The family behind Sunderland’s Elephant Tea Room

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A new haul of old photos has proved just their cup of tea for Wearside historians, as nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner found out.

Members of Sunderland Antiquarian Society snapped up almost a dozen snaps featuring the Grimshaw family, of Elephant Tea Room fame, from eBay.

“The photographs were taken by Crook-born Fanny Pickard, who married Wearside grocer John William Grimshaw in 1870,” said local historian Bill Hawkins.

“Fanny used dry glass plates to take her photos, a technique favoured by amateur photographers of the Victorian era, as the plates could be bought ready prepared.

“She would, however, have had to develop the pictures herself, and it is thought she may have turned one of the rooms of her home at Esplanade Street into a dark room.”

As Fanny developed her photographic talents, so her father-in-law Ronald developed his grocery business – instructing architect Frank Caws to design a shop for him.

The result was the Elephant Tea Rooms, on the corner of Fawcett Street and High Street West, which brought a touch of the mystic Far East to booming Wearside.

“It was built between 1872 and 1877, with Doulton and Co terracotta ornamental elephants on the upper floors and oriental bird motifs on the facade,” said Bill. “Fanny documented each step of the building process at monthly intervals until 1874, at which time she started a family and was perhaps too busy to pursue her hobby.

“We acquired these back in 2012, and the family photos we’ve just purchased are the perfect accompaniment – showing the faces behind Sunderland’s biggest firms.”

Among the family pictures taken by Fanny are shots of her husband John, as well as cement manufacturer Charles Wood Grimshaw, who lived at North Hylton Grange.

“Just as Ronald enjoyed the fruits of a booming business, so did Charles – who employed housemaids and cooks and sent his children to boarding school,” said Bill.

“He went on to sell Hylton Cement Works in 1898 and started a new firm in Union Street – building horse-drawn carriages at first, before turning to motor car engines.

“His sons later joined the flourishing firm and it became known as Grimshaw and Sons. By 1903 Charles had become the first man in Sunderland to manufacture cars.

“According to old stories in the Echo, several gentlemen were ‘desirous of having a special build of car’, and Charles Grimshaw was the man to turn dreams into reality.”

Fanny Grimshaw’s stay in Sunderland was a short, but important, one. Census records show she was living with her husband and three children in Wolsingham by 1881.

Following the death of John in 1884 she returned briefly to Bishopwearmouth, but by 1901 she had moved to Houghton. The 1911 census reveals her as living in Yorkshire.

“Fanny’s images of the Tea Rooms, as well as the people behind some of the town’s best-known businesses, provide a wonderful glimpse of life back then,” said Bill.

“When the Grimshaw family photos went up for sale on eBay, we knew we had to buy them – and preserve them. They are very much part of Sunderland’s rich history.”

•The archives of Sunderland Antiquarian Society, at 6 Douro Terrace, are open each Wednesday and Saturday morning. All welcome.

Building an empire

•Grocer and tea merchant Ronald Grimshaw established a small empire of retail outlets in Sunderland before opening the Elephant Tea Rooms.

•Architect Frank Caws described the style as ‘Hindoo-Gothic’. The elephants helped advertise the building as an emporium for Oriental beverages and spices.

•Ronald Grimshaw lived at a house called The Cedars in Bishopwearmouth, and Fanny is believed to have taken some of her photos in this area.

•The Tea Rooms were originally known as Grimshaw’s Tea Rooms. Other occupiers have included tailors Montague Burton Ltd and Williams and Glyn’s Bank.

•Charles Wood Grimshaw was born in Sunderland in about 1845. His father, William Grimshaw, was a grocer and tallow chandler employing 20 people.

•The 1898 sale of Hylton Cement Works included two washmills, Washmill House, ten kilns, five reservoirs and various warehouses.

•A phone book from 1911 reveals Chas. Grimshaw and Sons – automobile and (car) body builders of Union Street – as having the number Sunderland 131.

•Charles Grimshaw senior died in 1936, aged 91. His wife, Margaret, died in 1921 and his youngest son, Charles Bertram, passed away aged 42 in 1923.

•The Grimshaw car dealership lasted until at least the 1980s. At that time it was called Grimshaw Leather Limited and had a branch opposite Burn Park.

A bike like no other

ONE member of the Grimshaw family made a speedy entry into the record books in 1908 – after inventing one of the world’s most powerful motorbikes.

Charles Bertram Grimshaw left his competitors in the dust when he showcased the machine – which featured a massive 2.7 litre engine – at hill climb contests that year.

But his time in the spotlight was cut tragically short by TB just months later, when he was forced to give up his bike after being sent to Scottish sanatorium for treatment.

“Although Charles only had a brief moment in the spotlight, his work should not be forgotten,” said Bill. “His 20 HP Grimshaw JAP bike was the one to beat back then.”

Charles, youngest son of cement manufacturer Charles Grimshaw and his Yorkshire-born wife Margaret, was born at the family home of Hylton Grange in 1881.

After studying at Ackworth School in West Yorkshire, a Quaker-run boarding school, he joined his father’s new firm – a horse-drawn carriage business in Union Street.

By the time of the 1901 census young Charles was an apprentice carriage builder but, as his father moved into building car engines, so he started tinkering with motorbikes.

“Charles junior ended up inventing his own 2.7 litre super bike – a bike engine bigger than anything sold today,” said Bill. “It must have been a wonderful sight to witness.

“Sadly, once Charles disappeared to Scotland, interest in his bike disappeared. He died just a few years later, in 1923, and was outlived by his father by 13 years.”