Wearside Echoes: Singing the praises of old church

Sunderland Old Parish Church.
Sunderland Old Parish Church.
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A NEW use for one of Sunderland’s oldest buildings could be on the cards.

Plans to turn East End-based Holy Trinity into a heritage, performance and culture centre were today unveiled as part of the Canny Space Project by the Churches Conservation Trust.

“We want to put the church back at the heart of the community and develop a living building that is attractive, inviting and innovative,” said spokeswoman Isabel Assaly.

“The project will provide for a long-term sustainable future. Holy Trinity will once more deliver the services and activities people want, and become a focus for learning and training.”

The roots of Holy Trinity date to a 17th century industrial boom, when keel-boats lined the river, factories and timber-yards mushroomed and hundreds of people moved to the area.

“Pubs and shops sprang up, but the new town of Sunderland did not have a parish church. Worshippers had to walk to neighbouring Bishopwearmouth,” said historian Carol Roberton.

“So Sunderland’s leading men decided to rectify this. In 1712 they got up a petition for a church and parish of their own, and this was finally agreed by an Act of Parliament in 1719.”

Just a few months later, on September 5, Holy Trinity was consecrated by the Bishop of London. Paid for by public subscription, it attracted worshippers by the dozen.

“The church played a key role in shaping modern Sunderland,” said Carol, a former Wearside Echoes writer. “It even gave its name to the new borough in the 19th Century.

“It went on to become the first seat of local government, as well as the town’s first public library, a court and, of course, a place of worship. It was right at the heart of the community.”

The fine Georgian building was to serve generations of Wearsiders but, following mounting bills and dwindling congregations, The Churches Conservation Trust took it over in 1988.

Now CCT has joined forces with four Sunderland organisations – The Bunker, Living History North East, Hendon Young Peoples’ Project and university – to safeguard its future.

And it is hoped the combined passions and experiences of the groups will help secure the Heritage Lottery funding needed to turn the dreams of the Canny Space Project into reality.

“Holy Trinity has a special place in the hearts of Sunderland people,” said Janette Hilton, project director for Living History, an oral history charity based at the old Donnison School.

“It was central to the community and, although now no longer a church, any proposed development needs to recognise the historical context – as well as draw in new audiences.

“What we have done at the Donnison shows just how popular heritage activities can be for young and old alike. People need to feel a sense of pride in where they belong, or came from.

“The development of Holy Trinity Church as a heritage, performance and cultural centre will enhance this. It will raise the profile of heritage across the whole of the region.”

Organisers are hoping that, should funding be granted, the church will play host to singers, actors, dancers and performers of all ages – as well as cultural and historical events.

Kenny Sanger, managing director of The Bunker, an organisation which has developed Wearside’s music and arts for over 30 years, said: “This is an exciting opportunity for the city.

“We are very happy to be part of the development group, to see if we can regenerate this fantastic building into something the city can be proud of.”

Richy Duggan, project manager for Hendon Young People’s Project added: “We feel this will breathe new life into a well loved East End church, making it a hub of activity once again.

“This is a great opportunity for local people, young and old, to get involved and enjoy a great asset in their own community, as well as finding fun ways to engage in heritage.”

And Dr Lynne Hall, head of Sunderland University’s research group Attractive Interaction Research, said: “This is historically and architecturally an important building.

“The idea of Canny Space is to turn Holy Trinity into a venue accessible for the community and sustainable, generating its own income through various cultural and heritage events.

“We want to change opinions that heritage is about looking at dusty old books in museums; it can be made interactive and fun.”

Wearsiders will be asked for their views on the future of Holy Trinity during three fun-packed church events this weekend, which are detailed below, and Isabel added: “We want to help revitalise Holy Trinity and put the church back at the heart of the community, establishing it as a leading centre for heritage, performance, learning and education.”

Sidebar: Weekend celebrations

The Churches Conservation Trust has issued an open invitation to Wearsiders to join forces in “creating the vision for The Canny Space” as part in a special weekend of celebrations.

“We are holding events on May 18 and 19, and would like to hear your views on how we can help re-purpose this Grade 1 listed building, both for the local and wider community,” said Isabel.

The church will play host to a traditional Music Hall Evening on Friday, May 18, from 7-9pm. Tickets for the event cost £5, with the price including refreshments.

“It is a variety show in that old music hall tradition, with local talent, good humour and nostalgic fun and entertainment. Get dressed up as a Victorian and join in the fun,” said Janette.

A Family Fun Day is planned on Saturday, May 19 – from 12noon until 4pm – when attractions in and around the church will include birds of prey, face painting, a treasure hunt and a tombola.

“Admission is free and it should be an action-packed day for all the family,” said Janette.

A Young Voices Sing concert is also planned at the church on Saturday night, aimed at showcasing the talents of Wearside youngsters – including award-winning soloists, choirs and groups.

Admission to the concert, which starts at 7pm, costs £4 for adults and £2 for children. Pensioners and the unemployed go free.

“Come along and be part of it!” said Janette.

** Tickets and further information are available from The Donnison School in Church Walk, Sunderland. Tel: 565 4835.

Sidebar: History of Holy Trinity

* Holy Trinity Church was built as the parish church for the township of Sunderland. St Michael’s, in the neighbouring village of Bishopwearmouth, served the area before this.

* A fund-raising drive launched in 1712 paid for the church. It was consecrated by the Bishop of London on September 5, 1719. (The Bishop of Durham being “too infirm” to attend.)

* It is not known who designed the church, although York-based architect William Etty, a wood-carver who designed other North East buildings, is known to have been involved.

* The historian Boyle described it as: “A brick structure of extremely gloomy aspects, but interesting as an example of the ecclesiastical architecture of the reign of Queen Anne.”

* David Newcombe was the first rector of Holy Trinity in 1719. Other 18th century clergy included Richard Swainston, George Bramwell, John Coxon, John Farrer and James Smyth.

* Several rectors were laid to rest beneath the nave of the church over the decades, in a vault known as the Rectors Vault.

* The vestry served as the seat of local government for the area until 1835. The 24 vestrymen, under the rector as chairman, debated local affairs, rates and social welfare.

* Holy Trinity’s parish library and reading room is thought to have been the first public library in Sunderland. The library was housed in the west gallery. The church also served as a court.

* A west screen was added in 1724, featuring thin Roman Doric columns, and a “nearly circular apse” helped enlarge the church in 1735, built from red brick with stone dressings.

* St John The Evangelist was built in Prospect Row in 1769 as a chapel-of-ease to Holy Trinity.

* The interior of Holy Trinity was remodelled at the end of the 18th century by Thomas Wilson, who helped design Sunderland’s Iron Bridge.

* The roof was rebuilt and covered with slate in 1803, an upper gallery was added in 1821 “for the use of the poor” and, in 1829, eight new bells were brought from London.

* Jack Crawford, the Sunderland-born hero of Camperdown, was buried in the graveyard of Holy Trinity in 1831, after falling victim to a cholera epidemic.

* A memorial to the Rector Robert Gray was erected in 1838. Rev Gray was highly respected for his work with the poor, but died from typhus – which he caught while visiting the sick.

* A gallery extension was constructed in 1842, to allow greater space for the poorer people of the parish. This was later removed.

* The clockface on the tower was added in 1856.

* The windows were re-glazed for a second time in around 1900 and the organ built in 1936. The building suffered slight damage during the Second World War.

* The Grade I-listed church closed in 1988, due to low congregation numbers. It was officially declared redundant and its upkeep taken over by The Churches Conservation Trust.

* Holy Trinity became known as Sunderland Old Parish in 2001, to indicate that it was no longer used as a parish church.