Since 1992, when Sunderland was granted city status, the church of St Michael and All Angels and St Benedict Biscop has been known as Sunderland Minster. For over a thousand years there has been a church here; in the 1930s archaeologists found Saxon stones on the site. Most of the church has been rebuilt over time, but the east part of the chancel (the space surrounding the altar) is medieval. It was the parish church of Bishopwearmouth (south of the Wear). During most of its history, this church and its parish attracted huge rents which meant it was one of the valuable clerical livings in England. As a result, it drew many prominent men to be its rector, often the younger sons of earls and duke. The list of names on the 20th century rectors’ board inside the church gives many names which were later used as street names around Sunderland, such as William Paley (Paley Street, behind the Empire Theatre) and Robert Gray (Gray Road). Rector Robert Gray was related to Reverend Robert Gray, who was rector of Holy Trinity until his death in 1838. The daughter of Bishopwearmouth Robert Gray married George Mowbray, of the wealthy Mowbray family.
Of these, Paley is perhaps the best known.
William Paley by George Romney. Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery.
William Paley was one of the most influential, but also controversial, clergymen of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Born in 1743, Paley rose as a lecturer on moral philosophy in Cambridge. His book The Principles of Moral and Political Philosophy (1785) advocated a modern, utilitarian approach to religion and morality. Partly as a reward for his writings against the irreligion of revolutionary France, in March 1795 Paley was granted the rectory of Bishopwearmouth. Starting with a famous analogy between the universe and a watch, Natural Theology (1802) argues that the natural world reveals God’s intelligent design of the universe. He died in Lincoln in 1805. You can find out more about William Paley here.
Later, Rev. John Eden was rector between 1848 and 1864, and he was responsible for redeveloping much of the church. The old rectory that had stood behind the church was demolished and the Rector’s Park site was sold for development (now the site of the Empire Theatre and Dun Cow pub). A new rectory was built on Gray Road in Ashbrooke, where it still stands today although long since converted into secular flats after a stint as part of the university’s School of Education.
A great deal of the church had gone into decline and was rebuilt between 1806-8, during the period when Sunderland was modernising, with further additions in 1849 to accommodate a growing congregation. The church was again substantially rebuilt between 1932-35 in the Gothic revival style, funded in part by a £35,000 donation from Sir John Priestman.
This parish map of Sunderland from 1883 gives an indication of the extent and prospective wealth of the St Michael’s living. It is the parish marked in pink that extends from the river southwards to what is now Ashbrooke and Thornhill.
Image courtesy of Sunderland Antiquarian Society.
These almshouses were designed by Edward Robert Robson and erected in 1863, funded by Elizabeth Gray Mowbray. They replaced the earlier almshouses, erected in 1772 by Jane Gibson. This earlier complex is commemorated in a Latin inscription on a stone positioned at the left hand side stepped chimney stack. Edward Robert Robson had trained under John Dobson in Newcastle before moving to London to work for Sir George Gilbert Scott’s practice. The design for the Mowbray Almshouses follows Gilbert Scott’s and Pugin’s notion of recreating medieval architecture in the contemporary world.