The story of Sunderland's Ashburne House and the incredible Backhouse family
Generations of art students in Sunderland have been fortunate enough to spend their learning time in a suitably eye-catching setting.
The ornate terrace on the south side of Ashburne House overlooks, depending on the time of year, the glorious banks of crocuses and daffodils of Backhouse Park. Its striking colonnades let you know that it was built for people of some substance.
The almost century-old park is named after the remarkable Backhouse family, who between them were prominent bankers, industrialists, Quakers, scientists, artists and most crucially of all – as far as we’re concerned – founders of the Sunderland Echo.
The remarkable Backhouses – between them they did virtually everything
Let us begin with James Backhouse, 1721-98, a devout member of the Religious Society of Friends - the Quakers.
Quakers are not prohibited from drinking or smoking, but they are prohibited from gambling which might partly explain why he went into banking rather than stocks and shares. He founded a bank in Darlington where Quakers of the time dominated local life; hence the name of the local football club.
His three sons became bigwigs too. They were Jonathan (1747-1826), Edward (1781-1860) and James (1757-1804).
Jonathan’s son, also called Jonathan (1779-1842), is best known as a supporter of the historic, indeed world famous Stockton to Darlington Railway which first ran in 1825. Jonathan’s youngest son William (1779-1844, born the same year as his brother, but not twins) was a renowned botanist.
The world was well stocked with Backhouses in those days. But the most significant of the three brothers to Sunderland was Edward Backhouse (1781-1860). It was he who built Ashburne House. He also founded the Backhouse Bank in Sunderland.
Backhouse banks were eventually swallowed up by Barclays in 1896.
Edward’s son was also called Edward. The Backhouses tended not to allow their imaginations to run riot when naming their offspring.
This Edward (1808-79) was a naturalist and artist. If you own an original book of his bird drawings, have it valued (for insurance purposes, of course). Art would loom large in the Backhouse story until 2012.
Edward jnr founds the Sunderland Echo; Edward snr builds Ashburne House, but it doesn’t seem to have a bathroom
Edward jnr was one of the founders of the Sunderland Echo in 1873 alongside Samuel Storey, then the town’s mayor and future MP, Shipbuilding tycoon Charles Palmer and other men of means.
The land on which the Ashburne House was built was bought at auction in 1830 by Edward Backhouse snr. He built the house about three years later. He made a great job of it too ... apart from one significant detail.
His brother Jonathan, the railway man, moved into Ashburne House in 1842, but died soon afterwards. Upon the death of Edward snr in 1860, his (Edward’s) son Edward jnr (are you keeping up?) took over the home.
Edward jnr and his wife Katherine had five children. Upon Edward jnr’s death in 1879, his eldest son Thomas did not take up residency – and the reason for this seems peculiar.
Incredibly, the house had been built without bathrooms or certain other conveniences. So the arrangements for residents’ ablutions are not something the modern reader might care to dwell upon. Nevertheless, Thomas’ mother Katherine was still at Ashburne in 1891.
The Backhouse family and Ashburne House help out in the Great War
Thomas Backhouse lived at nearby West Hendon House, where he built an observatory. This building is now also Grade II listed.
When world war broke out in 1914, the family allowed Ashburne House to be used as a Voluntary Aid Detachment (VAD) hospital until the war ended. It was officially called the 25th Durham VA Hospital, Sunderland. It was administered by the Red Cross and the Order of St. John.
A report said: “Thanks to the untiring energy of many voluntary workers, the hospital was duly equipped and ready in July 1915. The first patients arrived on the 20th, between which date and October 30th 111 cases were dealt with.”
The hospital closed temporarily between November 1915 and February 1916, to increase its bed capacity from 41 to 58 and also to install an operating theatre.
The report continued: “The hospital was re-opened on February 19th 1916, and from that date to the end of the year 311 cases were admitted, including garrison and overseas troops, and 58 operations were performed.”
The operating costs for the year ending December 1916 was £637 and 8 pence, equivalent to about £57,000 today, which sounds like remarkably good value. Ashburne House had helped save lives.
The Backhouses depart for art’s sake – and Ashburne House today
Upon the death of Thomas Backhouse in 1919 the land around Ashburne House was donated to Sunderland Corporation. By 1923 this had become what we now know as Backhouse Park, a place of respite familiar to many thousands of Wearsiders.
Thomas stipulated that the house itself should be used as a teaching college or hostel. In 1931 consent was given for it to become the School of Art, which had its first intake of Bohemian-type students in 1934.
It became part of the University of Sunderland in 1996. But the university’s Faculty of Arts, Design and Media vacated the building in 2012.
Ashburne House will soon provide homes again. In January 2020 Sunderland City Council gave approval to convert it into three private homes, as well as restoration works.
The outbuilding, added in the 1960s, has been demolished. As with much 1960s architecture to meet this fate, this has been carried out with no lament.
Ashburne was awarded Grade II listed status in 1978; and who could argue?
Whether for its exceptional beauty, or for the extraordinary history of the various people to reside there in the last couple of centuries, this is one building that Sunderland has done very well to preserve.