The story of Washington Old Hall's thousand-year history, and its American connection, as the USA marks Independence Day on July 4

Every Fourth of July the USA’s independence is marked at a place in this city, which played a significant role in events shaping the world’s only superpower.

By Tony Gillan
Monday, 4th July 2022, 3:41 pm

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Most of you will be aware that Washington Old Hall is the ancestral home of the first US President, George Washington, as well as being stunningly beautiful. But there’s so much more to the story.

Let’s look back a millennium or so.

Origins of a dynasty

The magnificent Washington Old Hall is brimming with history and splendour.

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The current building was not constructed until the 17th century. But there has been a hall on the site in some or other form for over 1000 years. The earliest reference to it is in a charter of 973, when it was a wooden building.

It was first built in stone in 1183, during the reign of Henry II. The manor at that time had been bought by Sir William de Hertburn, a knight whose forebears had arrived from France with the Norman Conquest the previous century.

Sir William was a well-heeled lad, but like everyone in those days not even he could afford a surname.

William came from Hartburn, near Stockton-on-Tees. It was customary to take the name of your home village. For some reason he changed for a while to William de Hertbourne, before losing the reference to the village altogether.

President Jimmy Carter plants a tree at Washington Old Hall in 1977, while Britain's Prime Minister, James Callaghan, looks on.

So he dropped “de Hertburn/Hertbourne” and became known as William “de Wessyngton” which was the name of his new estate. By the time William died he’d had as many handles as Puff Daddy.

He was literally making a name for himself. After experimenting over time with Whessingtun, Wessynton and Wassington, his descendants finally settled on Washington and a dynasty was up and running.

William left a hall behind, although it is uncertain whether he built it, or if it was in situ when he acquired the land.

The word “Washington” is Anglo-Saxon in meaning and origin. ‘Wass’ means ‘Saxon chief’. ‘Inga’ is ‘family of’ and ‘tun’ means ‘the estate’. Therefore Washington is ‘The estate of the Wass family’ so if your surname is Wass, you might well have some notable ancestors.

The gardens alone make a visit to Washington Old Hall worth the effort.

Medieval times

Over hundreds of years, various alterations were made to the dwelling. Notably a new hall was added in the middle of the 13th century. Parts of this can be seen inside today, including distinctive pointed arches between the Great Hall and the west wing.

By then the place had become a regular haunt of the great and good. In 1304, King Edward I stopped off there on his way back to London after indulging in his favourite hobby of duffing up the Scots.

A year later he had William Wallace horribly executed. Edward then put a quarter of Wallace on display in Newcastle.

The outside of Washington Old Hall is magnificent. Wait until you see the inside.

Less than a century after the ‘Hammer of the Scots’ had bunked down there, most of the Whessingtuns/Wessyntons/Wassingtons/Washingtons had moved elsewhere. But not all of them.

At some point the hall was in the hands of Eleanor Washington, who then left it to her daughter Dionisia and Dionisia’s husband Sir William Mallory. In 1613 the Mallorys sold the property to the Bishop of Durham, William James.

Long before the expression ‘property development’ entered the language, the bishop’s son Francis James took charge of rebuilding the Old Hall and converted it into a five-bedroom manor.

Francis partially demolished and rebuilt on the original foundations and very little of the original layout remains.

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Dignitaries mark the Fourth of July at Washington Old Hall in 2020. It was more low key than usual due to coronavirus.

The 17th century version of the hall is mainly what we see today, although in 1792 alterations were made to the east wing. Architecturally, not much seems to have happened after that until the 1920s when it was divided into flats again - then neglected for years.

It seems incredible now, but relatively recently, 1936 to be precise, Washington Old Hall was in such disrepair that it would have been demolished had less progressive minds had their way. In fairness, the 1930s was not an economically joyous period.

But it’s always darkest before dawn and in 1937 it was purchased by a local preservation committee, led by one Frederick Hill, himself something of a Washington legend, who set about its restoration with some US financial backing.

The committee set about removing the modern partitions of the flats and the building was made watertight.

Some of the restoration was quite ingenious, for example, one historic wooden staircase was acquired from the White Hart Hotel in Guildford.

Better still was that during restoration it was discovered that some of the 13th century parts of the house had not been completely destroyed, including those pointed arches, some foundations and walls. Hurrah!

Work was interrupted by a rather inconvenient world war and it wasn’t until 1955 that it was officially opened by the wonderfully named Winthrop W Aldrich, the United States Ambassador to the UK.

In 1957 the National Trust took over the hall and still own it today. With help from the Friends of Washington Old Hall, the place has been made to appear much as it did around 400 years ago. Its gardens, paintings, furniture, ornaments and Jacobean panelling are quite magnificent.

It’s a hugely popular tourist attraction, not least with American visitors. History and splendour notwithstanding, the main selling point lies with a man who never visited England, let alone Sunderland.

George Washington.

Washington Old Hall is, of course, the ancestral home of the first US President.

He was born in Virginia in 1732 to Captain Augustine Washington and Mary Ball. His great-grandfather was John Washington, who emigrated from Sulgrave (in Northamptonshire) to Virginia in 1656.

George was also a descendent of William de Hertburn-Whessingtun-Washington ... him.

To cut a long story short, George Washington led the Patriots to victory over the British in the American Revolutionary War of 1775-83. Then he became President in 1789.

He didn’t actually sign the Declaration of Independence in Philadelphia on July 4, 1776. The President-to-be was actually in New York at the time, waiting for news from those who actually did sign.

He finally got to read out the Declaration to New Yorkers on July 9, who celebrated by whooping, drinking heavily and removing a lead statue of George III before melting it down, then turning it into bullets to fire at the British.

So while Washington Old Hall is indisputably the ancestral home of the most famous American of them all, and the connection is marked every July 4, the reality is that had George Washington ever turned up at the hall in person, we Brits would have hanged him.

Cementing the American connection

The American connection was firmly cemented in 1977 when President Jimmy Carter paid a visit to Washington Old Hall with British Prime Minister James Callaghan.

In 2006 the hall was significant in securing a friendship agreement between the city of Sunderland and Washington DC.

If you’ve never never visited this historical and aesthetic gem on our doorstep, we respectfully suggest you make the effort. The National Trust and the Friends of Washington Old Hall deserve our support and the hall brings revenue to the area.