To The Friends Of Sunderland Old Parish Church Website

We are the Friends of Sunderland’s Old Parish Church, of the Holy Trinity built in 1719.

‘The Parish Church in the heart of historic Old Sunderland’

The friends were formed in April 2003 to help breathe life into a much neglected quarter of the City of Sunderland, situated on the North East coast of England. Once the major port of the Bishopric of Durham it developed into the biggest shipbuilding town in the world.

The Society’s role is to work for the public benefit and to stimulate a wider appreciation of Old Sunderland, its past and its historic buildings. However our main area of interest is in Sunderland Old Parish Church itself, which was central to the lives of all those living and working in a once thriving major seaport.

Holy Trinity interior c. 1900.

The Society caters for:

1 Old East Enders and those with historic family connections to the area.
2 Those with feelings of love and respect for Sunderland Old Parish Church of the Holy Trinity and of its daughter church, the Church of St John, built in 1769 and demolished in 1972.
3 Admirers of the Parish’s Rector Robert Gray who was born in 1787 and served as Rector of the Parish from 1819 to 1838. He was most highly regarded in his day as both a hero and a saint amongst his people.


To positively promote Old Sunderland (the East End) in general, but in particular Sunderland Old Parish Church of the Holy Trinity and its beloved and revered Rector, Robert Gray.

Rector Robert Gray

To raise awareness that this special area, the heart of Old Sunderland, is the birthplace of their city. To inform all generations that the ‘Sundered Land’, with its unique Grade I Listed Early Georgian Church incorporated Sunderland’s first Council Chamber and Public Library.

The Society is committed to being an organization in which both its members and the public are able to express their views about the area’s past, present and future.


We provide advice and information about the area’s history and its family connections.

We engage in documenting recollections of the Old Town’s past and present for posterity and the making of a comprehensive archive of photographs and drawings.

We organize activities in order to bring people together and thus advance our aims and influence.

We are available to contribute to a Schools and Youth Education Programme. We also aim to be available to adult groups, in order to promote and explain the area’s history and its considerable impact in the creation of today’s city.

We support the preservation and conservation of buildings of architectural and historic interest, with special support for the Churches Conservation Trust. Responsible for maintaining the fabric of Sunderland Old Parish Church, the Trust keeps the building in good order and we, the Society, put life into it by concentrating our activities in and around the building itself and by the acquisition and preservation of local artefacts. The Church is still consecrated and the total number of services has been limited to six per year.

We raise awareness of the area’s rich past through a variety of methods: these include talks, walks, PowerPoint Presentations, events, concerts and open days both in and around the church, as well as using the Trafalgar Room at the Hearts of Oak for a series of luncheons, suppers and open days. This building in itself is also of considerable significance, being an original 1710-1711 Merchant’s House and thus pre-dating the Old Parish Church. In addition, mention must be made of another unique Grade I Listed building. The Masonic Temple of 1785 has the distinction of being the oldest Masonic Temple in the world that is still in regular use.

We publish a series of leaflets and booklets, as well as guides featuring walks around the area and in 2008 we completed publication of The Sundered Land: the Story of a Seaport and its Township.

We provide our membership with an informative quarterly newsletter giving advance notice of events, as well as highlighting various matters of historic interest. In addition we contribute regularly to a local publication, Eastwise, in which we explore the history of both the Church and the Old Township’s colourful past and characters.


Bryan Dodds J.P, Honorary President
Rev. Hilary Jackson, Life Vice-President
John Bulmer B.E.M (Rtd.) Life Vice-President
Rev. Colin Purvis, Vice President
Carol Freeman, Vice President

Honorary Consultative Trustees

Sybil Reeder and Ray Armbrister

Office: Secretary, Treasurer and Enquiries – 21 Derwent Crescent, Hamsterley, Newcastle upon Tyne, NE17 7PD. Tel. (01207) 562 957

Robert Moon (Chairman) (01207) 562957
Win Lundgren (Vice-chair) (0191) 528 2813
Lily Firmin (General Secretary/Membership Secretary)
Brian Hubbard (Computer/Design)
Lilian Shouksmith
Hugh Lindsley (0191) 522 9057
Mary Snowball
June Amundsen
Jan Lawson (Minutes Secretary)
Sally Schoon (Artist in Residence)


The Old Township of Sunderland: the original ‘Sundered-Land’.

The area covered by the old township is small, approximately 100 acres. Its roots reach into the distant past, as there is evidence within the present city of Bronze Age settlement and within the old township boundaries itself, of Romano/British occupation. Over a period of 1300 years therefore, three distinct settlements on the River Wear each to held predominance.

On the north bank of the river is Monkwearmouth, where Benedict Biscop founded a monastery in 674 which became a beacon of light and learning during Europe’s Dark Ages. The monastery dominated the area between 674 and 1000 but went into decline following vicious Viking raids. The Venerable Bede, whose early life was spent at Monkwearmouth, gave us a clue that he was born across the river in what was to become the old township, when he stated that he was born in the ‘Sundered Land’, the area separated from the monastic land by the River Wear. After 1000 dominance passed to Bishopwearmouth, a village situated one mile from the river mouth on the south side, when the Bishop of Durham established a manor house, hence the name Bishopwearmouth. Although this settlement was small, following this development Bishopwearmouth dominated the area until the late 17th Century. Older than the other two, the third settlement was also on the south side but at the river’s mouth. However, in its turn it eventually swallowed the others and became the historic heart of and gave its name to the City of Sunderland.

