Behind the scenes

HISTORIC buildings across Wearside threw open their doors as part of a regional Heritage Open Days event. But SARAH STONER discovered some surprises among the list of places to visit.

PICTURESQUE castles, centuries-old churches and long-closed collieries probably spring to mind when most people think about the North East's heritage.

But a chance to peek behind the scenes of an old broom factory, the Echo and a mine rescue centre were the slightly stranger choices on offer for heritage hunters last week.

And, while Sunderland Crematorium is usually a preserve of the grieving, visitors by the dozen enjoyed tours of the building as part of the Tyne and Wear Heritage Open Days event.

The four-day programme of events, celebrating the region's architecture, history and culture, is now in its fourth year, but it was the first time the crematorium had taken part.

"It gave us a chance to dispel the rumours and myths surrounding what happens here," said crematorium technician Simon Baron.

"People always want to know what goes on once the curtains have closed on the coffin, or if we cremate all the bodies at once – which we don't.

"Death and cremation have always been taboo subjects but, by holding these open days, we are helping to make things easier for people to accept."

Construction work on Sunderland Crematorium started in 1937, but the project was suspended before the roof was put on when World War Two broke out.

The building, with its peaceful setting in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, was eventually completed in 1951 and the first service took place in November that year.

Only 725 cremation were held within the first 12 months, however, as the idea was still viewed with suspicion by some religions, including Catholics.

But the Pope's decision to proclaim it legal in 1963, together with a growing lack of burial space, led to a surge in cremations. Some 2,700 services are now held annually.

"The common questions we get asked include what happens to the brass handles on the coffins. But they are not brass, they are plastic, so they melt," said Mr Baron.

"Another myth is that we cremate everyone at once, so the ashes get mixed up, but that's not true. People are cremated individually, there is no room for more than one at a time.

"Relativons are often wary, too, about getting the right ashes back. But we use a special card registration system, which ensures there are no mix-ups like that.

"And we are also often asked what will happen to gold fillings, or other precious metals. Well, our cremators go up to 1,200 degrees, so there are no metals left at all."

One thing the technicians have to be wary of, however, is pace-makers. The devices must be removed before cremation is carried out – or they can explode.

This has only happened once at Sunderland Crematorium, but it "caused quite a lot of damage."

The behind-the-scenes tours of Sunderland Crematorium attracted visitors of all ages, including one Wearside couple, who said: "We are just here to see what happens. This open day helps to take the mystery away and we are finding it interesting to see what goes on behind the scenes.

"We always thought cremation was a dignified type of service and, having seen what happens here, we now know it is both dignified and incredibly well organised too."

Wearsiders brush up on local broom-making

A CHANCE to brush up on broom knowledge proved a hugely popular feature of this year's Sunderland Heritage Open Days event.

Cottam Brothers Ltd threw open the doors to its historic Sheepfolds factory for the first time, and the limited tour places were quickly snapped up.

The firm, which is a world leader in the manufacture of brushes for pipeline work, also makes everything from toilet brushes to yard brooms.

One visitor said: "I found the whole thing absolutely fascinating. It was very interesting to see the brushes being made and learn about the history too."

Cottam Brothers was started by Samuel Cottam in 1858, after he was sent to Sunderland by his uncle, who ran a brush firm in Hull.

Samuel started out in a small way, working from his home in Sunderland's East End and manufacturing all his brushes by hand.

Eventually he was joined by his son, George, who helped generate a market for the brushes among local firms. However, the brooms remained hand-made.

George was later joined by his three sons and the oldest, called Edmund, went on to take over the business. However, when Edmund fell out with his brothers, they set up a rival factory at the Sheepfold Estate in the 1920s.

The two Cottam brush factories continued to operate separately over the decades until Samuel's great-great grandson, also called George, took over Cottam Bros.

George, grandfather of the present day managing director Ben Cottam, bought the rival factory and turned Cottam Bros from a local into a national company.

George's son David then came into the business and, as managing director, turned the company into a truly international one.

And now Ben, who is the sixth generation of the Cottam family to run the firm, is aiming to make the factory a leading name in the global market.

