HEALTH CUT: The Royal Infirmary on Durham Road - now gone.
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ALL buildings great and small are spotlighted in a new book about Sunderland. Today we take a look.

WEARSIDERS are invited to take a trip down memory lane and explore the heritage on their doorstep.

Sunderland’s architectural gems, from the richest to humblest of buildings, are the focus of a new book by historians Michael Johnson and Graham Potts.

“Although of ancient origin, the city’s form today is largely a product of the industrial boom of the 18th and 19th centuries,” said Michael.

“The Georgian era, from 1714-1830, was a formative period in Sunderland’s history - a time when the foundations of the modern industrial town were laid.

“The Victorian period imbued Sunderland with new churches and chapels, as well as a diverse range of public and commercial buildings.

“And the exuberant buildings of the Edwardian period - such as the Empire Theatre - represents the pinnacle of Sunderland’s architectural achievements.”

Outwardly, according to Michael and Graham, Sunderland is an “ordinary provincial city” with no great claim to architectural significance.

But, although most buildings conform to national patterns in terms of style, materials used and construction methods, there are many hidden gems.

“It is studded with buildings of architectural interest, from the classical Holy Trinity Church to the mansions of Victorian industrialists,” said Michael.

“The Arts and Crafts church of St Andrew’s at Roker is a building of national significance, while the Sunderland cottages are virtually unique in England.”

The creation of Sunderland Parish in 1719 coincided with an economic boom and the building of new streets, houses and churches - including Holy Trinity.

Other great buildings of the era included Queen Street Masonic Hall, St John the Evangelist in Prospect Row and “salubrious” merchant houses in Church Street.

“No. 10 Church Street was built for merchant John Freeman in 1711. The bricks are laid in Flemish bond and the facade embellished with dressed stone,” said Michael.

“But, as the East End declined in importance, the houses were used as warehouses and workshops. No. 10 was converted into a pub - now known as the Hearts of Oak.”

Sunderland’s Exchange Building, as well as Fulwell Mill, Wearmouth Bridge and Webster’s Patent Ropery at Deptford were also built during the Georgian era.

But most of the historic mansions of that era - such as Ford Hall, Hendon House, Holme Land, Redby House and Low Barnes - have disappeared over the decades.

“These were mainly plain, but substantial, houses,” said Michael. “Among the most impressive was Ford Hall, which boasted fine portico on Ionic columns.

“Sir Henry Havelock was born here in 1795, and later won fame as a general in the British Army - helping to quell the Indian Mutiny of 1857.”

The arrival of the Victorian era heralded a “substantial increase” in public institutions across Wearside, including a Customs House and Register Office.

A County Court, General Post Office, workhouse, almshouses at Trafalgar Square and Sunderland Infirmary on Durham Road were also built during this period.

“The Trafalgar Square almshouses were built on the site of a workhouse garden and probably designed by William Drysdale, a builder and surveyor,” said Michael

“Later in the period, the Mowbray Almshouses - funded by Elizabeth Mowbray - were built on Bishopwearmouth Green - forming an impressive group with St Michael’s Church.

“The houses were an early design by Durham-born architect Edward Robert Robson, who became best known as the first architect to the London School Board.”

Other buildings commissioned by charitable organisations included Sunderland Sailors’ Home, Sunderland Orphan Asylum and the Gothic Pottery Buildings in High Street.

“The Pottery Buildings were paid for by the Backhouse family, to act as a community centre for the East End,” said Michael, a director of Sunderland’s Heritage Quarter.

“This was the first local design by Frank Caws, who designed the Elephant Tea Rooms, and the buildings were named after a pottery that had occupied the same site.”

Ryhope Pumping Station, the Blind Institute in Villiers Street, the Victoria Hall, Sunderland Town Hall and the Athenaeum were also examples of Victorian architecture.

Several schools, such as James Williams Street and Simpson Street, were built during this period too, as were the Hutchinson’s Buildings, Wood’s Bank and Sydenham House.

“Victorian prosperity engendered civic pride, and this was manifested in a wave of new buildings,” said Michael. “These were vital components of any ambitious town.

“Sunderland’s elite citizens endowed the town with private villas, speculative housing and much-needed public amenities, including museums, parks, hospitals and schools.”
The building boom lasted throughout the Edwardian era too - with lavish libraries, theatres, houses, courts, pubs, police and fire stations created throughout the town.

“Sunderland was at the height of its prosperity in Edwardian times,” said Michael. “The exuberant buildings of this era represent the pinnacle of its architectural achievement.”

Among the lavish Edwardian offerings were the Maritime Buildings, Sunniside Chambers, River Wear Commissioners’ HQ and Carnegie libraries at Hendon, Monkwearmouth and Kayll Road.

Rows of Sunderland cottages, such as the ABC streets designed by W. and T.R. Milburn, were built for the booming workforce too, and recreational projects also became big business.

“One expression of this was the building of opulent public houses,” said Michael. “The Dun Cow (1901-2) is the finest example of an Edwardian gin palace in the city.

“Designed by W. and T.R. Milburn, it was built to lure customers with its interiors of sparkling glass and lustrous wood. The Londonderry is another spectacular example.

“Viewed from a national perspective, Sunderland’s architecture may not be distinctive, but it arose from a fascinating local context and was shaped by the town’s economic growth and its people.”

**Michael Johnson and Graham Potts, authors of The Architecture of Sunderland, will be signing copies of the book at Waterstones in The Bridges from 12-2pm on Saturday. The book costs £20.