Historic Donnison School set up by pioneering Sunderland woman gears up for busy calendar of events

Tucked away down Church Walk at the heart of old Sunderland, Donnison School is a real lesson in the history of the city.

A woman way ahead of her time, Elizabeth Donnison recognised the importance of women’s education and left £1500 in her will to fund a school which would provide a free education for female pupils from poor families in Sunderland.

Opened in 1798 in the shadow of the old workhouse in the East End, it would go on to educate thousands of girls, 36 at a time, aged five to 15, until its closure in the early 1900s.

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The Grade II-listed building, which also comprises a schoolmistress’ cottage which was added by Elizabeth Woodcock in 1827, was given a whole new lease of life by charity Living History North East who purchased the building for £2,400 in 2001 and spent the next six years raising the £600,000 needed to repair the buildings and put them back at the heart of the community.

Sunderland's historic Donnison School in the East End
Sunderland's historic Donnison School in the East End
Sunderland's historic Donnison School in the East End

This important heritage restoration was supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund, Sunderland Council, Back on the Map and Tyne and Wear Community Fund.

Today, the school is a fascinating bridge to the past, a heritage and community centre which hosts everything from craft and ukulele groups to lectures and dramatisations of the city’s history.

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Speaking about Elizabeth’s legacy in Sunderland, Janette Hilton, director at Living History North East, said: “She was a woman before her time. At a time when education for girls, and working class education, wasn’t a thing she decided to set up a school in her will for the education of 36 poor girls in this parish.

"And that’s an indication of her heart and her power as a woman, and a woman with money. She wanted to give back to her community and for me, as a woman, she’s one of my heroines. She recognised that there was a real need in the community here for those women who would be at risk without this kind of education. She was a champion before we knew what a women’s champion looked like.”

Living History North East director Janette Hilton.
Living History North East director Janette Hilton.
Living History North East director Janette Hilton.

The Donnison School’s annual programme is back in full after Covid and is delivered by a dedicated band of volunteers and partners who keep this corner of the city’s heritage alive.

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"It’s a real community centre and we’re here because Sunderland loves this building. It’s part of a unique cultural asset in this beautiful Victorian Georgian quarter and this building should be celebrated and supported,” said Janette.

The school is next door to Seventeen Nineteen, which saw the major £5m restoration of Holy Trinity Church, which was once the heart of old Sunderland, housing the old town’s council chamber and its first library, making it one of the city’s most historically-significant buildings.

A recent £200,000 grant from Historic England also paid for repairs to nearby Phoenix Lodge, the oldest masonic lodge still in continuous use in the country.

Pupils of Hill View Junior School taking part in a Living History Lesson at the Donnison School
Pupils of Hill View Junior School taking part in a Living History Lesson at the Donnison School
Pupils of Hill View Junior School taking part in a Living History Lesson at the Donnison School
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Janette said: "The buildings that stand here are a real echo of how important this part of the town was. This historic East End is where we started to begin as a town and as a city and we have legacies left.

“The church, here, the oldest Masonic lodge in the country, the orphanage, the Exchange building, the Alms houses next door, you have these real pockets of historic sites that deserve to be supported.”

Donnison School events 2023 highlights

::Monday, March 27

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Living History North East chairperson Michael Lynch.
Living History North East chairperson Michael Lynch.
Living History North East chairperson Michael Lynch.

As part of a series of Lovell Lectures, running on Mondays throughout the year, there will be a lecture on The Life and Times of Jack Curtis by Stuart Robson

::Friday, March 24 and September 29

A narrated dramatisation of Death and Dark Places: The Darker Side of 19th Century Sunderland

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::Friday, May 26 and November 24

A narrated dramatisation of Mary Ann Cotton, Sunderland’s Angel of Death

::Wednesdays from 10.30am – 12.30pm

Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
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::Wednesdays from 12.30pm to 2.30pm

Computers for beginners with Alan Cummings

::Mondays from 10am to 1pm

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Community led craft sessions

::Saturday, April 8 from 11am to 3pm

Enjoy a traditional family Easter open day with easter egg hunt, easter bonnet competition, crafts and refreshments

::Saturday, May 6 from 12pm-3pm

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Celebrate the King’s Coronation with a royal garden open day

::Saturday, July 22 from 11am to 4pm

Traditional summer fayre

::Saturday, December 9 from 11am to 3.30pm

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Dickensian Christmas fayre

::For the full listings and more information visit www.donnisonschoolheritagecentre.com

Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
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Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.
Inside The Donnison School heritage feature.