He told the tour guests: "As a company we are respectful of our history but don't get wrapped up in it. We are much more concerned with the future than with the past.

"We want to be world class, and that is what we are working towards. This is a modern business and there is no room for sentiment in business."

Rescue Station retains vital role

"A LOT of people ask 'Why are you still open when there are no pits left?'" brigadesman Paul Malcolm admitted to the Heritage Day visitors.

It was, indeed, a question at the forefront of many of the visitors' minds, but Paul was quick to explain the centre's relevance in today's society.

"The answer is that the pit tunnels are still here, even if they are not in use. And the dangers that go with the tunnels are still present," he said.

"We are responsible for those tunnels, as well as holes that suddenly open up in the ground, like at Tow Law football pitch a while ago.

"We provide a blue light rescue service, like the police, and get sent to mines that are flooded or gassed out. We've even pulled dead sheep from old mine shafts in County Durham."

Houghton Mines Rescue Station was built in 1911 as a result of the Coal Mines Act, which required mine owners to provide a pit rescue service.

They were charged a levy for each ton of coal mined to fund the centre until the coal industry – and the rescue service itself – was nationalised in 1947.

Houghton Station was created to serve the thriving pits of East Durham but, for several decades, it also doubled as a fire station for Houghton itself.

"When the alarm went off, the men would look to see what light was flashing. A white light meant the mines, while a red light meant a fire," said Paul.

"There was a fire engine stationed here until the early 1960s, when the fire station at Fence Houses opened. There used to be a 40ft tower here in the 1930s, which was used for drying the fire hoses off for 24 hours after use."

In the heyday of Britain's pits, during the 1950s, there were about 60 mine rescue centres nationally. Now Houghton is one of just six to survive.

Today Houghton is responsible for mines across Cumbria, County Durham and Northumberland, and it is the standby station for Scotland too.

The men also help with civil emergencies, such the collapse of a Glasgow factory, as well specialist tunnel work with the building and nuclear industries.

And the undergound mock-up of a pit tunnel, below the Houghton HQ, still comes in handy for training purposes too – sometimes with the fire service.

"Our priority is to save lives," said Paul. "We don't get many call-outs for mines any more though. We haven't had any mine ones in the last 12 months."

THE Sunderland Echo, on Pennywell Industrial Estate, was among the dozens of other firms, attractions and historic buildings to support the Heritage Open Days event.

The Echo was first printed in 1873 and, although at least 20 other newspapers were launched in Sunderland between 1830 and 1906, it is the only one to survive.

Building society manager Samuel Storey, part of a growing band of Radical Liberals, launched the paper after finding their voices were being drowned out by a hostile press.

A Quaker banker, a Jarrow shipbuilder and Richard Ruddick, the Sunderland reporter for the Newcastle Chronicle, were among the newspaper's financial backers.

The paper's staff worked initially from cramped offices in High Street but, in 1876, moved to new premises at Bridge Street. They remained there for 100 years.

Just two years later, in 1878, the Echo bought up a daily rival and became a daily paper for the first time. And, as "Radical Sam" became a powerful figure in the North East, so the Echo became part of a growing newspaper group.

The Echo soon became part of everyday Sunderland life and, in 1976, the head office moved to Pennywell, to allow staff to work in a modern, open-plan environment.

A new extension to the printing presses is the latest in a long line of improvements and, as part of the Heritage Open Days event, it was opened to the public last week.

Editor Rob Lawson gave a party of heritage seekers a guided tour of the building and said afterwards: "I felt the Echo tour went very well. I hope those on it found it both enjoyable and interesting. We'll certainly be interested in taking part again next year."

Plans are now being drawn up for next year's Tyne and Wear Heritage Open Days, with even more buildings expected to open to the public for the first time.

Vicki Medhurst, principlal librarian for libraries, heritage and information in Sunderland, said: "This year's Heritage Open Days have been a great success.

"The events in the libraries have been very well received, with an informative talk on the Jewish way of life attracting over 30 people and the Victorian photo experience at Sandhill Centre and Village Hall proving to be a highlight.

"Sunderland Crematorium was opened for the first time this year and proved successful too. Events have been supported by many volunteers who have assisted greatly in making the event Sunderland's best yet!"