Spotlight on Sunderland’s Georgian gems

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THE historic gems of Georgian Sunderland are to come under the spotlight.

Historian and author Dr Michael Johnson will examine Wearside’s architectural treasures during an illustrated talk this Sunday at Queen Street Masonic Hall.

STILL STANDING: Sunderland's Old Parish Church is still standing - but the gravestones pictured here are long gone.

STILL STANDING: Sunderland's Old Parish Church is still standing - but the gravestones pictured here are long gone.

“The Georgian era, from 1714-1830, was a formative period in Sunderland’s history. The foundations of the modern town were laid at this time,” he said.

“Unfortunately, much of Sunderland’s 18th century heritage has been lost, but the talk uses photos, paintings and drawings to reconstruct the Georgian townscape.”

The origins of modern Sunderland lie in the historic East End, where a thriving riverside community prompted the creation of Holy Trinity Church in 1719.

“This is a superb example of a Georgian church, built at the dawn of the new era and still beautifully preserved,” said Michael, a director of Sunderland’s Heritage Quarter.

The East End grew so quickly, however, that a new church was soon needed. St John the Evangelist was built in Prospect Row as a chapel of ease to Holy Trinity in 1764.

“The patron was the influential John Thornhill, who owned Thornhill Wharf and gave his name to the Thornhill area of town,” said Michael, a design history lecturer.

“He campaigned for the church and donated £4,500. Sadly, it was demolished in 1972, but I’ll use rare photos and drawings to give a glimpse of the ornate interior.” Other Georgian buildings to be featured in the talk will include Queen Street Masonic Hall – the world’s oldest purpose-built Masonic hall still in use.

“Sunderland is lucky to possess such a building. Queen Street Masonic Hall is a remarkable survival of Sunderland’s early development,” said Michael.

Freemasonry powered many of the enterprises which shaped Georgian Sunderland. The most ambitious, however, was the creation of the first Wearmouth Bridge in 1796.

“This was only the second cast-iron bridge in the world, after Ironbridge in Shropshire,” said Michael, co-author of new book The Architecture of Sunderland.

“It was an extraordinary achievement for Sunderland. It finally connected the ancient parish of Monkwearmouth to the north with the East End and Bishopwearmouth.”

But the developing town needed more than just a bridge and a few churches. A range of public facilities, from schools to meeting halls and factories, were all built too.

“An important survivor of Sunderland’s early growth is the Donnison School in Church Walk, which was built alongside Holy Trinity in 1764,” said Michael.

Sunderland’s most important public building from the Georgian period, however, was the Exchange on High Street, which was built in 1812-4 to serve as town hall.

A post office, magistrates’ court and market were also included within the Palladian-style building – a style fashion which swept across Britain in the Georgian era.

Other important buildings included Sunderland’s first infirmary, which was built by Ignatius Bonomi – architect of Durham Jail – at the bottom of Chester Road in 1823.

As Sunderland’s population grew, all religious denominations built new churches and chapels. Most were ‘stern, but dignified’ and built in Ancient Greece and Rome style.

“The best surviving example is St George’s Presbyterian Chapel in Villiers Street. Built in 1825, it was inspired by the temples of Ancient Greece,” said Michael.

“A similar building was the 1827 Scotch Church in North Bridge Street. Designed by architect John Dobson, this was a powerful expression of the Greek Revival style.”

The other great movement in Georgian architecture was, according to Michael, the Gothic Revival – which resurrected the architecture of the Middle Ages.

Sunderland’s first Gothic Revival building was the 1829 St Thomas’ Church, on John Street, which was built to serve the middle class residents of the new Fawcett Estate.

Today, the oldest surviving Gothic Revival building is St Mary’s RC Church in Fawcett Street, built from 1830-35 and designed by infirmary architect Ignatius Bonomi.

“St Mary’s represents the early phase of the Gothic Revival, before medieval architecture was fully understood,” said Michael.

“The choice of style was significant. Catholics had been persecuted in England until the Catholic Emancipation Act of 1829 gave them the freedom to practise their faith. St Mary’s expressed the resurgence of Catholicism, and the Gothic design suggested continuity with the universal Catholic Church of the Middle Ages.

“Nearby, the Wesleyans built Fawcett Street Chapel in Gothic style. Designed by local architect Joseph Potts, it was seen as a deliberate riposte to the Catholics.”

Few private houses survive today from the Georgian era. Mansions such as Pallion Hall, Low Barnes and Thornhill House have all long since been demolished.

“Although only traces of our Georgian heritage remain, there’s no doubt it was during this era that the foundations of modern Sunderland were laid,” said Michael.

“Georgian Sunderland produced some superlative achievements: Holy Trinity Church, the world’s oldest Masonic Hall and the second cast-iron bridge in the word.”

l Michael’s talk – Georgian Buildings of Sunderland – will be held at 2:30pm on Sunday at Queen Street Masonic Hall in Queen Street East. Admission free.