Wearside Echoes: A glimpse of what the town had in store

POSITION OF POWER: William Bruce, wearing his mayoral chains, pictured on the balcony of Sunderland Town Hall in the 1890s.
POSITION OF POWER: William Bruce, wearing his mayoral chains, pictured on the balcony of Sunderland Town Hall in the 1890s.
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A DOOR to Wearside’s Victorian past has been opened by a former mayor – more than 80 years after his death.

William Bruce jotted down his memories of old Sunderland in 1921, to mark his 79th birthday and a copy of the document has just been donated to the Local Studies Centre.

“It is absolutely fascinating and contains a lot of information about the little shops of the East End and their owners,” said William’s great-great nephew, John Brantingham, of Thorney Close.

William, the son of grocer and tallow chandler John Bruce, was born at 61 High Street East, Sunderland, on August 30, 1842.

Educated at the New Academy School, attached to St George’s Presbyterian Church, William left at 14 to join the family firm – which was based in a warehouse “two doors down” from Church Street.

Just a few years later, after John Bruce opted to move the business to the more up-market address of 172 High Street East, business started booming.

“It was a little higher up than the market entrance. This brought our shop into the stream of buyers who came by train and made a marvellous increase to our trade,” wrote William in 1921.

“A few years later, father sold me the business and I started on my own account.”

William was just 23 when he became his own boss in 1865. His neighbours, he was to later recall, included pub landlord Matthew Feetham, who had a cork leg, and pawnbroker Lionel Joseph.

“Then there was the Green Shutters public house and Thomas Riseborough who, when he had the doctor, swallowed the bottle of medicine all at once so as to get better quick,” he wrote.

“At the top of Water Lane was a chemist shop, once run by Jeremy Sowerby, then William Dixon, who was lame in his walking. Next door was the Boar’s Head

“It was reported the public house got the sign when a bull rushed up the stairs and forced its head through the front of the house. They couldn’t get it back, so they cut its body off and left its head.”

William worked hard at his new business, but also found time for love. Just two years after starting up on his own, he married his sweetheart Elizabeth and the couple went on to have 12 children.

Business boomed with the Industrial Revolution and when local trader Thomas Doncaster offered to sell his wholesale grocer firm to William, he jumped at the chance to expand.

By the late 19th century, William was operating stores at 64 Nile Street and 167 High Street East and as the firm became ever more prosperous, so he was able to buy at house at Ashbrooke Terrace.

“William combined his work as a local businessman with an interest in local politics,” said John. “He was elected as an Alderman in 1896 and served as the Mayor of Sunderland in 1897-98.

“He was also a member of the Sunderland Parish Burial Board, Sunderland Parish Vestry, the Town Council and served as a Justice of the Peace from 1901.”

William continued trading well into the 20th century, moving to a new base at Gill Bridge Avenue in 1899. After a “breakdown in health” in 1917, however, he was advised to “ease off working”.

“He eventually died on his 83rd birthday at a nursing home in Azalia Avenue. He was buried the next day at Sunderland Cemetery in Grangetown,” said John.

l A full copy of William’s memories is available to view at the Local Studies Centre in Fawcett Street Library.

WILLIAM’S memories include a short tale about Sunderland’s Old Parish Church – and the unpopular levy which was once charged to parishioners for its upkeep.

“Many parishioners, not only churchmen but mainly Quakers, refused to pay the rate and bailiffs were called upon to seize and sell their goods and take the rate out of the proceeds,” he recalled.

“Messrs Jos Wilson Bros and William Morgan Wake, a boat-builder on the dockside, regularly refused to pay. The bailiffs entered the warehouse of J Wilson Bros and took groceries and cheese.

“In Mr Wake’s case, they regularly seized a copper kettle, which he regularly bought back and had all the circumstances of the seizure and sale engraved on the kettle and exhibited in public.

“This went on for several years, until churchmen felt it a disgrace to their church. The rector was persuaded to declare he did not propose to levy the rate and it has never been levied since.”

* William Wake’s son, Henry, designed Sunderland’s new piers in the 1880s.

l Dixon and Phillips Pottery, of North Moor Street: “The willow pattern for dinner ware was their private design. Women bought and hawked it throughout the town,” wrote William.

l High Street East Chapel: “Before this chapel was erected, there was a flourishing society, which worshipped above the shop of Alderman Thompson, chemist. It became known as Penny Hill.”

l John Wolstenholme, a grocer of Silver Street. “He also took in the Shipping Gazette, which he would let out for a look to see if ships were reported at a fee of half-a-pence.”

l Mr Waddell, publican of the Claredon Hotel: “A rough diamond who got into the council and got to loggerheads with Mr Storey (owner of the Echo), but could not be sat upon even by him.”