Wearside Echoes: Grangetown church is 100 years old

FINAL DREAM: The new church of St Aidan, complete with the nave and northern aisle, next to the earlier Mission Room.
FINAL DREAM: The new church of St Aidan, complete with the nave and northern aisle, next to the earlier Mission Room.
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PARISHIONERS at St Aidan’s in Grangetown have 100 reasons to celebrate – their historic church is a century old.

But, although the Ryhope Road building has reached a milestone birthday, it can actually trace its roots back to the early 19th century.

“Grangetown was originally part of Ryhope Township, and the spiritual needs of locals were served from Bishopwearmouth,” said local historian Rob Shepherd.

“Eventually, though, a Chapel of Ease was established in Ryhope in 1826. It was said to have been built from stone carted from the beach by farmers.”

As the population of Grangetown and Ryhope flourished during the Industrial Revolution, so the need for further church provision became ever more pressing.

“Finally in 1880, due to the efforts of Ryhope vicar Henry Barber, a mission room and Sunday School were opened on Spelterworks Road, Grangetown,” said Rob.

“They would never have been established, though, were it not for the benevolence of brewer William St John and his family, who lived just off Ryhope Road.

“Indeed, the Sunday School was overseen by his daughters Isabella, Eleanor, Bertha, Marion and Fanny, and he opened his home to help raise funds too.”

Three years later, in 1883, Grangetown Mission Chapel – later known as St Aidan’s Mission Hall – was built on Ryhope Road to provide for wider spiritual needs.

Helen Gray, wife of the rector of Houghton parish, laid the foundation stone on August 14, 1883, and it was opened on December 7 by the Archdeacon of Durham.

Built with donations, subscriptions and money raised through “teas, entertainments and bazaars”, the hall was quickly adopted by residents as “their own”.

“It was at the centre of life for almost 30 years. Unfortunately though, as time went by, it was found to be ‘increasingly inadequate’ space-wise,” said Rob.

Finally, after Grangetown was nominated as a separate parish under the care of the vicar of Ryhope in 1907, much longed-for changes started to happen.

“It was the creation of Grangetown Parish which paved the way for a new church, with the move allowing ‘the raising of funds’ to build one,” said Rob.

“The donations amounted to about £2,000 by 1909, and additional funds were raised during a three-day bazaar at the Co-Operative Hall in Ryhope in October.”

Many distinguished people lent their support to church plans, including Sir Hedworth Williamson, Colonel Gregson, Captain Hugh Streatfeild and Viscountess Gort.

“Former clergymen also made contributions, and local children raised funds for a Baptismal Font. It really was a labour of love for parishioners,” said Rob.

Indeed, such was the success of fund-raising that, within just a few months, architect Charles Hodgson Fowler was engaged to draw up designs for the new church.

“His plans involved building a nave and northern aisle at first, with a south aisle and chapel to follow ‘when funds permitted,’” said Rob.

“Sadly, Mr Fowler did not live to see it completed. He died in 1910 and the work was passed to Newcastle architect Mr H.W. Wood.”

Just a few months later, on September 22, 1910, the foundation stone was laid by Sunderland MP Sir James Knott, in the presence of the Bishop of Durham.

“The day dawned gloriously fine, according to contemporary reports, and began with a celebration of Holy Communion in the Mission Room at 7am,” said Rob.

“The day’s main event, a procession along Ryhope Road, started at 3pm. Residents walked with choir members, civic dignitaries and clergy to the church site.

“There, a one-ton foundation stone was waiting to be set in place. It was first blessed by the Bishop of Durham, then manoeuvred into position by Mr Knott.”

Under the stone, within a special cavity, a bottle containing copies of the Times, Sunderland Echo, parish magazine and a service book was placed.

“We may not know exactly what the Times or the Echo contained that day, but we do know the service book contained a major mistake,” said Rob. “It had been arranged that Lord Ravensworth would lay the stone, and this was printed in the service books. However, he had to withdraw at the last minute.”

