Sunderland philanthropist helped the sick, the poor and the church

Sir John Priestman laying the foundation stone of Priestman Library on December 16, 1936.
Sir John Priestman laying the foundation stone of Priestman Library on December 16, 1936.
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There’s little doubt that Sunderland’s greatest benefactor and philanthropist was Sir John Priestman.

Although he lived most of his life in Sunderland, John was born on July 22, 1855, in Bishop Auckland, the son of a Bondgate Street baker.

Sir John receiving the Freedom of Sunderland from Mayor E.H. Brown.

Sir John receiving the Freedom of Sunderland from Mayor E.H. Brown.

Philip Curtis of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society shares his story.

John Priestman came to Sunderland for an apprenticeship.

He got it in the drawing office at Blumer’s shipyard on the Wear and was intent on making an impression.

He moved on to become chief draughtsman at the nearby Pickersgill’s yard, and by 1882 he left Pickersgills to establish his own shipbuilding yard at Castletown, John Priestman & Co.

In 1933, in recognition of his philanthropy, he was granted the Freedom of Sunderland and at the ceremony announced that he had executed a trust deed and allocated £100,000 (£6.3m today) for the provision of boots and clothing for the poor children of Sunderland

Philip Curtis

He also developed interests in coal, iron and steel, and became chairman of three steamship companies.

He successfully invested his profits in South African gold mines, which meant he could donate large amounts to charitable organisations.

He also funded improvement projects for the benefit of the residents of Sunderland.

Sir John married twice. His first wife was Naomi Huntly from Sunderland, who died in 1908. He remarried to Sarah Marie Pownall in 1915, and had a daughter, Barbara.

Sir John Priestman - Sunderland's greatest benefactor.

Sir John Priestman - Sunderland's greatest benefactor.

Perhaps John’s greatest act of philanthropy was donating £6,000 (£700,000 today) in 1907 towards the building of St Andrews Church at Roker (now a Grade I listed building).

It was built in memory of Jane, his mother, with a proviso that the tower of the church had to be visible from the sea.

So St Andrew’s tower was built at the east end of the church when most are at the west end of the buildings.

He also demanded 700 seats and that the whole congregation should have a view of the altar and pulpit with no chancel screen.

The Prince of Wales laying the Foundation Stone of Monkwearmouth Hospital in 1931 with Sir John on left.

The Prince of Wales laying the Foundation Stone of Monkwearmouth Hospital in 1931 with Sir John on left.

In 1928 he funded the building of the adjoining Priestman Hall (now a Grade II listed building).

His generosity was recognized with a knighthood in 1923 ‘for services to many social organisations in County Durham’. He later became a Baron in 1934.

In 1929, the Prince of Wales contacted John with a request for a donation towards the Earl Haig Homes which were being built for ex-servicemen.

Without hesitation, Sir John immediately gave £100,000 (£5.5m today) to the fund.

Between the wars Sir John continued to fund projects in Sunderland. He paid for organs for Wearside churches, including St Gabriel’s.

In 1933, in recognition of his philanthropy, he was granted the Freedom of Sunderland, and at the ceremony announced that he had executed a trust deed and allocated £100,000 (£6.3m today) for the provision of boots and clothing for the poor children of Sunderland.

Monkwearmouth Hospital in 1932, built thanks to Sir John's donation.

Monkwearmouth Hospital in 1932, built thanks to Sir John's donation.

Other donations included £65,000 in 1930 (£3.7m today) towards the building of Monkwearmouth Hospital in Newcastle Road with the Prince of Wales there for the laying of the Foundation Stone.

Watch out for more on Sir John in the coming days.

St Andrews Church being built in 1907 - decdicated to Jane Priestman.

St Andrews Church being built in 1907 - decdicated to Jane Priestman.

The monument in The Minster which records Sir John's generosity.

The monument in The Minster which records Sir John's generosity.

Sir John Priestman at opening of Monkwearmouth & Southwick Hospital.

Sir John Priestman at opening of Monkwearmouth & Southwick Hospital.