Robert Gray was rector of Sunderland from 1819 to 1838, and was hailed as a hero for his tireless care of cholera victims.
Gray was the son of a jeweller from London. He was born in 1787 and graduated from Oriel College, Oxford in 1813. After a curacy in Northumbrerland, in 1814 he moved to Bishopwearmouth as curate to his uncle, also called Robert Gray, who was rector at St Michael’s. He was selected by Bishop Barrington of Durham to take over the vacant rectorship of Sunderland in 1819. Gray’s father died soon after this and left him a great deal of money. However, rather than live off this, Gray used it to fund various charitable works.
For example, Gray established religious lectures on a Wednesday evening, and put on extra services in neighbouring St John’s. He also opened a school for poor children in Vine Street. In 1820, he established a Missionary Society, and in 1834 built an infant school near St John’s.
The Bishop of Durham was most impressed by Gray’s work and offered him a place on the Cathedral staff with an annual income of £600 (a huge sum at that time). Gray turned this down to continue his work in Sunderland. The first cholera epidemic in 1831 saw him visiting the homes of the victims. Many victims were mistrustful of the hospital system, but their continuing presence in the community was contributing to the spread of the disease. Gray spent a great deal of time persuading those who were reluctant to go to hospital, and was credited by Dr Clanny for his efforts in this matter.
In November 1837, an outbreak of typhus struck in the same area of Sunderland. Once again, Gray visited the sick. However, this time he was not so lucky with his own health and died on in his home in Sunniside on 11 February 1838.
There is a commemorative plaque to Gray in Holy Trinity, and the old grave yard is now called Gray Memorial Gardens, where his grave is one of the few still visible. His name was also given to the infant school that is commemorated by a blue plaque on the other side of the Town Moor.