Wearside Echoes: Chronicling Whitburn’s grand hall

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WEARSIDE Echoes readers could hold the key to unlocking the secret past of a seaside stately home.

Local historian John Yearnshire has spent the past six years delving into the archives to research Grade II-listed 16th-century Whitburn Hall and its former residents.

But, if his hopes of turning his research into a book are to come to fruition, John needs the help of readers to gather further evidence, photographs and memories.

“I have amassed a large amount of information and images relating to the hall and the aristocratic Williamson family of Monkwearmouth and Whitburn, who lived there,” he said.

“However, I am desperate to discover any images of the hall, hall workers or relatives of these workers, who may have fresh information or photographs. I am particularly interested in the period between the Second World War and its demise in 1980.”

Whitburn Hall – a manor house dating to at least 1598 – was originally owned by Richard Kitching, who sold it on to Canon Leonard Pilkington, the retired rector of Whitburn Church.

The Williamson family took over the hall in 1719, but it was not until April 1790 that they finally moved to Whitburn – after their main residence, Monkwearmouth Hall, burned down.

“My interest in Whitburn Hall was sparked when I moved to a flat in the grounds several years ago,” said John. “It is such a fantastic place to live; full of history and with wonderful views.

“I find the subject so intriguing. I started off researching just the hall, but then had to move on to include the Williamson family as well – as you really can’t do one without the other.”

The Williamson family settled down happily to life at Whitburn Hall, developing a three-storey extension in 1813 which changed the small manor house into a stately home.

Respected Newcastle architect John Dobson was called upon to design a large music room within the new wing in 1864, and a wide range of plasterwork and woodwork was also carried out.

“Sadly, there have been no books written just about the hall, and I have only been able to track to newspaper stories and antiquarian articles. There is nothing in-depth available at all,” said John.

“Thankfully, I have had a great deal of help from members of the local history society – for which I am very grateful. I’d like to write my own book now, as it hasn’t been done before.”

Although the Williamsons enjoyed happy times at Whitburn Hall, the link was finally severed when the 250-year-old family seat – by now just a flat within the hall – was rented out in the 1950s.

Ownership of the estate had passed to 19-year-old Sir Nicholas Williamson, the 11th Baronet, by this time and he was planning to attend university after completing his national service in the army.

“In recent years the flat has been empty for long periods and opened only for a fortnight a year,” reported the Echo in 1956. “While Sir Nicholas is at university, he will not want to stay at the hall.

“The flat will be let for at least five years, but the estate is still being held in trust for Sir Nicholas until he comes of age. Whether he will decide to live at Whitburn is not yet known.”

Sir Nicholas Frederick Hedworth Williamson, pictured right, who died in 2000, did not return to the North East. Instead, just a few years after his flat was rented out, the hall was threatened with demolition.

But plans to build flats on the site met with fierce opposition in 1961 and the grand old building gradually deteriorated over the next two decades as the wrangle over its future wore on.

A series of fires at the stately home finally prompted its demise. Sunderland-based building firm L.W. Evans snapped up the site and in March 1980, bulldozers moved in to flatten the hall.

“Whitburn Hall was a dominant factor in village life for more than 400 years, but the Williamson family sold it to a local building firm when the up-keep became too expensive,” said John.

“This stately old landmark then remained empty whilst the new owners tried to sort out planning permission to demolish the old hall and build 34 flats on the site.

“However, during this time it became a target of vandals and was in a bad state of repair due to damage and fire.

“Some 60 per cent of the roof was missing and the first floor severely damaged.”

Today just memories remain of the imposing building where Alice in Wonderland writer Lewis Carroll was once a regular visitor – but John is determined the hall will never be forgotten.

“I would be very grateful for any help or assistance Echo readers may be able to give me about the hall,” he said. “I really am struggling to find information from the 1940s to the 1980s.

“I have a wealth of information from the earlier years, including some marvellous photographs from the early 20th century, but I would love to talk to people with later memories of the hall.”

l John can be contacted by email at yearnshire@hotmail.co.uk or by phone on 529 4826.

THE connection between Wearside and the aristocratic Williamson family has its roots in the mid-1500s – when Lord Thomas Whytehead acquired the former lands of St Peter’s monastery.

The estate was secured in 1642 by Colonel George Fenwick, who then bequeathed it to his daughter, Dorothy. She married Sir Thomas Williamson, of Nottinghamshire.

Thomas, of East Markham, had been made a Baronet for his support of the Royalist cause during the Civil War. His new wife became Dame Dorothy – a name remembered today as a street name.

Descendants went on to take a major role in the development of Sunderland. Indeed, the fourth Baronet served as High Sheriff of Durham from 1723 until 1747.

The fifth, who served as Sheriff too, also trained racehorses on Whitburn sands – winning the Newcastle Cup with Stripling in 1799 – and celebrating 18 wins with Walton in the same year.

The sixth Baronet, another High Sheriff, married Mary Brandling, the daughter of a Tyneside coal-owning family.

The seventh Baronet took on the role of High Sheriff, but also sat as a Whig MP for County Durham from 1831-32, for North Durham from 1832-37 and for Sunderland in 1847-52. His daughter, Maria Dorothea, married Sunderland MP David Barclay.

The Baronet’s son, Sir Hedworth Williamson – the eighth Baronet – was educated at Eton College and Christ Church, Oxford, before becoming a British diplomat.

He was elected as MP for North Durham in 1864 and held the seat until 1874. He went on to take on the High Sheriff role in 1877.

Three years later, in 1880, he donated land for Roker Park, which opened on June 23. He married his cousin, the Hon. Elizabeth Liddell, and their son, Hedworth, inherited the baronetcy.

The ninth Baronet followed in the family footsteps to serve as High Sheriff in 1904, but the title of Sir Hedworth Williamson became extinct on the death of the 11th, and final, Baronet in 2000.