The area around Holy Trinity Parish Church is particularly interesting. Holy Trinity itself served as the parish church for Sunderland. It was built in 1719 on the edge of the town moor, and its churchyard contains the remains of many Sunderland notables, although only a few graves remain visible. The Rain’s Eye Plan shows the church’s position in the 1780s, with the Freeman’s Moor to the south and the crowded streets of the docks to the north. This also shows the original position of the rectory, before it was moved further to the east.
Detail from Rain’s Eye View, courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
The red brick building is in the classical style of the Georgian period, marking a clear distinction between the medieval St Michael’s of Bishopwearmouth and St Peter’s at Monkwearmouth. The church is thought to have been designed by William Etty of York (1675-1734) and uses bricks made of clay dug from the town moor. The tower originally had a cupula but now has just the four pinnacles.
The interior was designed for use beyond that of religious worship, and was a seat of local government, acting as the old Sunderland Council Chamber and library. The deconsecrated church building is now a venue for concerts and other events. The graveyard is now largely undulating grass, but two notable graves remain: the headstone for Jack Crawford, ‘Hero of Camperdown’, and the memorial for the much-admired rector, Robert Gray. The interior is noted for its original features of Corinthian columns and the bow-shaped gate that swings open to allow access to the alter. Sir Cuthbert Sharp’s poem on the loss and grief associated with churchyards can be found here.
The bottom of the churchyard is Trafalgar Square. Both Old Sunderland and Bishopwearmouth had almshouses for aged seamen. In Bishopwearmouth, these were located beyond St Michael’s church in the street that still bears the name Maritime Terrace. In Old Sunderland, the almshouses were built in 1840 and form a neat square called after the famous sea battle of 21st October, 1805.
In 2010, a large granite plaque was erected in the centre of this square to explicitly commemorate the 76 Sunderland sailors who were present at that battle.
The ‘square’ is actually a three-sided terrace bordering a neatly kept garden. There is a flagpole secured with mooring ropes by the entrance to this square, a reminder of the occupation of the early residents of Trafalgar Square.
Further up the lane, back towards Holy Trinity, stands one of the earliest school buildings left in Sunderland: the Donnison School. This was established from an endowment left in the will of the widow, Elizabeth Donnison, in 1764. She had stipulated that this school should provide a free education for ‘36 poor girls’, teaching them reading, writing, arithmetic, and needlework. The school opened in 1798 and was extended by another wealthy benefactor, Mrs Elizabeth Woodcock in 1827 when the main part of the current building was added. Like Holy Trinity Church, Donnison School is built using red bricks made from clay excavated from the Town Moor.
Trafalgar Square, Donnison School and Holy Trinity Church all form one side of the lane with the workhouse on the other. This photograph from the 1880s shows the workhouse building to the left with the Donnison School at the side of the lane to the right.
Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Long since demolished, this workhouse dated from 1740 and housed 600 people. The site also encompassed a pin factory, sailmaker’s loft and the second hospital. A blue plaque marks the site today.
There is still a hospital building a short distance away from here, the Freeman’s Hospital at the southernmost end of James Williams Street.
This street was constructed during the 1870s’ redevelopment of Sunderland and was named after Councillor James Williams (1811-1868). Williams was a leading temperance reformer who also campaigned for better sanitation and the abolition of bridge tolls. He was also instrumental in starting the first free lending library in Sunderland. The James Williams Board School stood on the eastern side of the street, whilst the Freeman’s Hospital that still stands is on the opposite side of the road. The original hospital, built in 1719, stood in Church Street but moved to the James Williams Street site when the new Rectory was built on its former site. The redbrick building dates from 1876 and, although now flats, still carries the plaque marking this earlier use. At the northern-most end of the street, the stone name plate for it is still clearly visible.
Pheonix Lodge in Queen Street East is the oldest surviving Freemason Temple in the UK. It was designed by John Bonner in 1785 to replace an earlier lodge that had been destroyed by fire. The Palladian style to the front of the building carries the Masonic symbol, a recent addition. The building is now drawfed by the towerblocks around it, built in the 1960s and 70s to house the residents who had previously lived in the slum conditions of the decaying East End housing.
The crowded streets around the old Sunderland area has once been affluent but by the 19th century were in varying states of decay. The 1851 street map of Sunderland, as drawn up by Thomas Meik and Robert Morgan (both engineers for the River Wear Commissioners at this time) shows the narrow terraced streets around the docks. The section of the map shown below is that at the furthest east point, with Holy Trinity Church at the bottom left corner.
Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society
The poverty and squalor of this area throughout the 19th century and into the 20th century is recorded in photographs held by Sunderland Antiquarian Society. Somehow, the streets continued to be inhabited well into the 20th century, defying Victorian attempts at ‘improvement’ that stretched along the western end of High Street East, and even the Luftwaffe bombing raids that flattened so much of the rest of the area around the docks. This photograph below, taken in 1953, shows the general state of dilapidation in the still-inhabited houses. The roofs are largely untiled, with cheaper asphalt acting as a covering in many cases. Broken windows are patched up but still have the rudimentary features of respectability in their white net curtains behind. To the right, the former grand houses of the 18th century can still be seen, but in a similar state of disrepair.
Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
Eventually, in the 1960s, the streets around Holy Trinity Church were demolished in a massive slum clearance. They were replaced by tower blocks that carry the names of some of the former streets, such as Burleigh Garth which now covers the area once occupied by Silver Street and Burleigh Street.