Wearside’s “little palaces” under the spotlight

The fishermen's cottages at Whitburn Bents.
The fishermen's cottages at Whitburn Bents.
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The spotlight is being shone on Wearside’s “little palaces” in a new book.

Generations of people have made Sunderland’s terraced cottages – a design unique to the city – their home since Victorian times.

A shot of the mixture of houses to be found on Deptford Terrace - indicating the houses were built at different times.

A shot of the mixture of houses to be found on Deptford Terrace - indicating the houses were built at different times.

Now architectural historian Michael Johnson has published a major study on the distinctive “terraced bungalows” that helped open the door to home ownership for working families.

“Britain’s towns and cities experienced a dramatic rise in population in the 19th century, as people sought work in the booming industries,” said Michael, author of The Sunderland Cottage.

“Victorian Sunderland developed a unique form of housing to accommodate its hardworking population, in the form of single-storey terraced houses that became known as cottages.”

Row upon row of distinctive dwellings were laid out in tight grid patterns from Roker to Pallion, High Barnes and Fulwell to help accommodate workers and their families.

Deptford Terrace in the 1940s.

Deptford Terrace in the 1940s.

Each had its own private entrance and backyard, and many had gardens too, enabling residents to emulate the living standards of the middle classes at an affordable price.

“Well loved by local residents, these unique homes are now recognised as an important and distinctive approach to housing Britain’s urban population,” said Michael.

“Even today, Sunderland’s cottages represent the backbone of working-class communities across the city.”

The earliest cottages were built close to industrial sites such as Wearmouth Colliery, the riverside shipyards and James Hartley’s glassworks in Millfield.

Later examples were constructed in the suburban areas of High Barnes, Seaburn, Roker and Fulwell, as transport improvements made it possible to live further from the workplace.

“The cottages proved extremely popular, providing many workers with an opportunity to escape from slum conditions by renting or buying their home,” said Michael.

“My book examines the development of the Sunderland cottage, tracing the evolution of its form and its place within the town’s social and architectural history.”

Historians down through the decades have suggested that many of Wearside’s cottages were constructed by speculative builders, without the aid of professional 

But Michael has uncovered an extensive collection of building plans in the Tyne and Wear Archives, which shed fresh light on the rather more glamorous roots of the 

“The majority were actually designed by Sunderland’s top architects and share their provenance with major public, ecclesiastical and commercial local buildings,” he said.

“Brothers William and Thomas Ridley Milburn, who were responsible for the design of the Empire Theatre, designed cottages in the ABC streets in High Barnes.

“They also designed Kitchener Street, Nora Street, Hawarden Crescent, Queen’s Crescent, Tanfield Street and Hampden Road, as well as the law courts and town centre fire station.

“Meanwhile Joseph Potts and Son, another prolific architectural firm, were behind the designs for the ‘Scottish streets’ in Fulwell – Forfar, Inverness, Moray and Roxburgh.”

In addition to detailing the history of the Sunderland cottage, Michael’s book also examines the development of the houses and their place within the city’s architectural legacy.

Vintage and modern photographs of cottages, as well as building plans and archival images, illustrate the 96-page volume, and it also includes a detailed appendix on individual streets.

“The book serves as a valuable guide for residents eager to know more about their own homes, as well as for anyone with an interest in 19th and early 20th century housing,” said Michael.

“The best of the Sunderland cottages exemplified the pride of Sunderland’s elite workforce and they remain a popular housing type to this day.”

l The Sunderland Cottage: A History of Wearside’s ‘Little Palaces’, by Michael Johnson, is published by Amberley Publishing at £14.99.