Wearside Echoes: Key part of Sunderland’s history

Frank Dembry with the Golden Key used to open Newcastle Road Hospital in July 1932.
Frank Dembry with the Golden Key used to open Newcastle Road Hospital in July 1932.
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HISTORY enthusiasts have unlocked a new door to Sunderland’s past.

HISTORY enthusiasts have unlocked a new door to Sunderland’s past.

The ceremonial key used by Sir John Priestman to officially open Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital 69 years ago has been snapped up from a private collector by Monkwearmouth Local History Group.

“The discovery of this almost forgotten artefact is an important one, and we wanted to ensure that, as a part of Sunderland’s history, it remained within the city,” said vice-chairman Frank Dembry.

“One of our members has framed the key, which is made of solid gold and features two images on an ivory-type handle, and we hope that in the future it may go on public display.”

The opening of the £110,000 Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital in Newcastle Road in July 1932 was the culmination of 30 years of hopes, dreams and appeals for public donations.

Built as a replacement for the 70-year-old hospital of the same name, which stood at the junction of Roker Avenue and Portobello Lane, it offered state-of-the-art equipment and medical treatment.

With bed space for 104 patients, three 22-cot wards for children, isolation wards, pantry, kitchen and medical offices, it was hailed as an “institute for the relief of pain and suffering of humanity.”

“Faith plays a very big part in our lives, but it plays an even greater part in the working of an institution such as an infirmary or hospital,” reported the Echo on the day before the opening.

“It is a big thing to build such an institution in these days of industrial depression. But faith in the future has accomplished something Barbary Coasters have been looking forward to for 30 years.”

Faith may have played a “big part” in the fight to build a new hospital on the north side of Sunderland, but so did Wearside businessman and philanthropist Sir John Priestman.

Once an appeal to raise funds for the venture was launched in 1925, Sir John threw his full support behind the project – donating £15,000 towards the building fund and £50,000 for running costs.

“The balance of the costs were funded by public donations, mainly by weekly contribution direct from shipyard workers pay-packets, bolstered by subscriptions by trade unions,” said Frank.

“The grand opening attracted a vast crowd of local people, political and religious dignitaries, who came to see a state-of-the-art hospital which equalled well-known medical institutions elsewhere.

“It was during the opening ceremony, which took place under the impressive portico entrance, that Sir John surprised the hospital finance committee by announcing his gift of £50,000 for upkeep.”

Sir John’s support for the hospital and his gift of £50,000 towards maintenance costs – worth almost £3million today – won the praise and admiration of both civic dignitaries and local people.

Indeed, when Dr Stewart McNaughton, chairman of the honorary medical board, proposed a vote of thanks to subscribers during the opening ceremony, he gave a special mention to Sir John.

“Of all the princes of industry and commerce to whose munificence this hospital is due, I would be less than just if I did not single out a perfect and gentle knight – our revered chairman Sir John.”

Thousands of people – from mineworkers to shipyard men and Frank himself – have been treated at Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospital over the seven decades since its opening.

“Sir John’s ‘baby’ has had a very successful life, having served local residents well through some different periods of use, both as an ordinary medical hospital and orthopaedic centre,” said Frank.

“Latterly it has become the home of St Benedict’s Hospice, which Sir John, as a dedicated local philanthropist, would quite possibly have been a benefactor for if he were still alive today.”


FRANK Dembry has a special connection to both the old and new Monkwearmouth and Southwick Hospitals – thanks to a bicycle accident 69 years ago.

“I was the last patient treated at the old hospital, and the first at the new one – both on the same day,” said Frank. “The discovery of the key brings to mind that rather painful event!”

Frank’s father faced a daily battle to feed and clothe his family at the time of the new hospital’s opening in 1932, after being made redundant from Blumer’s Shipyard during the depression.

“He was reduced to doing all manner of small jobs to help bring an income into the family, and was one of many that cycled to any point between Horden and Marsden to pick sea coal,” recalls Frank.

“On the day of the hospital’s opening, when I was just coming up to three years old, my father decided to take me along on the carrier of his bike to Marsden to look for coal.

“I dropped off the sleep while on the carrier, with the result that my right foot dropped into the back wheel of the bike, leaving me with an injured ankle and a badly lacerated leg.”

In the resulting panic, a passer-by stopped an Economic bus, the mangled bike was thrown into a hedge and the bus driver diverted from his Dock Street route to run Frank home to Victor Street.

“I was then taken to the old hospital in Roker Avenue, where Mam was informed the outpatients department had just closed down that morning and transferred to Newcastle Road,” he recalls.

“After a temporary dressing was put on, I was placed on a stretcher-type trolley and pushed by two porters up the cobbled surface of Portobello Lane at great speed, with Mam running alongside.

“Once at the new hospital I received further treatment – making me the first and last patient at the new and old hospitals.”