Wearside Echoes: Sunderland’s burial grounds unearthed

OLD SCENE: Bethel Congregational Church in Villiers Street.
OLD SCENE: Bethel Congregational Church in Villiers Street.
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DIGGING into your family tree may mean unearthing Wearside’s past – as local historian Norman Kirtlan has discovered. “Tracing the burial records of Anglican ancestors is relatively easy in Sunderland but, for those with non-conformist great-grandparents, the trail can often go cold,” he said.

“All too often, either down to bigotry or wanton abandonment, or just because of the religious beliefs of the time, our ancestors were interred in the strangest of places. Many lie there still.”

Quakers – or Friends as they were often known – had a particularly difficult time in 17th century Sunderland, when their meeting House in High Street was demolished by a lawless rabble in 1688.

“Many Quakers had to be interred in the back gardens of private houses when the not-so-Christian clergy closed their doors to them,” said Norman, a retired police inspector.

The West Boldon orchard of Christopher Trewhitt is thought to have been one of the first Quaker graveyards, with Sunderland couple Roger and Elenor Harper laid to rest there in 1657. But a parcel of land was eventually purchased at the Pannfields, in Bishopwearmouth, in 1670, to serve as an official burial ground for the Friends who made their home on Wearside. “Over 300 people were interred over 153 years. But the remains were later exhumed and, in 1923, re-buried at Bishopwearmouth Cemetery,” said Norman, who now works as a forensic artist.

Those searching for the headstones of Pannfield Quaker ancestors will be disappointed, however, as they were all removed in 1766 – to allow rich and poor equality in death. “Congregational ancestors are more central in their resting place than the Quakers, but are no less elusive when it comes to tracking them down today,” said Norman. “The Bethel Chapel in Villiers Street, which was erected in 1817, had underground vaults in which to bury their dead, complete with narrow alleyways arched over by brickwork. “It was once speculated that the vaults were built to deter body snatchers. When opened up for a summer burial, the stench emanating from the vaults was said to be terrible.” Around 409 people were interred within 23 years. The first, in November 1826, was spinster Jane Hardcastle, of 26 High Street. Robert Finkle of 22 High Street, was the last in 1854. Dundas Street Independent Chapel was home to another burial ground, which operated from 1833-50. Records are “elusive,” but the names of some burials were kept. “Among those interred was shipbuilder Mr Leithead, whose final resting place was ‘under the window at the top end,’” said Norman, map archivist for Sunderland Antiquarian Society. “Then there was Mrs Thompson, described as a member of the church, as well as mariner George Spraggon and several children of Mr and Mrs Wrightson, who were buried in a vault. “The last occupant was David Kitts, a librarian before he passed away in 1850. Years later, the site was cemented over and the Thompson Memorial Hall built in its place.” Although Baptists were present in Sunderland from around 1797, and had their own meeting place at Low Street, they were initially interred to the east of the Quakers’ burial ground. “During the building of new shops in High Street East, however, their bones were uncovered and shamefully disposed of in a most unorthodox manner,” said Norman. “A cart full of jumbled ancestors was collected and used as foundations for one of the new shops - much to the annoyance of the more superstitious of the new occupants.” As more Baptists settled in Sunderland, a new chapel was built in Sans Street in 1798. Pastors Mr. Bigg, Alexander Wilson and Alexander McCormack were all laid to rest in the grounds. Elders agreed to allow burials to continue in 1853, for “all but those who died of ‘pestilential diseases,” with grave-diggers receiving two shillings for each 8ft grave completed. “But a school-room was eventually built over some of the graves and, in later years, brass founder Mr W. Surtees built his works on the site. Today we drive over it,” said Norman. Wearside’s thriving Jewish community also developed their own graveyard during Victorian times, close to where shoppers now visit a large DIY store at Deptford. “Land was at a premium in the area surrounding their synagogue in Moor Street, so it was decided that the long trek to the Ayre’s Quay ground was the best option,” said Norman. “The upkeep was subsidised by an annual payment of four shillings by every Jewish adult over 18. The last burial took place in 1856, but it was maintained for many years afterwards.” The Methodist New Connexion also set up home in Moor Street during the 19th century, when a Zion Chapel was opened in 1809 – presided over by popular cleric John Grundell until 1815.

“He asked before his death at just 55 that his earthly remains be buried under the pulpit, where he had spent most of his Sundays. Sadly, our chap was not to rest for long,” said Norman.

“When the chapel was bought by the Co-op bakery, the thought of leaving behind their favourite cleric was too much for the congregation. His remains were duly removed to Park Road Church.”

Another well-loved minister, the Rev David Duncan, also found a final resting place with his flock in 1829 – beneath the pulpit of the Presbyterian Union Chapel in Coronation Street.

But, when the premises were sold as a school to the Catholic Church in 1870, the remains of the 40-year-old were exhumed and removed to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery. “Across the river in Monkwearmouth, Hamilton Street Church saw a favourite son buried in its draughty old porch,” said Norman. “Rev Charles Johnson began his ministry in 1829, two years after the church was built. His death in 1850 stunned the congregation, and he was laid to rest right beneath their feet.” Johnson’s tenancy went unchallenged when it became St. Cuthbert’s Church in 1872 but, at the turn of the century, proposals to turn the building into a fish factory sparked fury. “When Rev Johnson’s son, himself a senior cleric, heard the news, he boarded the first available train from Aberdeen and made his way to Saint Peter’s Church,” said Norman. “There he appealed to Canon Miles for help. It was agreed that if Johnson purchased the church out of his own pocket, then the premises could be used as a mission to Saint Peter’s. “The church finally closed for worship in 1903, but the good reverend slept on, unaware of the 11th hour victory that his son had secured on his behalf.”

All burials today take place in church or civic cemeteries, regardless of religion, with each death documented in detail – a great help to family tree searchers of the future.

“It is just a shame things weren’t the same in the past,” said Norman. “With such sweeping changes over the years, it really can be difficult to find the final resting place of your Sunderland ancestors.”