The haunting of Sunderland’s Old Fire Station

OLD SCENE: Sunderland's firefighters galloping down High Street in 1905 - just past Caslaw's and the Ship Inn. This photo was taken during the construction of the Dun Cow Street fire station.
OLD SCENE: Sunderland's firefighters galloping down High Street in 1905 - just past Caslaw's and the Ship Inn. This photo was taken during the construction of the Dun Cow Street fire station.
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VISITORS to a former Wearside fire station at the centre of plans to turn it into a cultural hub could end up eating – or dancing – next to a spooky guest.

The Dun Cow Street building is to be transformed into a restaurant, dance studio and heritage centre, after the MAC Trust won £2.4million in Heritage Lottery funding.

BYGONE DAYS: Sunderland's Central Fire Station in Dun Cow Street pictured in 1978.

BYGONE DAYS: Sunderland's Central Fire Station in Dun Cow Street pictured in 1978.

But former firefighter Colin Nichol today warned the 107-year-old Edwardian complex could be haunted – just like the nearby Empire Theatre is claimed to be.

“It was the practice in the 1970s and 1980s for the night crews at the station to lie at rest on top of their beds, but to be ready for immediate response to fire calls,” he said.

“On one of those shifts I was dozing, ready for the next call, when something made me open my eyes. I saw a squat, male figure with his back to me, looking down at the adjacent bed.

“As I stared, I noticed that he appeared to be wearing a shroud. He turned to face me and I saw he had straight, black hair. I blinked and blinked. He then seemed to fade slowly away.”

Pure surprise prompted Colin to shout out that he’d just seen a ghost. Most, but not quite all, of his fellow firefighters immediately dismissed the idea as ridiculous.

“Fools were not suffered gladly and, once the story spread to the other three watches, I experienced advanced levels of leg-pulling, being known as the “spook”, etc,” said Colin.

“However, all of this changed when, on another night shift, several members of the Blue Watch were making their way into the first floor Mess Room.

“They were confronted by the sight of a table, apparently hovering several inches off the floor and moving of its own volition. Suddenly, my experience achieved some validity.

“Going into the basement always made the hairs on the back of my neck rise. I later heard that some firemen absolutely refused to go down to the basement on their own.

“So there you have it. This is either a tale of hysterical, neurotic firemen, or perhaps something supernatural did, or still does, exist within Dun Cow Street fire station.”

Although the fire station dates to Edwardian times, Dun Cow Street is far older – having been part of the ancient village of Bishopwearmouth and originally known as Back Street.

Many of the buildings which once lined the street were built in the 17th century, but at least six pantiled terrace homes had to be demolished in 1903 to make way for the new station.

“I have no idea if the following has any basis in truth, but I was told that the fire station had been built upon the site of a house in which a man lived the life of a hermit,” said Colin.

“It was rumoured that he was a wealthy man. Allegedly he was murdered in a robbery, and buried by the robbers. I wonder if his spirit is searching the station for his stolen riches?”

Archive searches fail to shed any further light on the robbery story; however, it is known that Sunderland’s Watch Committee announced plans for the new fire station as early as 1900.

A contest was then held to find an architect for the project – which was combined with creating a new police station in Gill Bridge Avenue – with initial demolition starting in 1903.

A Sunderland Echo story from that time revealed the new fire station would need 1,400ft of space to house four engines, an ambulance carriage room and dormitories for 16 firemen.

Stabling for several horses was required as well .

The foundation stones for both the police and fire stations were finally laid on January 18, 1905, by Mayor F. Foster - but only once the demolition of dozens of houses was complete.

Built by Sunderland contractor JW White, to a design by architects W and T.R. Milburn, the fire station was constructed over the next two years – with firefighters moving in in 1907.

However, although the police building was officially opened by the Earl of Durham on August 28, 1907 – using a gold key – the ceremony for the fire station was delayed until 1908.

Superintendent Yelland was one of the first to take charge of Dun Cow Street, and the Echo claimed “his brigade of merry men are always ready to risk their lives in fighting flames.”

Firefighters from the station tackled thousands of fires over the years - even narrowly escaped injury from air raids in World War Two - before the building closed 22 years ago.

“I am very pleased that the fire station is to be saved for the future, although I note that the proposed development of the site includes a ground floor restaurant and bar,” said Colin.

“I suspect the basement will be used as the cellar. It will be interesting to see if any bar staff experience feelings of unease when asked to go down to that cellar - for whatever reason.”

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Darkest days of ancient street

Sunderland Union Workhouse operated close to Dun Cow Street, in Railway Street, during the 1840s and 50s. Many residents died during these years.

•Private T. Moore Loraine, of 23 Watson’s Lane, off Dun Cow Street, was killed at Fredrickstad in the Boer War in 1900 - fighting “gallantly for Queen and Country.”

•Frederick James Barnes, 70, was “found dying” at 3 Dun Cow Street on May 22, 1935. Firefighters tried, but failed, to revive him after being called by neighbours.

•Inquests were held at the original Dun Cow Inn in the 1890s for local residents such as Martha Clark, who died in the street.

•Justice Davison had an office on the corner of Dun Cow Street in the 1830s. Prisoners were brought there to be tried and, if found guilty, would be sent to Durham Gaol via the 4pm stage coach. Several ended up swinging from a noose.

•John Norman, of 22 Dun Cow Street, “died suddenly” in December 1874 after “ailing for months.” John, a labourer for Sunderland Corporation, was just 42.

•A woman named Clark, 67, was found lying dead in her bed in Dun Cow Street on March 10, 1890.

•Charles Hold died after being hit by a drinking buddy during a brawl in Dun Cow Street in 1904. Police believed Charles was drunk when they found him unconscious in the street but, after being wheeled away in a barrow, he died of a fractured skull.

•Ann Harding committed suicide at her house in Dun Cow Street in 1874, by “cutting her throat from ear to ear”, following on-going domestic problems.

•Houses at 15, 22, 29, 30, 31 and 32 Dun Cow Street were bought up in 1902, to be demolished for the building of the new fire station. Houses in Watson’s Lane, Swan’s Court, Gill Bridge Avenue, Collier Row and Moffat’s Court were also demolished.