FEATURE: 170 years of Penshaw Monument

Penshaw Monument
Penshaw Monument
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It cost £6,000 to build, dominates our skyline and is celebrating its 170th anniversary. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner takes a look at the history of a Wearside landmark.

PENSHAW Monument – instantly recognisable from both land and air – has been standing guard over Wearside for the past 170 years.

But, if it hadn’t been for a popular Victorian MP known as Radical Jack, the imposing Greek-style temple would never have been built.

“Radical Jack, whose real name was John George Lambton – the 1st Earl of Durham – was a great campaigner for radical reform,” said local historian Carol Roberton.

“He was instrumental in getting the people of Sunderland the vote – hence his popularity, and the willingness of Wearsiders to help pay for a memorial to him.”

Eton-educated Lambton was born in London in 1792. He inherited Lambton Castle and several County Durham pits just five years later, following his father’s death.

After serving in the 10th Hussars, Lambton became a Whig MP for County Durham at 21. Later he was Ambassador to Russia and Lord High Commissioner of Canada too.

“His death in 1840 was a great national and local loss. When his funeral was held on August 10, extra trains had to be laid on for the dozens of mourners,” said Carol.

“The funeral procession included 150 carriages, and spectators lined the road into Chester-le-Street. He’d been so popular that thousands wanted to pay their respects.”

Radical Jack’s death at just 48 left Wearsiders determined to mark his life’s work, and a subscription for the erection of a public monument in his memory was soon raised.

Thousands of pounds poured in and a “fine elevation” – Penshaw Hill – was chosen as a “spot combining every requisite for the location of a grand public monument.”

“Lambton was Provincial Grand Master of England in the Freemasons, so Durham and Northumberland members took a leading role with the memorial,” said Carol.

“Indeed, when the foundation stone was laid on August 28, 1844, by the Earl of Zetland – the Grand Master – 400 Freemasons were among 30,000-strong crowd.”

Gritstone from the Marsden quarries of the then Marquis of Londonderry was used to create the monument, which was modelled on the temple of Theseus in Athens.

Designed by John and Benjamin Green of Newcastle, the tribute was developed by a Sunderland builder called Pratt and measured 100ft x 53ft, with 18 Doric columns.

“A Greek temple may seem an incongruous choice, but the Victorians loved these grand follies, and maybe they were right after all, for it has served well as the first sight of home for generations of Wearside travellers,” said Carol.

“Steel pins and brackets originally held the stone blocks together but, over the years, these deteriorated. The monument had to be underpinned in 1978.

“One year later, the entire western end was dismantled block by block, to allow damaged lintels to be replaced with reinforced concrete ones – to make it stable.”

Today Penshaw Monument is not only one of Wearside’s best-known landmarks – it has also served as a stunning backdrop to films, TV shows, plates and plaques too.

“The Monument may have been dedicated to just one man 170 years ago, but it has be become part of life on Wearside for generations of men, women and children.”

Pillar struck by lightning

PENSHAW Monument – described as “crumbling away” in the 1930s – suffered further damage during a wartime storm.

A lightning strike in April 1942 destroyed part of the pillar containing a staircase to the roof, according to the Echo.

Eleven-year-old Michael McCree was playing in a hut behind his home at Penshaw Hill House when the storm hit.

“Suddenly a great flash lit up the sky. I huddled in one corner of the hut, afraid a nearby tree would be struck,” he said.

“When the storm had cleared, I noticed that a chunk of stone was missing from one of the pillars of the monument.”

Roman stone used in the building?

A THEORY relating to Penshaw Monument’s possible Roman past was put forward by historian Raymond Selkirk in 2006.

Raymond, then education officer for The Northern Archaeology Group, believed Roman stones may have been used in its creation.

And the historian’s theory was backed by the BBC’s History Magazine, which claimed left-over Roman stones could be seen nearby.

“A Roman dam – known locally as Briggstones – used to lie between The Golden Lion and the Shipwrights’ pubs on the Wear,” Raymond said.

“The massive stone structure was probably a navigation weir to keep the river back at high tide, so Roman ships could transfer their supplies.

“But it was removed after keelboatmen complained it was an obstruction, and many of the stones were used for sea defences at Roker and Sunderland docks.

“I believe it is possible some of these stones were also used for Penshaw Monument. It has certainly got Roman stones in it, but where they came from isn’t known.”

Teenager’s tragic death in fall from the top

A “TRAGIC affair cast gloom over Wearside” in 1926 – when a teenage boy fell 70ft to his death from Penshaw Monument.

Temperley Arthur Scott, 15, of 29 Castle Street at Fatfield, ignored warning notices to climb to the top of the structure.

Tragically, while on the rooftop walkway, the apprentice mason appeared to stumble forward – tumbling over the edge.

Eye witness Albert Hind, 15, of 13 Lambton Street at Fatfield, was called to give evidence at his friend’s inquest.

The lad revealed a group of pals had climbed to the top to enjoy the view. There was, he claimed, no “larking around.”

“In order to pass from one side to the other, we had to pass round the ends, where there was no protecting wall,” he added.

“Scott was hurrying to reach his companions and, when he stumbled and fell, he rolled over once and disappeared over the edge.

“I heard a thud and, when we got to the bottom of the steps, we saw a crowd around the boy.” Dr Eccles, of Herrington, was called to give help, but pronounced “life extinct.” Young Temperley had died almost instantly.

“It was quite an ordinary thing for people to go up to the top of the monument at holiday times,” PC McKay told the inquest.

“There was a notice, warning persons that they went to the top at their own risk, but nothing to prevent a person slipping off.

“From the worn appearance of the stone work on top of the peak, quite a number of people must have crossed over the years.”

Deputy coroner Boulton returned a verdict of accidental death after hearing Temperley’s fall was the first tragedy at the monument.

“It was a terrible accident to have occurred, and we must have the greatest sympathy for the parents of the boy,” he said.

•Penshaw Monument was fenced off in the 1930s, as the upper part of the building was “beginning to crumble.”

Family ties of high standing

ENGINE driver Thomas Drummond spent his life claiming to be the rightful Earl of Perth. Even in death his claim lives on, through his gravestone.

Drummond’s family fled to Old Penshaw after the abortive Jacobite rebellion of 1745, hiding from their pursuers in a disused mine shaft.

The family eventually opted to settle in the village and Thomas, one of many descendants, married a pitman’s daughter and fathered 15 children. When he died in 1873, at the age of 81, he made a final claim to the Earldom by having the title inscribed on his tombstone.

Penshaw-born John Cunningham, who as a boy worked alongside Thomas on the railway, told the Echo back in 1977: “He was the rightful Earl of Perth.

“He was different from other men, he had culture and breeding. He was a fine singer and had a grand baritone voice.”