Originally only a small fishing village, by 1184 the settlement known as ‘Weremouth’ had begun to develop as a port and was therefore important enough for Bishop Hugh de Puiset to grant it a Charter. This Charter conferred rights and defined the boundaries which in 1719 were also to be the boundaries of the Township and Parish of Sunderland. In de Puiset’s day it was known as Weremouth and it was from here in 1068 that Margaret, Princess of the old Saxon Royal House, was collected by Malcolm Canmore, King of Scotland to become his bride and eventually St. Margaret of Scotland.

At Woodstock in 1247 King Henry III signed a charter extending Weremouth’s rights and the settlement continued to grow, becoming a major centre for the extraction of salt and ship building. By the reign of Elizabeth I it had become somewhat decayed and was in decline, but by 1620 the port revived due to the extraction of coal further up the Wear Valley. Coal needed a port for distribution to the rest of the kingdom and Weremouth, by this time known as Sunderland-next-to-the-Sea, was the natural outlet. In 1634, Thomas Morton, Bishop of Durham granted an extensive charter to Sunderland, thereby establishing port, marketing rights and also creating a mayor and corporation. Following this the civic authority did not survive long and finally disappeared during the Civil War, when Oliver Cromwell visited and stayed in a house on Vine Street. Although only a few miles away Newcastle, Sunderland’s great rival in the coal trade, was Royalist and suffered accordingly.

Sunderland supported Parliament and consequently reaped the benefit by taking most of Newcastle’s trade, no doubt contributing to the beginning of high feeling which still exists today between the two cities. Sunderland rapidly expanded and by 1700 had become a boom town; truly a new town for a new age. Paradoxically, it still formed part of the huge Parish of Bishopwearmouth – 20 square miles but with a population of only 11,000 and of that population some 6,000 souls were packed within the tiny 100 acres in the most north eastern part of the Parish. But Sunderland’s golden age was about to dawn.


In 1712 twenty-four merchants and ship owners in Sunderland petitioned the Crown for an independent Parish and that the Crown also formally restore the Township once more in its own right. At that time adherents of the Church of England were forced to trail the one mile up Sunderland’s ‘back lonnen’ and across open country to Bishopwearmouth Parish Church. To add insult to injury, on arrival they were unable to obtain a seat because the landowners and farmers of Bishopwearmouth operated a ‘paid pew’ system. What a situation – the tiny landed gentry excluding the huge merchant and seafaring classes of Sunderland. This could not be tolerated and led to the petition to the Crown.

No new parishes had been created in England since the Reformation. Prior to this, parishes were created by Papal Bull and no system had replaced it since the Dissolution of the Monasteries between 1536 and 1539. Stockton on Tees led the way when Queen Anne, after being petitioned in 1707, upgraded the curacy of St. Thomas and created a Parish in 1712. Sunderland demanded much more than this as it wanted not only a Parish, but recognition of its lost township status. Unfortunately its petition of 1712 was ill-timed for Queen Anne was dying of dropsy and finally succumbing in August 1714. She was succeeded by George, Elector of Hanover who, on becoming King George I, was immediately faced by the first Jacobite Rebellion in 1715 and so, of necessity, the petition was put on the back burner.

Finally, on 1st May 1719, King George signed the Sunderland Parish and Township Enabling Act. This Act was far-reaching and in some respects went beyond the expectations of the petitioners. Its drawback was that it defined the Parish and Township boundaries as being those granted by Bishop de Puiset more than 500 years previously; 178 acres, of which 58 acres were tidal water and 20 acres Town Moor and provision for a burial ground, thus leaving the same 100 acres of habitable land. Because the Parish came into being by Royal Act it is one of only a handful of ordinary parishes entitled to a Mace. This simple Staff of 1719 is surmounted by a small royal crown and is still carried in procession today.

What happened to Sunderland between 1712 and 1719? By the time the King had signed the Enabling Act, a fine new church had already been built by Public Subscription. Standing at 135 feet long, with a nave 72 feet in length and 54 feet wide for the next hundred years it was Sunderland’s largest building. Purpose built, the building is divided inside by a vestibule, which separates Church from Civic. East of the vestibule and behind closed doors is the church itself and to the west is the Civic Administration, comprising a Council Chamber with the massive original table still in situ, a public library with the original bookcase covering the whole of the north wall and the great porch which housed the fire engine, the stocks and a pillory. The Council Chamber was also used as the Magistrates Court.

Built in English Baroque style with 20 huge Georgian windows the church was constructed of bricks, produced 100 yards up the street. The brickwork was laid in Flemish Bond and embellished with quoits and corner embrasures in sandstone. Its doors are the original solid English oak. Plain but impressive from the outside, the interior is awe-inspiring and beautiful, with Corinthian columns and a Grand Chancel Arch. Built for preaching, the acoustics within the body of the Church are first class and the use of microphones is seldom necessary.

