How Sunderland’s cottages became a hit

Merle Street.
Merle Street.
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Sunderland’s unique Victorian homes will be examined in a talk for Sunderland Civic Society.

Architectural historian Dr Michael Johnson will discuss his research into the distinctive ‘Sunderland cottages’ that opened the door to homeownership for the town’s hardworking families.

Hedley Street.

Hedley Street.

Britain’s towns and cities experienced a dramatic rise in population during the 19th century.

People came seeking work in emerging industries and in many parts of the country, this created a demand for housing that exceeded the supply which was available.

Sunderland was faced with the problem of housing its working people.

To solve the headache, a unique form of single-storey terraced houses was developed and it came to be known as Sunderland cottages.

The Sunderland cottage is now recognised as an important and distinctive approach to housing Britain’s expanding urban population. Well loved by residents, the best of these houses exemplified the pride of Sunderland’s elite workforce.

Dr Michael Johnson

These buildings resembled a terraced bungalow and the Sunderland cottage became the town’s dominant housing type during the 19th century.

Row upon row of distinctive single-storey dwellings were laid out.

They were built in tight grid patterns to accommodate workers and their families.

The form was favoured by the skilled workers of Sunderland’s shipyards and represented an affordable housing type that provided a high degree of privacy and social status.

Dr Johnson's book.

Dr Johnson's book.

Each had its own entrance and backyard, and many of the best examples had private gardens.

This great new development meant that residents could emulate the living standards of the middle classes.

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

Later examples were to be found in the suburban areas of High Barnes, Seaburn, Roker and Fulwell.

And this happened as transport improvements made it possible to live further from the workplace.

The new housing proved extremely popular in Sunderland and it provided many workers with an opportunity to escape from the slum conditions of their previous dwellings. They could do it by renting or buying their home.

Historians have suggested that cottages were built by speculative builders without the aid of professional architects.

But Dr Johnson has uncovered an extensive collection of building plans which were in the Tyne and Wear Archives.

These reveal that the majority of Sunderland cottages were designed by the town’s professional architects and share their provenance with Sunderland’s major public, ecclesiastical and commercial buildings.

Sunderland’s foremost architects were two brothers who were called William and Thomas Ridley Milburn.

They were responsible for the design of the Empire Theatre in Sunderland.

The Milburns designed cottages in the ‘ABC streets’ in High Barnes, as well as Kitchener Street, Nora Street, as well as Hawarden Crescent, Queen’s Crescent, Tanfield Street and Hampden Road.

Joseph Potts and Son were also prolific cottage designers, and they provided the plans for the ‘Scottish streets’ .

These were to be found in Fulwell – Forfar, Inverness, Moray and Roxburgh Streets.

The Sunderland cottage is now recognised as an important and distinctive approach to housing Britain’s expanding urban population.

This type of housing is well loved by residents, and the best of these houses is exemplified as the pride of Sunderland’s elite workforce.

They remain a popular housing type to this day and comprise a substantial portion of the city’s stock of housing.

Now, people can find out more by attending a talk later this week.

Dr Johnson is the author of The Sunderland Cottage: A History of Wearside’s ‘Little Palaces’.

The book was published by Amberley in 2015.

Signed copies of the book will be available at the event to be held later this week.

The talk will be held at 6.30pm on Thursday, May 11.It will take place at Sunderland New College, which is in Park Lane. Visitors are welcome and entrance is £2.