Forced to close

Today we make one final appeal to find a new home for the custodians of our past – Sunderland Antiquarian Society.

Wanted: New home for a treasure trove.

A metal container stands forlornly in a Sunderland car park. Tightly packed inside are historic relics dating back centuries.

This is how Sunderland Antiquarian Society are managing to struggle on without a proper base – but it can't last much longer.

"Winter is coming on and we are very afraid our archives will suffer in the cold weather," said society president Douglas Smith.

"Living out of a box is never an ideal situation, but it also means we can't access our records. Without access, we can't survive."

Sunderland Antiquarian Society was formed back in 1900, with the aim of preserving the town's past for future generations.

Volunteers have devoted themselves to documenting vital places, dates and people over the last century, building up a unique archive.

But all that work could now be stored away in an inaccessible archive, unless a new home can be found for the society very soon.

"Our situation is desperate," said Mr Smith. "It really is looking as if our society will be forced to close after 107 years. It is so sad.

"We have been through thick and thin periods over the years, sometimes struggling on with just a handful of people.

"Today, thanks to the enthusiasm and dedication of members, we are at a peak. It is a sad irony, but we have never been so popular.

"But to continue to thrive, we need to make our archives available for research. We can't do that when they are packed away."

Despite being the second oldest society in Sunderland, the Antiquarians have never had a home to call their own.

A theatre green room, solicitors' cellars and even a concrete bunker have all provided temporary bases over the decades.

"We've spent the last eight happy years at Southmoor School, but now have to move due to new fire, health and safety regulations and rebuilding at the school," said Mr Smith.

"This means that our boxes of original research, as well as our collection of books, maps and documents have had to be packed up.

"But a metal container is not an ideal solution. Not only could our archive start to decay, we can't get at documents for research purposes."

It has always been the dream of the society to move to a proper HQ, complete with research facilities and a lecture room.Certainly, their treasures could fill a heritage centre, but despite Sunderland's building boom, that dream has yet to become reality."We have boxes and boxes of documents covering everything from mining and wars, to football, churches and schools," said Mr Smith.

"Open one and you lift the lid on a rich slice of Sunderland's history. But store them away, and you are left with nothing."

Although offers have been made by North East record offices to house their archives, members are keen to keep them in Sunderland.

"Do we really want yet more of Sunderland's history to end up in Newcastle and be 'lost' to local citizens?" said Mr Smith.

"Part of the importance of the society is that members can open up the archives to anyone researching local history or family trees."But, if the archive is placed in storage, the information will be locked away.

You can't run a society without research facilities."

The Antiquarians would ideally like a new base large enough to house their collection, with enough space to hold regular meetings.

However, a dry and secure storage area would be welcome in the short-term, as the metal container won't be suitable in the winter.

"Our collection was left to us by members and we'd be breaking their trust if we allowed it to be broken up," said Mr Smith.

"We are adamant we want to keep it in the city. We believe it is vital that the archive is always available to local researchers."

* Any offers of a home can be made to the group's secretary, Sandra Lane, on 565 1832 or to the president, Douglas Smith, on 522 0517.

Historic archive treasures

Among the treasures kept in the archives of the Antiquarian Society are:

* Civil War petitions to Cromwell, dating back to around 1648.

* Theatre bills announcing visits by author Charles Dickens, who appeared at The Lyceum in 1852 and the Theatre Royal in 1858.

* A huge map collection dating back to the 18th century.

* A list of Sunderland men held as prisoners of war in Napoleonic France.

* Family tree details for hundreds of Sunderland folk.

* A tracing cloth of the town moor, circa 1750.

* Four lithographic plans of Sunderland Docks in 1850.

* Certificates of Exemption, allowing men to escape the Press Gang, which roamed Sunderland during the Napoleonic Wars.

* A petition dated 1858 to the Home Secretary, in regard to the appointment of a new magistrate for Sunderland.

* The G.W.Bain library, bought in 1928. It includes maps, prints and handbills featuring Sunderland.

* A journal kept by Sunderland master mariner William Story, of his years as a prisoner of Napoleon, dating from 1815.

* An 1830 estate map of Southwick.

* Thousands of pictures of old Sunderland and its pubs, industries, shops, streets and people.

* Dozens of news bills, including an 1816 report announcing the execution of John Greig – the demon barber of Monkwearmouth.

* The Panton Collection – a unique collection of the history of Methodism in the North East in original documents.

* Building plans for the old Town Hall.

How it all started

The 20th century was just a year away when plans to form an antiquarian society in Sunderland were first proposed.

Notice of a meeting to discuss the idea was sent out from the office of George W. Bain, of 46 John Street, on November 15, 1899.

But it was not until February 1, 1900, that the meeting was actually held, in the board room of the Industrial and Provident Society.

Sunderland Antiquarian Society was formed on that day, with Dr Thomas Randell, Rector of Sunderland, appointed as its president.

The main objective was then, and is still today, hearing papers on local history read by members, and printing those deemed "worthy."

Dozens of volumes documenting Sunderland's history have since been published – invaluable tools for both historians and students.

The minutes of the Society, complete from 1900, show members have always 'done their utmost' to preserve historic buildings too.

Among their successes can be counted the saving of Hylton Castle, Washington Old Hall and the old alms houses at Trafalgar Square.

There have, of course, been failures too. Long gone now are the Town Hall, Assembly Garth, and ancient East End Parish lock-up.

However, records of these, and many other important buildings, are still preserved for the future by the Society – at least for now.

* The next meeting of the society will be held at Southmoor School, upstairs in the hall, on November 13 from 7.30pm.

Sunderland Antiquarian Presidents

1899: Rev Thomas Randell

1904: Rev J.T. Middlemiss

1906: George Washington Bain

1909: James Patterson

1910: Thomas Coke Squance

1914: C.L. Cummings

1915: Rev D.S. Boutflower

1916: Thomas Coke Squance

1918: Robert Hyslop

1929: J.J. Wilkinson

1932: Rev F.F. Bretherton

1934: Sir Walter Raine MP

1936: Dr G.S. Robinson

1938: J.W.Corder

1939: Rev F.F. Bretherton

1947: Theodore Nicholson

1951: Arthur Greaves

1953: H.S. Vinycomb

1955: Harry L. Robson

1978: T.F. Hunter

1984: Joan E. Hayton

1985: Ian Curry

1987: Charles W. Walker

1989: Eric Balmer

1992: John Pearson

1993: Joan E. Hayton

1995: Margaret New

1998: Douglas Whiteley Smith

* Can you help the Antiquarians put names to faces? Photographs of all the past presidents are needed.