Wearside Echoes: Friends of the past

FRIENDS UNITED: Stuart Mille, vice chairman of the Friends of the Donnison School, with fellow members of the group, Fred Bewick, Connor Carr and Connie Bulmer.
FRIENDS UNITED: Stuart Mille, vice chairman of the Friends of the Donnison School, with fellow members of the group, Fred Bewick, Connor Carr and Connie Bulmer.
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THE East End workhouse once cast a gloomy shadow over a former school for poor Sunderland girls.

But the future has never looked brighter for the Grade II-listed Donnison School – thanks to the launch of a Friends group.

“This 18th century building is of great historical importance and unique to the area. Our aim is to maintain its upkeep,” said historian and vice-chairman Stuart Miller.

“We are team of volunteers dedicated to looking after the school for the future. It is very important to us all that the legacy of The Donnison lives on.”

The Church Walk-based school was set up in 1778, following a £1,500 bequest from wealthy Wearside widow Elizabeth Donnison to educate Sunderland’s poor girls.

Hundreds of pupils benefited from lessons in reading, writing, sewing and practical skills for more than a century – and were even provided with free clothes and shoes.

But, after becoming surplus to Church of England requirements, the school was put up for sale in 2001 – prompting local historians to use their own money to buy it.

The rescue mission was headed by members of Living History North East, who battled for six years to transform The Donnison into a Regional Oral History Centre.

“This place has become a hub for heritage,” said LHNE project leader Janette Hilton, a former university lecturer. “We have become a point of reference for many, many people.

“But, very soon after moving here in December 2007, it became apparent to us all that there were two separate issues to be tackled.

“On the one hand was our work documenting the oral history of the North East, and on the other was the building – and its potential for educational and historical use.

“The idea for a Friends group developed from there, although it wasn’t until now that we’ve had enough volunteers to set up a group to support, manage and run the site.”

Members of the new group are hoping to support the long-term future of the building and its garden by raising money through guided walks, talks, exhibitions and events.

Possible plans for the future include creating a First World War room, to complement the Victorian classroom already used for school visits, and setting up an on-line photographic archive.

“A handful of people saved the building from dereliction in 2001, and now we want to save it for the future,” said Connie Bulmer, chairman of LHNE. “This is very important to us all.

“We believe forming the Friends group is the way forward for maintaining this legacy. It gives us more scope for fund-raising, as well as applying for grants and funding.

“Some people don’t realise the historical, economical or cultural importance of this school to the town, and we want to preserve it – as well as other buildings like it.”

Living History already has partnerships with Sunderland Council and Sunderland University, but the Friends are hoping to further develop the community arm of the Donnison School.

“We have a hardcore of 20 to 30 volunteers, who have a vast range of skills, but we always welcome new blood too. We need people to get actively involved,” said Stuart.

“Ours is a very friendly group, very sociable. We enjoy the work we do – and get a lot of pleasure from the idea that people benefit from, and enjoy, what we do.”

The new Friends group will officially be launched at a Christmas Fair at the school this Saturday, when members are hoping to boost funds with a wide range of stalls and attractions.

“We had nothing when we first started, just a burned out shell of a building,” said Janette. “But we refused to give in, and now we have something unique which everyone can be proud of.

“This project has been so organic – it just keeps growing. I would like to think generations of Wearsiders will continue to benefit from The Donnison in the future.”

Further information on becoming a volunteer is available by contacting 565 4835.

Sidebar: History of the Donnison School

THE Grade II-listed building, which dates to around 1768, was transformed into a school in 1778, following a donation of £1,500 from Elizabeth Donnison.

Mrs Donnison, the wife of a wealthy Wearside coal fitter – a go-between for mine and ship owners – left the money for the project in her will.

“Charitable works during this period were seen as an expression of people’s Godliness. This was an opportunity to demonstrate their philanthropy and affect the community for good,” said Janette.

The school was set up in Mrs Donnison’s name to educate 36 poor girls from Sunderland Parish in reading, writing, sewing and practical skills.

Each Donnison pupil received a full suit of clothes at Christmas, part of a suit at ‘Midsummer,’ two pairs of shoes a year and three meals a day.

“All schools were voluntary until 1870, but this was a great opportunity for young girls from poor families to receive an education,” said Janette.

The school soon thrived and, in 1827, a lady called Elizabeth Woodcock built a house for the school mistress in Church Walk.

One of the two rooms of the little house is now the office for LHNE, while the other contains a digital editing suite and computers.

The Donnison School survived into the 20th century, later becoming a community centre before being put up for sale in 2001 by the Church of England.

Living History volunteers dipped into their own pockets to buy the building, in a bid to preserve it, but a blaze destroyed a listed fireplace and fittings in May 2002.

The discovery of human remains under the schoolroom and in the grounds in 2006, thought to be from a nearby graveyard, saw a £550,000 revamp grind to a halt.

But, after a battle lasting six years, the Donnison School finally re-opened in 2007 – playing host to the North’s first video and audio archive of historical memories.

“We have brought a little bit of the East End’s history back to life,” said Janette at the time.

“Hopefully, this is just the start of an avalanche of historical projects for Sunderland. I love my city and believe it deserves the very best.”

Sidebar: The 2012 programme for the Friends of the Donnison School

January 12: Talk on the history of the building of Sunderland Harbour.

February 2: Screening of archive footage featuring shipyards in the 1970s.

February 16: Guided tour of historical East End of Sunderland.

March 1: Photographic display of East End in its Victorian heyday.

March 15: Guided tour of East End, including Holy Trinity Church.

April 5: Talk on the fascination of pigeon racing over the past 50 years.

April 19: Guided tour of East End, including Donnison School.

May 3: A film tribute to local historian Billy Bell.

May 17: Guided tour of East End, including Jack Crawford Memorial.

June 7: Photographic display of oldest parts of Hendon.

June 21: Guided tour of East End, visit historic local sites.

July 5: Talk on local World War Two pilot Jim Taylor DFC.

July 19: Guided tour of East End.

September 6: Film of early photos and footage of Sunderland from 1800s.

September 20: Guided tour of East End.

October 4: Talk on Sunderland diver and footballer Ralph Punshon Scott.

October 20: Guided tour of East End.

November 1: Archive film footage of Sunderland over the past 100 years.

November 15: Guided tour of East End.

December 6: Photographic display on the twin resorts of Roker and Seaburn.

** All events start at 1.30pm at The Donnison School and cost £2.50, including refreshments. For further details contact 565 4835 between 9am and 4pm weekdays.

Sidebar: What Living History North East Does

Living History North East was set up in 1995 as a regionally based history resource dedicated to recording living memories from across the North.

The group not only tapes and documents local memories, but also runs workshops and training courses to help other organisations do the same.

Case studies collected so far include wartime memories, as well as personal recollections of events such as the 1951 the Easington pit disaster.

“Recording oral histories provides an opportunity for us to hear things otherwise hidden from history,” said Janette.

“But to make this successful, we must also make it accessible, which is why we wanted to use the historic former school as a centre of excellence.”

Another part of LHNE’s work involves supporting the use of a regional database of oral history, which was originally set up in 2003.

Interviews are recorded and then added to the database, to allow historians and anyone else who is interested, to access them in the future.

More than 1,000 recordings have been made since 2003 and Janette said: “It is important to document the experiences of ordinary people who have lived through this changing century.

“The database is a valuable record of our changing environment through personal accounts. It provides a unique insight into the past.”

Anyone interested in learning more about the work of LHNE, or adding stories to the database, can contact Janette on 565 4835.