Wearside Echoes: Old records rise from the ashes

BYGONE VIEW: The view across the river to Monkwearmouth - where old records of past residents have just been unearthed.
BYGONE VIEW: The view across the river to Monkwearmouth - where old records of past residents have just been unearthed.
Share this article
Have your say

WEARSIDERS are being offered the chance to trace their 18th century Barbary Coast ancestors for the first time.

A fire at Monkwearmouth Hall in 1790, then home to the local minister, destroyed decades of parish registers for St Peter’s – still a source of “great regret” with local historians to this day.

But, following months of research into newspaper archives, Sunderland Antiquarian Society has just released a CD featuring family notices from 1745 to 1800 – to help fill in some of the gaps.

“This is as near as we will ever get to reconstructing the St Peter’s records,” said Douglas Smith, president of the group. “People may be surprised at how many ancestors they will find.

“The CD should gladden the hearts of all family historians, as well as anyone interested in the history of the city, as it is the first time much of this information has ever been made available.”

It was on April 12 1790, that the blaze which was to destroy the records broke out. Reverend Iviso, vicar of St Peter’s, had retired to bed with a candle and a glass of brandy – a lethal combination.

As flames ripped through the historic hall just a few hours later, so the minister and his family managed to escape. But the parish register – reputedly of ‘great antiquity’ – went up in smoke.

“There was an appeal in local newspapers for people to come forward with copies of private registers, such as birth records written in family bibles, to help rebuild the register,” said Douglas.

“But it must be wondered who could read, or even afford to buy, a newspaper then. Although some entries were put forward, there remained serious and numerous gaps in the reconstructed records.

“Hence the entries for most of the 18th century had been lost, until now. The information on the CD helps to complete many of the gaps in the missing records, shedding new light on that time period.”

Norman Kirtlan, map archivist for the society, trawled the archives of the Newcastle Courant – then the only paper to cover Sunderland – to compile the lists of births, deaths and marriages for the CD.

Hundreds of entries are included, complete with an index of people and places, as well as scores of colourful anecdotes and descriptions of the recently married and deceased of Wearside.

“It is a whole social history of 18th century Sunderland, and an outstanding glimpse into the past. It really makes for compelling reading, but is also fun,” said Douglas.

“There are many amusing stories, such as the marriage entry for an ‘accomplished, and agreeable lady’ with a fortune of £1,000. Others with larger fortunes were described as ‘very agreeable.’

“There are also records of events featuring Sunderland’s prominent Quaker families, as well as entries for the town’s early Jewish immigrants – all providing fascinating details of our past.

“But it is not just the great and the good who are mentioned. All kinds of incidents, such as the sinking of a ferry to accidents at sea are included, making it a unique record of life – and death.”

** The CD costs £8 and is available by sending a cheque to: Norman Kirtlan, Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Sunderland Minster, High Street West, Sunderland, SR1 3ET.

Sidebar: Highlights of the notices featured on the CD

1747: The marriage of Rev Dr Tew, Rector of Boldon, to Miss Palmer was recorded. She had a “handsome fortune” and possessed “every qualification that can adorn the fair sex.”

1753: The “melancholy accident” of Quaker William Maude, a ‘gentleman of opulent fortune,’ was reported. After drinking a glass of punch at South Shields, he mounted his horse to set off home to Sunderland – and was never seen again.

1753: Lady Elizabeth Williamson, widow of Sir William Williamson of Whitburn, died after “a tedious illness.” She was described as a “lady of strict, yet unaffected, piety, extensive charity and universal benevolence” and her death was “most deservedly regretted.”

1756: “Last week was married Mr Thomas Steel of Cleadon, in the 89th year of his age, to Miss Donkin of Westoe – a sprightly young girl of 19. The bridegroom’s attendants were his grandchildren, the youngest of which is in his 39th year.”

Mary Bainbridge, of Whitburn, died aged 101. “She had enjoyed health without complaint,” reported the paper. After being taken ill during a visit, however, she “slumbered away in a few hours.”

1785: The deaths of five people were reported in July, when they drowned after trying to board a boat near a Sunderland sandbank. The deceased were named as Thomas Swann, his wife and son, as well as a Mrs Briggs and Mr Graham junior.

1785: Thomas Harrison, keeper of Sunderland Poor House, died – as did his wife a few days before him, as well as his brother-in-law. No mention was made of what killed them.

1788: Captain Patrick Burton, master of the Hopewell ship, was washed overboard at sea

1792: The death of George Carfrae, a miniature painter, was recorded. He was “an artist much distinguished for his great abilities.”

1794: “Died on board HM ship Powerful, of 74 years of a dropsy for which he had twice been tapt (bled), Mr Cheemount, surgeon of the ship and formerly of Sunderland.”

1794: Compass maker Mr Schollay “fell over the quay at Sunderland. The tide being low, he was killed on the spot.”

1795: Around 20 people were drowned when the Low Ferry boat capsized in April. Among the dead were Methodist preacher Mr Hodgson, Sheriff’s bailiff Mr Johnson, shoemaker Mr Watson and draper Bryan Berlison.

1796: The death of Mrs Banks, wife of Mr Banks – the Dancing Master of Sunderland – was reported in July.

1798: Mr Clements, of Monkwearmouth, was “seized with an apoplectic fit in The Strand, as he returned from bathing, and expired immediately.”