Village's treasure trove

A new book on Whitburn – described as a "veritable jewel" among villages – has just been published.

The picturesque coastal village of Whitburn is well known for its connections with Alice in Wonderland author Lewis Carroll.

But, according to a new book compiled by local historian Sybil Reeder, it could reputedly have an even greater claim to fame."There is a rather unlikely, but persistent, legend that lawn tennis was invented here," she reveals in Memories of Whitburn.

"The story is that, in 1873, guests arrived at Whitburn Hall expecting to play tennis, but there was no indoor court.

"So their host had an experimental grass court set up for them, and lawn tennis was born on the lawns of Whitburn Hall!"

Whatever the truth of that little piece of folklore, Whitburn's links with Lewis Carroll have been well documented over the years.But it is a story which Sybil is still asked about frequently, so she has included a few details in her new book.

"Carroll visited Whitburn on a number of occasions, staying with Mr and Mrs Wilcox, of High Croft in Lizard Lane," she said.

"Nella Wilcox was his cousin, and William Wilcox his uncle.

"During these visits, Carroll often walked on Whitburn beach, where he may have gained inspiration for The Walrus and the Carpenter in Alice Through the Looking Glass. The Jabberwocky poem was first narrated by Carroll to entertain his cousin when he was staying in Whitburn, and is thought to have been inspired by the legend of the Lambton Worm.

"Another Carroll link comes from Lady Hedworth Williamson, of Whitburn Hall, whose cousin, Alice Liddell, was the Alice for which the books were written.Carroll often visited the Williamson family during his trips to Whitburn, making up stories to entertain the children at the Hall."Some of these stories, inspired by things he had seen during his walks, may later have been woven into the Alice books," said Sybil.

Whitburn is, however, a notable village in its own right. Indeed, the ancient community is thought to be thousands of years old.

"The oldest evidence of occupation is a harpoon carved from deer horn, which dates to about 6,000BC," said Sybil.

"The original village was probably a Saxon settlement and its name was probably Hwita Byrgen, the burial place of Saxon chief Hwita.

"These, and many other fascinating details, are all contained within Sybil's new book, along with dozens of old and rare photos.Other highlights of the 58-page volume include a charming description of Victorian Whitburn, and details of its historic houses.

"In 1976, Whitburn was described as a 'veritable jewel' by Harry Thompson, in his book Durham Villages," said Sybil.

"Whitburn has grown since then, of course, but the original village retains much of its charm and character.

"Indeed, there can be few villages that still have all the essentials of a mediaeval village, such as a green, pond, pinfold and windmill."

* Memories of Whitburn In Words and Pictures, by Sybil Reeder, is now on sale, priced 5. It is available from Whitburn newsagents, South Shields Library and Sunderland Museum.

Homes are where the history is

The historic houses of Whitburn:

* WHITBURN HOUSE: Built for William Wilkinson in the 18th century. It became the home of Richard Spoor, the Mayor of Sunderland, in 1834.

* WHITBURN HOUSE ON THE BANK: A flamboyant mansion built for industrialist Thomas Barnes in 1869. Barnes used part of the 14th century chancel and East window of St John's Church, in Newcastle's Grainger Street, as a garden ornament.

* THE LODGE: Built next to Whitburn House by Thomas Barnes, it was a fantasy building in the design of a Swiss chalet. Frank Caws, architect of Sunderland's Elephant Tea House, drew up the design.

* RED COTTAGE: A glorious Victorian house in Church Lane, built for Thomas Barnes and his first wife, Olivia Chamber, in 1842. Local legend has it that a famous cricketer once lived in the house, but no-one can remember his name.

* THE LIMES: A grey stone mansion built in 1869 for Sir John Fenwick and later owned by Arthur Fenwick. By 1893, it was the home of Peter Sinclair Haggie, of the Haggie rope-making family.

* THE HERMITAGE: Built in 1735, extra rooms were added in 1810. Ship owner James Edwards lived there in the late 19th century and it became Whitburn Rectory in 1936.

* HILL HOUSE and HILLCREST: These were originally one large mansion, built in the 19th century for railway engineer Thomas Elliott Harrison, who died in 1888.