Even after the foundation stone had been laid, however, it was by “no means certain” St Aidan’s would ever be completed – at least not to original designs.

Parishioners responded once again to an urgent plea for fund-raising, but a porch was only added after money was donated anonymously by “a most kind friend.”

Finally, on September 27, 1911, the prayers of worshippers were granted. St Aidan’s was consecrated in a service led by Dr Moule, Lord Bishop of the Diocese.

The ceremony was attended by “an exceptionally large throng of people”, according to the Echo, with the church being “crowded to the doors.”

“It seems but a little while since the laying of the foundation stone. Looking at the finished work, the realisation has surpassed our hopes,” said Dr Moule.

“We have here a noble church indeed.”

William Dawson, a curate at Ryhope, was appointed as Grangetown’s first vicar – affectionately known as “Daddy Dawson” as he oversaw the birth of the parish.

The seven years of his tenure were to bring great changes. Industry boomed, population boomed and dozens of local men went off to fight in the First World War.

“This was visibly reflected in the parish records, where men increasingly gave their occupations as soldiers and sailors when getting married,” said Rob.

One such man was DLI soldier Samuel Hough, of Spelterworks Road. Tragically, he was killed in action shortly after his marriage to sweetheart Emma Askinall.

“His body was never found,” said Rob. “But he was not the first, or last, casualty from Grangetown. Ninety men are remembered on the Grangetown War Memorial.”

Happier events, too, are recorded in the archives of St Aidan’s for this time, including a double wedding on January 22, 1917 – a first for the church.

Soldier George Nord, 26, tied the knot with 19-year Phyllis Calder on that day. George’s sister Emily, 21, also married 19-year-old soldier James Mather.

“The couples celebrated with a small party; it was nothing elaborate. But both George and Fred survived the war and both couples lived into old age,” said Rob.

The post-war years saw a vicarage built on Ryhope Road and, in 1931, St Aidan’s was finally completed with the addition of a south aisle, chancel and chapel.

“The consecration, by Bishop of Durham Herbert Henson, took place on November 11, 1931. Admission was to ticket holders only,” said Rob.

“Henson was known as a controversial priest, infamously referring to dissenting Protestant churches as “emissaries of Satan” during a Diocesan conference.”

The outbreak of war in 1939 was reflected in church records within three weeks. Bridegrooms once again listed their professions as soldiers, sailors and airmen.

The first wartime marriage was that of Harold Bailey, a butcher with the Royal Army Service Corps, who married Mary Lord, of Spelterworks Road, on September 23.

Several marriages between anti-aircraft battery staff were also recorded, including the 1943 nuptials of Lt Herbert MacDonald and ATS sergeant Wilma Irons.

“The church bell had to be silenced during the war, though, as ringing bells signified an invasion. It would only ring again when peace was declared,” said Rob.

The post-war years saw church members throw themselves into a variety of activities, from Passion Plays to building a second church hall from squatters huts.

Celebrations for the Golden and Diamond Jubilees followed, when further fund-raising helped refurbish St Aidan’s, and seating was replaced during the 1980s.

Today Christopher Collins is in charge of St Aidan’s, having taken on the role in 1985, and the traditions of pilgrimage and community spirit continue.

“When I was offered the role I was acutely conscious of the many distinguished priests who had held office,” said Fr Collins, who is due to retire soon. “My predecessor, Fr Terrence Matthews, left me a rich legacy of worship, devotion and Congregational attendance – everything an incoming incumbent could want.

“Where does the Parish go from here? In many ways it will depend not so much on the vitality of the congregation, as on the welfare of the whole church in the Deanery, Diocese and nation.

“No age has been a Golden Age for the Christian faith, but I think the years of the 21st century will be uniquely challenging. Only God knows how, and in what shape, the whole Church will emerge.”

l Read more about the history of St Aidan’s in the book St Aidan, Grangetown, Sunderland – A Centenary History 1911-2011 by Robert Shepherd. Copies at £20 will be on sale during the centenary celebrations or can be ordered from 581 7186.