Wearside Echoes: What’s this Hall about?

OLD SCENE: Freemasons' Hall, Queen Street East, circa 1935
OLD SCENE: Freemasons' Hall, Queen Street East, circa 1935
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A SUNDERLAND landmark is going back to the future.

The Grade I-listed Masonic Hall in Queen Street will throw open its doors to the public this weekend – returning the building to its former role at the heart of the community.

“The Lodge Room was used by local drama, operatic, music, debating and poetry groups when it first opened in 1785,” said Colin Meddes, director of Queen Street Masonic Heritage Trust.

“We believe the future of the hall lies with being part of the community once again, which is why we are opening up on Saturday for people interested in learning more about its history.”

Sunderland was a bustling sea-trading port, George III was midway through his reign and William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister when plans for Queen Street Masonic Hall were drawn up.

The location – a former bowling green owned by the Golden Lion Hotel, surrounded by 27 pubs, five breweries and dozens of timber-framed houses – was not, however, the first choice.

“Members of Phoenix Lodge, which was constituted in 1755, originally met in hotels and taverns until Captain George Thompson, Master of the Lodge, built a hall in Vine Street in 1778,” said Colin.

“This hall served the Lodge well until a disastrous fire in November 1783, which destroyed the building, most of the furnishings and several valuable paintings and books.”

Down, but not out, a group known as the Gentlemen of the Committee was formed – under the chairmanship of surgeon Dr William Tipping Brown – to help Phoenix Lodge rise from the ashes.

And it was to Golden Lion innkeeper William Irvine, a prominent Lodge member known locally as Willie the King, that they turned to for help – after he offered to sell them some land.

The £600 cost of the new hall was raised by donations, subscriptions and £20 shares, with some of the original shareholders including Dr Brown, grocer John Brown and painter Edward Smith.

Builder John Bonner, a member of the Lodge, was invited to lead the project, and it is believed second-hand ship timbers may have been used – as a tax made new wood prohibitively expensive.

“It is a testament to Bonner’s skills that a structural survey in 1996 concluded the only problems after 211 years were that the ends of a few of the floor joists were rotting,” said Colin.

Queen Street Masonic Hall opened on April 5, 1785, just 17 months after the fire. It was a day of pomp and ceremony, with 176 Freemasons from across the North East gathering to celebrate.

“The building consisted of the Lodge Room or Temple when it first opened, with pents reminiscent of lean-to extensions on the east and west ends,” said Colin.

“The east one still stands and is used as the bar area. It was originally the main entrance, with a portico doorway.

“The west pent is known to have comprised of two rooms in 1812. Records show these were let to the caretaker rent-free. The pent was removed in 1923.”

Original Masonic symbols still adorn the walls of the Lodge Room, which were carved and gilded by Newcastle Freemason Mr Pears for the opening – a service for which he charged £30.

Two fireplaces typical of the style of architect Robert Adam have also been retained, but only the pipes remain of an organ built for 50 guineas by Newcastle craftsman Mr Donaldson.

“The organ was, no doubt, a great asset to the local musical society, who were allowed to rent the hall for £10 per annum – providing they only burned Spermaceti candles,” said Colin.

“But the keyboard and bellows were later repositioned at floor level, and eventually the keyboard and valves were removed. If there is a draught, the pipes have been known to eerily play!”

Many of the ornate furnishings within the hall are 18th century originals too – with some even dating back several decades before the Queen Street structure was built.

A suite of three magnificent chairs crafted during the 1720s are still used by Lodge members today, as are two even older chairs of typical Chippendale design.

“With original furniture being lost in the fire, new furniture was obviously required,” said Colin. “Fortunately, St John’s Lodge at Newcastle was selling off assets at the time, which Phoenix bought.

“St John’s was certainly in existence in 1729, and it is understood that much of the furniture was purpose-made for the opening of the lodge.”

Another fascinating feature is to found beneath the hall – the cellar. Built directly on top of the old bowling green, with one wall formed from an old stable block, it boasts ancient drainage channels.

Archaeological investigations unearthed a medieval shoe and pottery piece back in 1999 too, which are currently on display in the dining hall.

“The timber-framed houses which initially surrounded the hall gradually made way for more substantial dwellings as the wealthy improved their accommodation over the years,” said Colin.

“But, as the town centre moved westwards, so these people moved to new houses on the Fawcett Estate in Fawcett Street, John Street, Fredrick Street and Foyle Street, or into mansions and halls.

“As the wealthy moved out, the poor moved in. Soon the hall was in the midst of a large slum, surrounded by desperately poor families who lived without sanitation or running water.

“Throughout these dark days, though, the hall remained open – with members quietly and without fuss doing what they could to relieve the hardship that surrounded them – especially for children.”

Today the city scene surrounding the 18th century hall has changed dramatically once more. Gone are the tenement slums and open sewers, replaced by modern housing and tower blocks.

The work of Phoenix Lodge still continues, however, although the freehold interest of the hall was transferred to Queen Street Masonic Heritage Centre in 1997, with the aim of restoring the building.

“There is no doubt the hall plays an important role in the heritage of Sunderland in general, and the East End in particular – having here stood for over 200 years,” said Colin.

“The Trust is committed to ensuring it continues to play an important role in the regenerated and revitalised East End for generations to come, expanding its newly rekindled community ties. We are grateful for the foresight of Dr Brown and the Gentlemen of the Committee, who gave us the hall and passed on the responsibility to preserve this Ancient Monument to Freemasonry.”

* The free guided tour of the hall starts at 1pm on Saturday and will include a presentation on the history of the building featuring vintage photos. Car parking is available.