Wearside Echoes: Buried history treasure

FAREWELL: The demolition of Cleadon Hall in the 1930s.
FAREWELL: The demolition of Cleadon Hall in the 1930s.
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THIS year marks the 140th anniversary of the burial of a little slice of history within the grounds of a Wearside mansion. Today we take a look. FRANCES Annie Stuart Wilson was a little girl with a big passion for writing.

The Sunderland-born youngster, eldest child of a wealthy shipowner, was educated in Latin and French at a Welsh boarding school and spent her holidays at the family mansion – Cleadon Hall.

But, despite her privileged upbringing, Frances was lonely. She longed for a friend to play with – and it was this desire which eventually prompted her to start writing letters to an imaginary cousin.

Instead of posting the chatty little notes, however, she buried them in a bottle under a tree in 1872 – where they were found by workmen demolishing the grand old building more than six decades later.

“Letter Bottled 63 Years Ago – 1872 Cleadon Girl’s Picture of Family Life” – revealed the Echo’s headline over a story documenting the discovery in December 1935.

“As the bottle was tightly sealed, the papers are practically unchanged. The writing is in black ink and very plain. Frances was a better scholar and writer than many girls her age today,” it added.

Several letters written by Frances during the summer she turned 13 were discovered in the bottle, together with a copy of the Newcastle Daily Chronicle and pages from The Graphic newspaper.

Three Victorian coins, a penny from the reign of George III and a postcard, on which the name of South Shields MP Mr J.C. Stevenson was written, were also crammed into the container.

Full details of just one of Frances’ notes, however, were published by the Echo in 1935 – which helped to shed a little light on what life was like for a wealthy Wearside family in Victorian times.

Addressing the letter to “My dear cousin Addie,” Frances wrote:

“I am going to tell you all about myself and what I do at Cleadon. My birthday was on August 8, 1872. I was 13 and I am a good size for my age – so Miss Worth, my governess, says.

“Cleadon Hall is a very nice house. It is being altered now. We had only one large window at first, now we have three. The kitchen garden is very large, so is the other one.

“We only have the breakfast room now; it faces the back garden and has a window. My bedroom will be done when I come back at Christmas. It faces the front and has a big window.

“We found a quantity of old bills and things in the roof, dated 1749. We have put a bottle with some things in (the loft) this morning. I wonder who will get them out, and how long it will be.”

Frances also revealed in the letter that she had seven brothers and sisters, all younger than her, and that the youngest – ten-week-old William Percival Ward – had yet to be christened.

“Mamma has been very ill,” she added. “Jessie (Frances’ sister) has twisted her thigh and has to be still all day. She is only five and very patient.”

Frances appears, however, to be more interested in the “beautiful donkey” the Wilson’s kept as a pet, rather than her siblings – as it was used for carrying food down to the beach for family picnics.

“We have two carriers for it,” she wrote. “We often go down to the sands and bathe, and take our dinner in the cart or one of the other carriages.”

The youngster also gave a brief mention of her education in the letter too, telling “Addie”: “I go to school at Dolgelly, in Wales, and I learn French, music and Latin. I have not begun German yet.

“The middle one, Joey (her brother Joseph), is going to school at Dolgelly with me – to the Grammar School. He is very delicate.”

Frances signed off from her letter as “Your affectionate cousin,” before burying the note under a tree. Council worker George Barker, from East Boldon, was to discover the bottle 63 years later.

“I shall keep the things for some time, to see if the writer or any of the people mentioned are alive,” he told the Echo. “They will hold a good deal of sentimental interest for the family.”

** It is not recorded if the family ever claimed the letters and newspapers, but a 1980 story in the Echo reveals the dancing slippers and sword hidden by Frances in the loft were never found.

Sarah Stoner - @WearsideEchoes


LONDON-born shipowner Joseph Wilson was in his late thirties when his wife Sarah – who hailed from Norfolk and was 14 years younger than him – gave birth to their first child, Frances.

Although born in Sunderland in 1859, Frances is noted in the 1861 census as living with her parents in the Westoe area of South Shields. Within ten years, the family had moved to Cleadon Hall.

Several of Frances’ siblings, including Edith, Jessie and William, are believed to have been born at the hall – a building which was to provide a home for the Wilsons until then late 1880s.

But, by the time of the 1891 census, Joseph, Sarah and their children Florence, Edith and William had moved to 4 The Avenue in Sunderland. No further mention can be found on the fate of Frances.

The final census for which information is available, taken in 1911, shows Sarah, by now an 82-year-old widow, running a boarding house at The Avenue – helped by daughters Florence and Edith.

The Wilson’s old home of Cleadon Hall was taken over by land and property owner James Humble in the late 19th century, who used to keep hunters on the estate.

Cleadon Hall had become affectionately known as Humble’s Hall by the turn of the 20th century but, when John and his wife passed away, the mansion and estate were sold on by their family.

The post-war years saw the hall taken over by the local council and, by the mid-1930s, the decision was taken to demolish the building – to help allow for the widening the main South Shields road.

Sidebar: People named in letters written by Frances * Joseph Wilson - her father * Sarah Wilson - her mother * Her brothers and sisters: Joseph Henry, Charles Gilbert, Florence, Jessie and Edith Mary * Visitors: James Brown (Commodore of the Fleet,) John C. Preston, William Percival Ward * Domestic staff: Rebecca Cooper, Ann Wishart and Margaret McLelland * Workmen: James Wilson (mason), Dan Cummings (joiner), George Cromwell Oliver, Robert Young Elliott, James Taylor (gardener), John Wilson (mason), Samuel John McNally (boy), John Clark and William Dunn.