Wearside Echoes: Our unique house history

A car collided with another car at the junction of Forster Street and Selbourne Street.
A car collided with another car at the junction of Forster Street and Selbourne Street.
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MANCHESTER’S back-to-back terraces have won fame through Coronation Street, and East Durham’s rows of pitmen’s homes are well known to fans of Billy Elliot.

But Wearside’s own take on housing for industrial workers – the Sunderland Cottage – has yet to win wide-spread recognition. Indeed, little has been written about them – until now.

Dr Michael Johnson, a lecturer in history of architecture and design at Sunderland University, has spent months delving into the origins of the distinctive single-storey terraced houses.

“They are of a design virtually unique in England,” said Michael, whose research has recently been published in the academic journal, Vernacular Architecture.

“Hundreds of cottages were built across Sunderland, and they were to become the ‘favourite and typical dwelling’ of skilled workers. Until now, no one knew for sure who had built them, or which architects designed them. But, after extensive research, I’ve been able to answer these questions.

“I think Echo readers might be interested to know their homes were designed by the same architects behind the Empire Theatre, Sunderland Museum and Library, as well as other major buildings.”

The Victorian age saw business boom in Sunderland. Thousands of people from towns and villages across Britain flocked to Wearside to find work in the factories, pits and shipyards.

Demand for housing soon far exceeded the existing supply and, in an effort to avert a crisis, a distinctive form of low-cost, single-storey terrace house was born – the Sunderland cottage.

“Examples can be found in Newbottle, Hetton and Seaham, and as far away as Bedlington, yet this ‘terraced bungalow’ is most readily associated with Sunderland,” said Michael.

“Built initially for the skilled workers of Sunderland’s shipyards, the cottages provided a high degree of privacy and social status, as each had its own entrance and a backyard.”

The origins of the Sunderland cottage are somewhat shrouded in mystery, as the form pre-dates formal architectural planning and many of the earliest examples have been demolished.

But historians believe the first cottages could have been built as early as 1840, with the traditional pit rows of Durham mining villages a possible inspiration behind the design.

“It is likely the pit row model was transmitted to Sunderland via Monkwearmouth Coal Company, which built a substantial amount of housing in the 1840s and 50s,” said Michael.

The earliest of Sunderland’s cottages were certainly built in close proximity to bases of industry; springing up around Wearmouth Colliery, as well as close to the Wear shipyards.

Many were developed by speculative builders, rather than industrialists, although Wearmouth Coal Co provided 24 cottages in Cairo Street and 25 in St Leonard’s Street.

“These were designed by the company’s architect, H.E. Robinson. The streets were built parallel to the railway line, producing unusually long terraces,” said Michael.

“The adjoining Tel al-Kebir Road was named after a battle in the Egyptian revolt of 1882. Because of the exotic names, this South Hendon estate was known as ‘Little Egypt.’”

The coal company also funded the development of 15 cottages in Empress Street in 1880, designed by J and T. Tillman – the architects behind Sunderland Museum and Library.

But it was Wearside glass firm James Hartley and Co, however, which spearheaded the largest single instance of cottage building – creating 80 homes in Lily, May, Rose and Violet streets.

“These were designed by James Henderson and were 1½ storey variants, having rooms in the attic and a projecting dormer window,” said Michael.

“Industrialists had a vested interest in providing a large stock of relatively comfortable housing, as this helped them to secure a stable, reliable workforce.

“But the majority of cottages were built by speculative builders, eager to capitalise on Sunderland’s dramatic industrial expansion and the consequent demand for housing.

“Speculative building became an industry in its own right and, by 1901, was the second largest employer in Sunderland after shipbuilding.”

Many of Wearside’s cottages were designed by leading architects of the day – although the identities of these designers were often shrouded in secrecy.

Months of research by Michael, however, have now paid off. After sifting through old building plans held by Tyne and Wear Archives, he has unearthed the names of several prominent architects.

“The reason for this ‘secrecy’ was that many architects preferred to base their reputations on public buildings, rather than domestic work, even though houses were a vital source of income,” he said.

“Sunderland’s foremost architects for example, William and Thomas Ridley Milburn, designed the Empire Theatre – but they also designed cottages in the ABC streets in High Barnes.” Although described as “low-cost housing for the working classes,” the cottages actually boasted individual designs, a high degree of privacy and as much space as a traditional Tyneside flat.

In an era when death and disease stalked the streets, roads doubled as open sewers and overcrowded tenements were the norm, owning a cottage was the dream of many thousands of workers.

“Sunderland shipwrights earned higher wages than their counterparts in other parts of the country. Accordingly, levels of owner-occupation far exceeded other towns,” said Michael.

“In Millfield it was 35 per cent, and in Hendon it was 80 per cent – compared to the national average of 20 per cent. Evidently, the ability to purchase a house was a major point of pride.”

Indeed, the development of affordable cottages for workers across Sunderland even earned the praise of Government officials, who stated in a 1908 Cost of Living Report:

“It is true such cottages are costly to the town, involving greater expense in drainage and the upkeep of streets, but they constitute the favourite and typical dwelling of the skilled mechanic.”

As the rate of industrial expansion slowed down, however, so did the development of the cottages. Indeed, many historians have argued that they ceased to be built after 1910.

But Michael has discovered that “substantial numbers” were still being created in the 1920s and 30s, under a Government scheme called Housing Assistance to Private Enterprise.

“The largest concentration of new cottages occurred among the ‘Scottish streets’ in Fulwell. Forfar Street was commenced in 1906, but extended in 1925,” he said.

“The building of Inverness Street had begun in 1899, but a further 47 cottages were built between 1923 and 1926. Moray Street was built entirely between 1926 and 1933.

“The north side of Mafeking Street, comprising of 21 cottages, was also built in 1924 and, in Hendon, St Leonard’s Street was extended between 1924 and 1928.”

Today, thousands of Wearsiders still make their home in Sunderland cottages – with many sold for six-figure price tags their original owners could never have dreamed of.

“The ingenious form of the Sunderland cottage is a testament to the relative prosperity and social aspiration of the skilled artisans who worked in Sunderland’s shipyards,” said Michael.

“As the exceptionally high levels of owner-occupancy suggest, cottages were a major source of pride to their inhabitants. Each was a minute bastion of privacy providing social status.

“The Sunderland cottage is now recognised as an important approach to housing Britain’s expanding urban populace; one that exemplified the pride of Sunderland’s elite workforce.”

l Michael is conducting further research into Sunderland cottages on behalf of Sunderland Heritage Quarter, a regeneration project for the East End of Sunderland. 

 If any Echo readers have memories or photographs of life in cottage homes which they would like to share, contact Michael at: michael.johnson@sunderland.ac.uk.