Marking 300 years of Easter cheer

HOME OF GIVING: Sunderland Parish Church.
HOME OF GIVING: Sunderland Parish Church.
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A LITTLE Easter cheer will be doled out to Wearsiders this Maundy Thursday – in a custom dating back more than 300 years.

Dame Dorothy Williamson’s Dole was traditionally presented to the poor, elderly and frail of Sunderland each Easter - following a bequest from the “noble and generous-hearted” woman.

MAUNDY SERVICE: Sunderland Parish Churchyard  June 1960.

MAUNDY SERVICE: Sunderland Parish Churchyard June 1960.

Today the money is no longer taken from the Williamson estate, but the ancient Easter giveaway still continues - thanks to Sunderland Old Township Heritage Society.

“Back in 1699, when the tradition first began, the money left by Dame Dorothy would literally have been a life-saver to those who received it,” said member Sharon Vincent.

“Just a few pennies could buy food for a starving family, or put a roof over your head - at least for a little while. Dame Dorothy did something amazing for Sunderland in her will.”

Dame Dorothy was born on November 4, 1646, in Monkwearmouth; the youngest daughter and co-heiress of wealthy property owner Colonel George Fenwick and his wife Alice.

It was common practice for wealthier classes to leave charitable bequests - partly from superstitious reasons that when they met their Maker, He would look favourably on them.

Fenwick, an active parliamentary officer and sequestrator, owned property at Brinkburn in Northumberland, as well as a 150-acre estate at Monkwearmouth Shore, before his death in 1657.

“His property and estates were divided between his two daughters, Dorothy and her older sister Elizabeth. The money would prove useful during her lifetime, and beyond,” said Sharon.

Dorothy’s future husband, Sir Thomas Williamson, had been born in around 1636 - the eldest son of staunch loyalist Thomas Williamson of East Markham, Nottingham.

Indeed, such was his family’s loyalty to Charles I that the Williamsons paid £3,400 in fines to the Parliamentarians during the Civil War - and pledged not to take up arms against Cromwell.

GENEROUS COUPLE: Sir Thomas Williamson pictured left, with Dame Dorothy to the right. The painting was by Gerard von Scott.

GENEROUS COUPLE: Sir Thomas Williamson pictured left, with Dame Dorothy to the right. The painting was by Gerard von Scott.

“By the time of his marriage to Dorothy, Williamson and the East Markham estate were deeply in debt,” said Sharon.

“She brought to the marriage a half-share in the Monkwearmouth estate, and would eventually buy out her nephew Sir Thomas Heselrigg’s share - settling the property on herself and her husband.

“The couple made their home at Monkwearmouth Hall, which had been converted from some of the medieval priory buildings of Monkwearmouth Monastery. Sadly. they were not blessed with children.”

All went well until Dorothy fell ill in 1699. Knowing that she was dying, she started writing out her will - ensuring both her husband, and the poor of Sunderland, would benefit after she was gone.

“It was common practice for wealthier classes to leave charitable bequests - partly from superstitious reasons that when they met their Maker, He would look favourably on them,” said Sharon.

“Dorothy was no exception. Her will, dated October 28, 1699, shows she made several bequests to the poor of nearby parishes. She died on her 53rd birthday - November 4 - only a week later.”

Among her bequests was a property in Low Street, next to Fenwick’s Anchorage and Beaconage, which housed the needy and was known as “Lady Williamson’s Gift to Poor House Keepers”.

The poorest people of Monkwearmouth, Hylton, Southwick, Bishopwearmouth and Southwick were all remembered too - with each ancient parish receiving up to £3 a year to bequeath to the needy.

Originally, the “dole” money was handed out on Good Friday but, over the decades, this eventually changed to Maundy Thursday - the same day that the Queen distributes her Maundy money.

“In July 1849, the Newcastle Journal wrote that the sum of £12 had been distributed to the poor and orphans of Monkwearmouth - this being three years’ worth of dole left by Dorothy,” said Sharon.

“That same year Sunderland Parish distributed £4 – two years of dole money – to 54 poor people. It was not an unusual practice, as Poor Law Guardians often treated legacies as their own finances.

“Indeed, legacies were often withheld, left to accumulate or absorbed into other financial schemes as the guardians saw fit - while disregarding the needs of the poor or terms of the original bequest.

In 1903, however, as the Charities Commission prepared to investigate ancient charities across Sunderland, Bishopwearmouth and Monkwearmouth, so Echo reporters started their own digging.

Among the charities discussed in the newspaper was Dame Dorothy’s Dole, with an Echo reporter praising Dorothy as “a noble and generous-hearted woman who ought never to be forgotten.”

Journalists were, however, unable to track down what had become of the poor house she funded, and it was also revealed that there was “no consistency” in how the dole money was handed out.

“During the official enquiry, Dr Randell of Sunderland Parish Church revealed his parish’s portion was given out in shillings from the church’s vestibule to 40 poor people each year,” said Sharon.

“He also confirmed that the money was still paid out by the Williamson family, from Sir Hedworth Williamson’s office, and that the majority of beneficiaries lived in the Trafalgar Square almshouses.”

George Duncan, churchwarden at St Peter’s, revealed that his parish’s £3 portion was distributed as florins to 30 old people, while over at Fulwell and Hylton the money was donated to widows.

“Finally, at Southwick the dole had been given to 20 old people. There was no consistency in how the cash was distributed and each parish seemed to be able to use its own discretion,” said Sharon.

“Today, only Sunderland Parish Church distributes Dame Dorothy’s Dole, but the money handed out no longer comes from the Williamson estate - it is purely an acknowledgement of the tradition. But it is a tradition we believe is important to continue, and anyone wishing to be part of this ancient custom is welcome to join us at Sunderland Parish Church at 2pm on Thursday.”

l Father Andrew Collins-Jones, from St Ignatius, will take the Maundy Thursday service and refreshments will be available afterwards in the nearby Donnison School Vintage Tearoom.