* DAISY COTTAGE: Built on the corner of Sandy Chare, now gone. It was the home of the Misses Dale – ladies who donated a barrel organ to the church. The gift proved rather troublesome, sometimes churching out hymns non-stop and disrupting services.

* THORNCLIFE: Built on Sandy Chare in about 1870, it was the home of ship owner Cuthbert Hutchinson. He had a great interest in astronomy and had a star viewing room on the roof.

* REDHILL and HIGHCROFT: Two large houses, now demolished. Redhill, between Front Street and Cleadon Lane, was built for ship owner John Adamson in 1887. It was bought by Stephenson's Bakers and Caterers in 1947. Highcroft, in Lizard Lane, was built in the 1850s for H.M. Wilcox, a Sunderland Customs and Tax collector. Lewis Carroll was a frequent visitor.

* CROSS HOUSE: Built in 1816 by Mr French, it cut the long village green in two. Over the years it has been divided into two houses, and used as Whitburn Post Office and a grocer's shop.

* THE WHITE HOUSE: A handsome 18th century house of handmade brick in Front Street. It was run as a shop for many years by G Taylor and Son, a painter's, glazier's and signwriter's firm. It later became a butcher's, and, in 1969, it was an antique shop.

* KINGARTH: Built by, and for, Robert Allison, whose firm also built The Grey Horse, Sunderland Museum and Souter Lighthouse. It became a theatrical lodging house in the 1920s, and played host to Gracie Fields, among other stars. In 1959, it was turned into a convalescent home, closing in 1977.

From grand hall to nothing...

Whitburn Hall – an imposing 16th century building – was sold by Richard Kitching to Leonard Pilkington in 1598.Pilkington, Rector of Whitburn for more than 30 years, spent the next 30 years enlarging the hall.

It then passed to Anna Carr in 1672.The hall was bought by Sir William Williamson in 1719, and remained the Williamson family home for more than 200 years.An extra wing was soon added and, in 1813, a massive extension followed, as well as high walls to keep out sea breezes.

"Of course, they did nothing of the sort," said Sybil. "They just succeeded in cutting off the sun."

Later, while her husband was away on parliamentary duties, Lady Williamson had the walls pulled down and a fine garden laid out.

Further rooms were added over the next few years, and it became the first house in the region to be lit with gas in 1864.

"These were the great days of Whitburn Hall," said Sybil. "The Duke of Edinburgh stayed there and the Prince of Wales visited on several occassions."

Sadly, World War Two, three deaths in four years and a post-war without servants left the huge mansion difficult to maintain.

The hall eventually passed to nine-year-old Nicholas Williamson in 1946 and, without money for repairs, it could not survive.

Sir Nicholas, from Berkshire, died childless in 2000. A keen racing driver, he twice won the RAC British Hillclimb Championship.

A Victorian melodrama remembered

A delightful description of Victorian Whitburn is included in Sybil Reeder's new book, penned by villager Amelia Hutchinson.

Amelia was born in Whitburn in 1868, when it boasted just over 100 houses, and jotted down her memories in 1944.

"Three old houses were at the end of Front Street. The next house, Thorncliffe, was built by Cuthbert Hutchinson," she said."He was interested in astronomy and had a small room with glass all round on the roof, to allow him to view any part of the sky."

Amelia also wrote about Mr and Mrs Wilcox, who lived in a large house on The Green before building High Croft in Lizard Lane.Their old three-storied home eventually became Miss Henderson's Boarding School, which Amelia attended as a day pupil.But the principal house in Whitburn, according to Amelia, was the Hall – home of the Williamson family for more than 200 years."In about 1882, the Duke of Edinburgh was visiting the North East coast.

He was to stay with Sir Hedworth, so a new wing was built."There was a large luncheon party and, at night, a dinner party. Mr William, Sir Hedworth's eccentric brother, had declined to come but, a short time before dinner was announced, in he walked.

"The extra guest caused much consternation for Hedworth's wife, Lady Elizabeth, who refused to sit down to an unlucky 13 at table.Eventually Miss Beatrice, the couple's eldest daughter, had to be bundled quickly into evening dress to avert disaster.

"She was then about 17 and not yet 'out,'" wrote Amelia.

"She, of course, was delighted."