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The Sunderland legends buried Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, including MPs, tycoons, an SAFC founder and a lion tamer

Cemeteries are endlessly fascinating places and a visit is rarely a morbid experience. Since 1856, Bishopwearmouth has been Sunderland’s biggest cemetery.

Sunday, 27th February 2022, 4:55 am

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And some extraordinary people are buried there. This feature gives just a thimbleful of their history.

All graves are intriguing and no life is more valued than the next. Nevertheless, certain people still get top billing; even beyond the grave. Regrettably we are forced to omit many, many.

Cuthbert Vaux founded his famed and much-missed brewery in 1806. Among his descendants to rest in Bishopwearmouth are his son, also called Cuthbert (1813-78), who lies alongside his two wives.

The main entrance to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery

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Cuthbert jnr’s son Ralph Thomas Vaux, 1836-1928, is in a separate grave along with his son Dr Ralph Thomas (to keep things complicated) Vaux, 1874-1917.

Joseph John Binns, 1839-1922, of the department store dynasty inherited control of the business on the retirement of his father Henry Binns in 1865. Joseph is buried with his wife Rose. Their son Christopher Binns, who fell during the Third Battle of Ypres in 1917 is commemorated, but is actually buried in Flanders.

Joseph’s older brother Sir Henry Binns, born in Sunderland in 1837, became Prime Minister of the Colony of Natal in what is now South Africa. He lost a hugely important court case over Indian labourers to lawyer Mahatma Gandhi.

Sunderland’s glorious shipbuilding heritage is represented in Bishopwearmouth. A number of Doxfords rest there, including Sir Theodore Doxford, 1841-1916. Aside from being a shipping magnate, he was also a politician.

The headstones of, clockwise from top left: Sunderland AFC founder James Allan, members of the Vaux family and Maccomo the lion tamer.

At the 1895 general election he became a Conservative MP for Sunderland, after defeating the Liberal and Sunderland Echo founder Samuel Storey. He stood down in 1906. In 1898 he attended William Gladstone’s funeral.

Not to be outdone, there is a nearby memorial to Samuel Peter Austin and other members of his family. In 1826 Austin founded SP Austin & Son Ltd. The shipbuilders merged with William Pickersgill & Sons Ltd in 1954 to become Austin & Pickersgill.

Alumni of Bede School will be familiar with the name Ettrick. The Ettricks owned much of High Barnes at one time, including a huge mansion on the site where the Little Sisters care home now stands. Anthony Ettrick, 1813-1885 is among the family members buried in Bishopwearmouth.

Interred in a huge mausoleum is another of the seven founders of the Sunderland Echo, Thomas Scott Turnbull, 1825-1880. He made his fortune in drapery and became Mayor of Sunderland in 1879.

Commemorating Victoria Cross recipient George Allan Maling.

His son, Thomas Strover Turnbull, still holds the record for the youngest member of a winning team in the never-boring Boat Race, rowing for Cambridge in 1873 aged 18 and 12 days.

Away from the super-rich, there is a memorial to George Allan Maling, 1888-1929, on the grave of his parents. A Sunderland-born doctor, Maling was awarded the Victoria Cross in 1915 after he continued preserving life under heavy shelling during the Battle of Loos. He has a blue plaque on Mowbray Road.

Major General John Reed 1783-1859, is another Bishopwearmouth resident with a distinguished war record. He fought alongside the Duke of Wellington against Napoleon.

Perhaps the most intriguing grave in the entire cemetery is that of Maccomo the lion tamer, born at some point in the 1830s, he died in Sunderland in 1871. His headstone gives his age at death as 32, but that is almost certainly a guess. He was born either in some exotic, far-flung part of Africa – or Liverpool.

Certain graves in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery are, to say the least, ostentatious.

Famed in his day, he survived an attack by Wallace the lion, who still stands stuffed and surly in Sunderland Museum. However, Maccomo succumbed to rheumatic fever in the Palatine Hotel.

Strangely he rests in the Commonwealth war graves section beside those who lost their lives in World War Two, 70 years or so after his death. No one seems to know why this should be.

Another Conservative MP’s grave is that of Sir Luke Thompson, 1867-1941, who made his money in coal (owning, not digging). His headstone says he was the member for Sunderland from 1922 to 1935, which isn’t quite true.

Between 1929 and 1931 he was replaced by Marion Phillips; an extremely dour woman, but a fearsome and historically important figure in the Labour Party.

One man who lies in Bishopwearmouth who looms large in the lives of many Wearsiders, whether they know it or not, is James Allan, 1857-1911. A teacher from Scotland, In 1879 he founded Sunderland Association Football Club. Yes, he’s to blame.

In 1888 he left the club acrimoniously and founded Sunderland Albion FC. The club only lasted until 1892, their demise helped by some underhand scheming by their bigger neighbours.

The Commonwealth war graves section in Bishopwearmouth Cemetery.

James Allan died at home in Elmwood Street.

Being less well-known doesn’t necessarily make anyone less interesting, dead or alive. For example, some Commonwealth war graves are set well apart from the main section. Why?

Near the east perimeter wall lies Private SP McAllister of the Canadian Army Medical Corp. He died on August 5, 1916. Why is he there? Has any relative ever visited? We have no further details. Private McAllister’s story is surely fascinating; it’s just that we have no idea what it is.

Another grave, for a woman who died in 1935, catches the eye due to its inscription which reads: “To my dear wife Elizabeth Wilson, who died after a long and painful illness.”

What on earth possessed Mr Wilson, who joined her three years later, to allude perpetually to the nature of his spouse’s unpleasant demise. Perhaps he couldn’t stand her. We can only speculate.

There are so many others in this place who will forever fascinate, and you can round off an exploration with tea and stickies in the Lodge Cafe.

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Other Commonwealth war graves are placed, seemingly randomly, away from the others. Does anyone know why?
James Allan, 1857-1911, founder of Sunderland AFC and Sunderland Albion, lies here with his wife Priscilla and other family members.
The deliberately spartan Quaker section.
Private SP McAllister of the Canadian Army Medical Corp. There must be a fascinating story behind this headstone. A pity we don't know what it is.
Sir Luke Thompson was not actually Sunderland's MP between the years 1929 and 1931, despite what his headstone says.
One of the most distinctive graves in Bishopwearmouth is that of Captain James William (Jack) Rutherford who died in Rouen, northern France, probably in hospital in 1916.