Chance to see inside Sunderland’s wartime hospital

Bede Tower in February 1952.
Bede Tower in February 1952.
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A WEARSIDE landmark with wartime links is to throw open its doors this weekend.

Bede Tower was built as a luxury mansion for Sunderland mayor Anthony Moore in Victorian times, but served as a hospital for wounded soldiers in the Great War.

OLD SCENE: Bede Tower when it was Sunderland Boys' High School in the 1890s.

OLD SCENE: Bede Tower when it was Sunderland Boys' High School in the 1890s.

Now the Burdon Road building is to host an open day on Saturday to commemorate the centenary of the conflict, and remember those Wearsiders who gave their lives.

“We believe a community event is an ideal way to mark the 100th anniversary,” said Dave Burke, senior pastor at Bethany City Church – which now owns Bede Tower.

“The house was converted into a regimental hospital for several years during the war, which makes Bede Tower a very appropriate place to host a commemorative event.”

Bede Tower, inspired by Queen Victoria’s Isle of White summer house and designed in lavish Italian Renaissance style by architect Andrew Middlemiss, was built in 1851.

Mayor Moore, a solicitor and chairman of Sunderland Gas Company, developed much of Ashbrooke and Christchurch at this time – buying up Mowbray land for his projects.

“A painting from around 1854 shows the original Bede Tower in its grounds and surrounded by virgin countryside with a clear view as far as Tunstall Hills,” said Dave.

“Within 100 years this whole area would be covered with houses, but Bede Tower has remained a landmark. We want to make sure it remains part of the community.”

The mansion did not, however, serve as a private house for long. Indeed, by 1890 it was in use as a school and, just a few years later, it opened its doors as a war hospital.

“In 1918, at around the end of the war, the governing body of the Eye Infirmary bought the site – with the intention of erecting a new hospital there,” said Dave.

“But the new Eye Infirmary was eventually built on Queen Alexandra Road and Bede Tower was then purchased by parish priest Canon W. Smith, for use as a Catholic school.”

St Mary’s Grammar School was founded by Canon Smith at Bede Tower in 1928/29 with the first schoolmaster, Mr J. Goundry, listed in official records as a layman.

In 1935, however, the Jesuits took over and Father S.J. Whittaker became teaching Superior. Just a year later, it transferred to The Briery in Ashbrooke Road and became Corby Hall.

“The site was acquired by Sunderland Polytechnic in the 1960s, which built a theatre and gymnasium onto the old house, and added a refectory and kitchens,” said Dave.

“But it was later sold on to Sunderland High School, and it was used for lessons until we bought the building 18 months ago – as the new home of Bethany City Church.”

The site now boasts a large auditorium, sports hall, meeting rooms and a refectory for 100 people following more than a year of renovations – yet still retains its character too.

“Although the building has been much changed over the years, the tower still remains and we wanted to make a feature out of it. It is part of Sunderland’s history,” said Dave.

“Opening up the tower for this Saturday’s event is a great way of making it part of the community once more – while at the same time marking an important occasion.”

Bethany City Church has joined forces with Beamish Museum and Sunderland City Council to organise the remembrance event, which will run from 10.30am until 2.30pm.

Activities will include clippy mat making, patchwork sessions, crochet lessons and paper poppy making, as well as tips on wartime wound dressing and drill exercises.

An exhibition featuring vintage photographs of Sunderland soldiers during the Great War will be on show too, as well as artefacts dating to the wartime era.

“There will be something to do, and something to look at, for everybody on Saturday,” said Dave. “It is a very positive way of remembering those affected by World War One.

“The centenary of the war really seems to have struck a chord with people, and our congregation wanted to mark that anniversary. Hopefully, people will find it interesting.”

l The Remembering the Past at Bede Tower event will run from 10.30am until 2.30pm on Saturday. Admission is free.