Town set to remember 500th anniversary of famous rector Bernard Gilpin

St Michael and All Angels. Bernard Gilpin was its rector and it now contains his tomb.
St Michael and All Angels. Bernard Gilpin was its rector and it now contains his tomb.
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A man with huge importance in the area is Bernard Gilpin.

And this year marks the 500th anniversary of the birth of the man who was a famous Rector of the Parish of Houghton-le-Spring.

Brenda Graham of Houghton & District Local History Group.

Brenda Graham of Houghton & District Local History Group.

It is a momentous occasion which is not going unmarked - especially by the Houghton & District Local History Group.

Chris Cordner spoke to Brenda Graham from the group to find out more.

He was affectionately known as the Apostle of the North and the Father of the Poor.

Bernard Gilpin endeared himself to the people of the North East, and Houghton will pay its own tribute.

Kepier Hall is in the former grammar school which Gilpin helped establish.

Kepier Hall is in the former grammar school which Gilpin helped establish.

He was rector of Houghton-le-Spring when it was one of the largest parishes in England, spanning 24 square miles and covering 16 villages.

It was an important job, but Gilpin never lost his connection with the people. Each Sunday between Michaelmas and Easter, he gave free dinners to every visitor, no matter what their status was.

He got plenty of offers to take promotion, but he decided to remain a parish priest.

Five hundred years on he is still revered, and Brenda Graham told more about the plans to commemorate him.

A display in the foyer of Houghton Library will run for the whole of May, which is Sunderland Heritage Forum’s History Month.

Brenda added: “On June 22, we will continue the focus with ‘A Stroll around Houghton Rectory Park’ led by the chairman of the Friends of Houghton Rectory Park.

“Significantly, the Royal Kepier Grammar School for Boys was established by Bernard Gilpin and John Heath. This building is now the Kepier Hall, where we hold our meetings.

“Within the Parish Church is Bernard Gilpin’s tomb and a stained glass (west) window commemorating the 300th anniversary of Gilpin’s death.

“In the Rectory Park was planted ‘The Gilpin Thorn’ which sadly perished. There was, at one time, a plaque alongside it.”

The Houghton & District Local History Group has shared its programme of events with the Echo. All events are held at Kepier Hall, behind Houghton Parish Church.

The £2 admission fee includes refreshments of tea/coffee/biscuit and talks begin at 6.45pm. The programme is as follows;

l March 23 - A talk titled Bernard Gilpin by Bob Hodgson.

l April 27 - The Man Who Saved Britain by Stuart Miller.

l May 25 - Commemmorating 500 yrears of Bernard Gilpin by Brenda Graham.

l June 22 - Enjoy a stroll around Houghton Rectory Park with Sheila Ellis.

l August 24 - Victorian gardens and gardeners by Jennifer Tindall.

l September 28 - 40 years at the chalk face by Bernard Hope.

l October 26 - The lost department stores of Sunderland by Phil Curtis.

l November 23 - Remaking Beamish by Geraldine Straker.

Bernard Gilpin founded Kepier Grammar School at Houghton le Spring in the late 1500s and helped to raise standards of education.

He is also well known for the part he played in Houghton Feast.

The traditional ox-roasting ceremony saw many poverty-stricken villagers fed by him.

Brenda added: “Houghton Feast was originally an ‘Order Feast’ when the boys from the Kepier Grammar School processed through the village with lanterns and the local people would watch.

Houghton Feast is still commemorated today with and opening ceremony, processions, the roasting of the ox by the Rotary Club and many activities.”

In later years, Gilpin took his good work further afield and campaigned for church life to be restored in areas devastated by wars. It gained him the reputation as the Apostle of the North.

Sadly, though, he died in tragic circumstances, months after he was knocked down by oxen in Durham Market Place.

He suffered injuries from which he never recovered.

His tomb is in the church of St Michael and All Angels, Houghton-le-Spring, within the parish he served so faithfully.

Anyone wanting to join in the 500th anniversary events can contact Brenda on (0191) 5841943 or email brenda_graham@hotmail.co.uk.