The Council levied rates, appointed parish constables etc. and surrounded the building with all the trappings of township. In 1740 a huge Parish Workhouse, housing 600 inmates, was built in nearby Church Walk, to be followed by a Parish Hospital in the same Walk. On the other side of the building appeared a parish lock-up and in 1750 a superb set of Almhouses, Assembly Garth and complete with the main parish prison situated beneath its Great Hall. Surrounding this complex were many fine Merchants’ Garths and of these two original merchants’ houses can still be seen in Church Street. Only one addition has been made to the church since 1719 when in 1735 Daniel Newcombe, the first Rector, added a magnificent elliptical apse beyond the chancel arch and where he and four other early rectors now lie below in the Rector’s Vault.

The building has no recorded architect, but was fitted out by William Etty of York and plasterwork was by Mansfield of York. It is worth noting that the overall internal appearance has the feel of Sir John Vanburgh and his pupil Nicholas Hawksmoor and at the time the church was under construction Etty was Clerk of Works to Vanburgh at Seaton Delaval and Castle Howard. Did Sir John perhaps have a hand in its design, through his connection with Etty?


During the next 160 years the township expanded rapidly; in 1800 the axis of Sunderland began to move westward and by 1870 the maximum recorded population was 24,000. Fine town houses, once the homes of the gentry and merchants, became tenements housing the expanding population engaged in glassmaking, pottery, rope-making, ship-building, import and export and coal-shipping. These activities resulted in Sunderland becoming the third largest registry of shipping in the United Kingdom; so much so that at one point 80% of the male workforce were either seamen or connected in some other way with the sea.

For 116 years the church played its double role of church and civil authority but with the passing of the 1835 Municipal Acts, Sunderland became a County Borough and the civic administration moved to the Exchange Building (1814) on the High Street. The once rich parish consequently became poorer and poorer, as the wealthy moved to other parts of the expanding town and by 1851 living conditions within the old township had deteriorated into slums. Because of the overcrowding in 1831, when cholera entered the UK through the port of Sunderland, its second victim was Jack Crawford, the township’s hero at the Battle of Camperdown in 1797.

In 1838 typhoid fever raged and claimed many victims and clergy of all denominations refused to enter any house of pestilence during both epidemics. However, one man and one man alone gave succour to the sick and dying. Reverend Robert Gray, Rector of Sunderland from 1819, devoted his fortune and his life to the poor and was regarded by them almost as a saint. He paid for his love and devotion on 11th Februar,y 1838 when he died after falling victim to typhoid fever and such was the regard for him that 30,000 people attended his funeral. A fine marble memorial with a 353-word inscription placed in the main porch (see below), speaks volumes. This memorial by David Dunbar of Carlisle was paid for by Public Subscription. The Rector’s final resting place, with his beloved people in the parish churchyard, has been completely restored by Sunderland Council and the five-acre former graveyard is now known as Gray Memorial Gardens.

Statue of Rector Gray in Holy Trinity Church


The Parish and Township became increasingly poor and over-crowded, but the people continued to lived life to the full. Its High Street by 1900 had over 200 shops and pubs and breweries flourished (within the 100 acres there were more than 100 pubs and 5 breweries). The Town Moor just beyond the church was used for recreation and in its day catered for horse-racing, bull-baiting, cock-fighting, band concerts, space for public orators such as John Wesley, as well as for fairs and carnivals. In the 1930’s Sunderland Council put into action a policy of slum clearance and during the Second World War Hitler delivered many a parcel of bombs on the township. The 1950’s, 60’s and 70’s witnessed the Council’s completion of its Clearance Programme and the tearing of the heart out of the old area. During this period many buildings of historic interest and merit disappeared. The Parish Church, with only a tiny congregation remaining, could no longer meet the cost of the extensive repairs needed on the huge building and it was finally placed into the hands of The Churches Conservation Trust, based in London.

Here then is a brief glimpse of a once vibrant area, the small historic heartland of what is today a major city. Fortunately the area is now undergoing regeneration and it is the continuing task of the Society to rejuvenate the church building in order for it to take once again its role at the centre of the area. Working with The Conservation Trust, who have spent £400,000 on external restoration, the Society has played a major role in bringing to life this much neglected building by opening it up to the public and using it for concerts and events.

The full story of the township is told in the Sundered Land: the Story of a Township and its Seaport. In order to obtain a copy please contact the office:

21 Derwent Crescent, Hamsterley, Newcastle upon Tyne NE17 7PD
Telephone (01207) 562957

A number of written guided walks of the area are also available upon request.

SAINT JOHN’S CHURCH (Daughter Church to Holy Trinity)

Built in 1769, to take the overflow from the congregation of the Parish Church. During 1875 it became a parish in its own right. The church was demolished in 1972, after a fire left thestructure unstable.

St John’s interior

St John’s Church and Moor Board School c1960’s


The Friends Support The Churches Conservation Trust

The dove will take you to the Obituary Page