An ambitious project charting the histories of thousands of Wearside families – and preserving them for future generations – needs YOUR help.
The popularity of TV shows such as Who Do You Think You Are has inspired Sunderland Antiquarian Society to make a city-wide appeal for local family trees.
“We are following in the footsteps of local historian James Watson Corder, whose indefatigable efforts to trace Sunderland ancestry in the early 20th-century still fills one with astonishment,” said president Douglas Smith.
“To contemplate his 25 volumes, each the size of a family bible, is to be struck with awe. Our project, Continuing Corder, is rather more modest – we just want donations of family trees.
“You don’t need to have traced your family back hundreds of years. We are happy to hear from anyone who can go back just one or two generations.”
Corder’s own roots can be traced back hundreds of years to Pebmarch, in Essex. His father, Francis, was born there – but moved to Sunderland in 1863 to set himself up as a draper.
Later that same year, he married County Durham-born Edith Watson and James, their first child, was born in 1867. Four daughters followed.
“Corder was inspired by George Bain, one of the founders of the Antiquarians, to study local history in his twenties. Most of his life was then taken up with the subject,” said Douglas.
“He started by copying the registers of ancient churches, but also used information from trade directories and marriage licence bonds to construct the pedigrees of local families. He collected a mass of data; with the volume beginning with the letter A alone featuring 90 surnames. Each hand-written entry covers anything from a single page to over 50.”
Corder’s work did not, however, contain just dry information. Indeed, he often spiced up the pages of intricate details with potentially libellous comments about local notables.
One unfortunate man was dubbed an “unsatisfactory character”, while another was condemned as a “worthless nonentity”. A third was ridiculed for his “dissipated habits”.
“It is no wonder really, with all these pithy and somewhat scurrilous comments, that Corder’s volumes lay behind the librarian’s counter for so many years,” said Douglas. “In days gone by they had to be specially requested, but now can be read with amusement – given the passage of time. Anyone tracing their family tree will be well aware of Corder.”
Corder spent more than 40 years delving into the local history and genealogy of Wearside and, in addition to his family studies, he also produced several volumes on local industries.
It is perhaps not surprising, therefore, that his eyesight started failing in the 1940s. After retiring to Somerset, he died in 1953 – but not before donating his collection to the library.
“Our Continuing Corder project aims to pick up where Corder left off in the 1940s, by gathering together as many family pedigrees of Sunderland as possible,” said Douglas.
“Just like the original volumes, these family trees will be preserved for future study. In this way we will commemorate the lifetime efforts of Corder to record the folks of Sunderland.
“Who knows, maybe years into the future, a descendent might be very grateful indeed to be able to study the details you provide.”
Family trees should be sent to Sunderland Antiquarian Society, 6 Douro Terrace, Sunderland, SR2 7DX. Submissions can be of any length.
Help is also on hand for those about to start tracing their ancestors, with encouragement and advice on offer each Wednesday and Saturday from Society members between 9.30-noon.
“Whether you are from Sunderland, or have just moved here, please get in touch. Just think of the interest your details will arouse in 100 years, when the world will be very different,” said Douglas.