Wearside Echoes: Rural life in heart of town

OLDEN DAYS: River Wear
OLDEN DAYS: River Wear
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SHIPBUILDING was at its peak as Sunderland shrugged off the post-war gloom and embraced the 1920s.

In a small corner of Southwick, however, Ethel Metters enjoyed a rural upbringing – right in the heart of industrial Wearside.

“I spent my early childhood living in the grounds of Thompson Park, near Newcastle Road, when it was a farm rather than a park,” she recalls.

“My father was a farm labourer and my parents and I lived in one of the farm’s tied cottages – close to where the bandstand is now.”

The estate, known as Monkwearmouth Grange, was originally the property of shipbuilding entrepreneur John Laing, who built a mansion on the site.

Following his death in 1829, the farm and property were bought by shipowner George Hudson. He bequeathed the estate to two spinster cousins in 1884.

The cousins, Margaret and Mary Thompson, made Monkwearmouth Grange their home from then on – and Margaret was still the owner when Ethel was born.

“I remember our house as rather primitive,” said Ethel. “It had outside dry sanitation and there were stone floors throughout.

“There was no electric or gas, and our only lighting was oil lamps and candles, but I remember mother saying we were comfortably off.

“My father, I believe, had a wage of 10 shillings – but no rent to pay! We also had fruit, vegetables and eggs courtesy of Miss Margaret Thompson.”

Ethel enjoyed a happy, tranquil childhood on the farm for several years. The death of Miss Thompson in 1930, however, brought dramatic changes.

The 90-year-old, known as a “great benefactress to many institutions and individuals”, gifted 25 acres of land to Sunderland Corporation in her will.

The farm was closed and houses built on the fields. Miss Thompson’s name lived on, however, through a five-acre park – which opened in 1933.

“Her home stood for quite a few years after it became a park, and was used by gardeners for storage. There were rumours it was haunted!” said Ethel.

“I thought it was a sin when it was demolished, as it was a lovely old house. I’m always reminded of it when I watch a Catherine Cookson film.”

Ethel and her family later moved to a new house on Newcastle Road, which was built by the council in the early 1930s.

“It had two bedrooms with all mod-cons, which was wonderful. But I still have good memories of my childhood,” said Ethel, now of Lakeside Village.

“Sadly, I don’t have any photos of the old farm though – more’s the pity!”

AN investigation into the origins of Margaret Thompson proved no stroll in the park for local historian Pam Tate.

“I assumed she was related to shipbuilder Robert Thompson, and a 1930 Echo report stated she was the niece of Railway King George Hudson,” said Pam.

“But, after some research, neither of these ‘facts’ proved to be true.”

Pam, chairman of Southwick History and Preservation Society, used old trade directories and census returns to finally uncover Margaret’s origins.

And, during the course of her investigations, she also discovered that shipbuilder John Laing was the original owner of Monkwearmouth Grange.

“He purchased an area of land, including a farm and house called Red House, just off Newcastle Road and built Monkwearmouth Grange,” said Pam.

Laing’s new home, as described by historian James Watson Corder in 1932, was: “A Georgian smaller mansion, with three good sitting rooms, bedrooms and very low poor attics. No water laid on – supply from rainwater tanks and well in drive.”

Following the death of Laing in 1829, the estate was purchased by George Hudson. Not the railway Hudson, but a successful rope-maker and shipowner.

Hudson and his elder sister, Margaret, moved from Church Street to the Grange – each agreeing never to marry, but stay together instead.

“This fact is mentioned in Recollections of Old Monkwearmouth, which calls it ‘a holy alliance never to enter the matrimonial pathway,’” said Pam.

But, a maternal cousin of George’s, Margaret Fairlamb, did marry. Records show she tied the knot with a ship master called Peter Thompson in 1829.

“It was her two spinster daughters, Mary and Margaret Thompson, who were the main beneficiaries of George’s will when he died in 1884.

“The sisters left their family home at 58 Frederick Street to live at Monkwearmouth Grange. Mary died in 1901, but Margaret remained until 1930.”

Part of the estate was subject to a compulsory purchase order just a few year’s before Margaret’s death, when the council needed land for housing.

And, when she left a further 25 acres of the estate to Sunderland Corporation in her will, much of that was used for houses too.

At her request, however, a five-acre plot was set aside for the “recreation and enjoyment” of local residents – in the form of Thompson Park.

“A grand opening ceremony was reported in the Echo on June 2, 1933. Sadly, the mansion fell into disrepair and was eventually demolished,” said Pam.

“I would appeal to anyone with memories about the park to get in touch – and I’d also love to know what happened to the whale or shark bone jaw that once decorated the entrance gate to the Grange. “Perhaps someone might have a photo of it?”

* Can you help out Pam? She can be contacted on 567 2438.