Sunderland Minster Exterior

Written by Eric Shegog

The early history of the Church of St. Michael consists largely of unanswered questions, some local legend and possibly a little wishful thinking. Actual facts, supported by historical evidence, are sadly thin on the ground and during the period of early Christianity in the Wearmouth area, it is the Monastery of St. Peter on the north side of the river which takes all the glory, so to speak, being well-documented.

Bede wrote that “our churches are of wood and our priests of gold” and it is suggested that there could well have been an early Saxon wooden church on the site of the present building. Certainly the original village of South Wearmouth evolved in the small area immediately surrounding this site, though unfortunately how early even that may have been is not clear.  If there ever was a wooden church here during early Saxon times it must have been totally destroyed at some point, for not a single trace of such a building has ever been found. One theory, not widely held, was that the name Bishopwearmouth in fact derived from “Bishop’s Wear-mouth”, the land having been given to Biscop, the founder of St. Peter’s, by King Aldfrith of Northumbria in return for gifts from Rome in the year 686. However, this gift, of lands south of the river, is generally considered to refer to the lands “sundered” from Monkwearmouth by the river, which became Sunderland; a place of relatively little significance until a much later date. There was a later grant, more likely to refer to the area known as South Wearmouth, to the Church of St. Cuthbert from King Egfrid; but he reigned from 830 to 846, nearly 200 years after Biscop.

The most frequently quoted event regarding the origins of Bishopwearmouth is yet another grant, made by King Athelstan, who came to the throne of England in 925 and took over the Kingdom of Northumbria. Legend has it that on an expedition against Constantine of Scotland in the year 930, Athelstan stopped to pay homage to the Church of St. Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street, this being the centre of the Church in the north-east at that time, until transferring to Durham in 995. One of his gifts was to restore certain lands “which had been wrested from the Church . . . in former times through the malignity of evil men” and these were “the plesant vill of South Wearmouth with its appendices, that is Weston, Offerton and Silksworth, with the two Ryhopes, Burdon Seaham, Seaton, Dalton, Daldon and Hesilden”. The Church later divid-ed up the area, designating Offerton to the parish of Houghton-le-Spring and (Cold) Hesledon, Dalton-le-Dale and Seaham as separate parishes; leaving the rest as the parish of South Wearmouth, with Tunstall evidently being one of the “two Ryhopes”. The name later became “Bishop’s Wear-mouth”, possibly partly to distinguish it from the “Monk’s Wearmouth” on the north of the river and also because, under the feudal system developed during Norman times, the Bishop held most of the lands in question “by copy of court roll” and let them out to tenants in return for certain duties and payments. The Bishop was the Lord of the Manor, in this case the Manor of Houghton-le-Spring and if we accept this story of Athlestan’s grant then it is possible that we have the origin of the parish of Bishopwearmouth as part of that Manor.

It was a large parish, being roughly four miles from east to west and five miles from north to south, and remained so for hundreds of years until 1719 when Sunderland-near-the-Sea, as it was once known, built its own church and became a separate parish. Division of the parish accelerated during the 19th Century until by 1901 there were 20 “daughter” parishes, and others have followed.

The general inclination is to believe that the original stone church would have been built shortly afterwards, in about 934 to 940, although it has been said that as these were still troubled times it would not have been until nearer the end of the century. Again there is no proof. Then we come up against the fact that it is not until 1214 that we find any record of a rector for Bishopwearmouth, the first being named as Philip of Poictiers, followed by Adam de Marisco (or Marsh) in 1217. Some of the more wary have taken this as the date of the first church, but there are indications that it was earlier.

In the almost total lack of historical evidence, there has been one discovery which merely adds to the confusion. During some excavation work in the 1930’s three carved stones were discovered, apparently of Saxon origin. The British Museum was consulted and authorities there concluded that they are undoubtedly examples of late Saxon work, being crudely executed and dating from a time when skilled craftsmen and their old techniques had vanished during the troubled times of the 9th and 10th Centuries. The stones are apparently from a Saxon grave, and if they denote the presence of a church then they would seem to confirm the theory of a late 10th Century construction. The smallest stone was probably part of a grave cover, another somewhat resembles some pillow stones found at St. Hild’s nunnery at Hartlepool, though those date from the mid 7th Century, and the largest is a greyish grit stone hewn out of a block with the lower part rough dressed and evidently intended to be buried in the ground as a gravestone, while the top portion retains traces of a crudely cut design. We can only speculate about the significance of this find in relation to the question of the first church.

We cannot know either, exactly what that early church may have looked like, even thinking of the time of those first rectors in the 13th Century. The first visual representations of the building date from the 18th Century; a small engraving in Hutchinson’s History of Durham, and a drawing by Samuel Hieronymous Grimm, a gentlemen of Swiss birth who was noted for his skill and accuracy in topographical draughts-manship, and who had been employed to make drawings of buildings of local interest in various counties of England, including Durham. Unfortunately, neither of these is highly detailed and a comparison of the two produces certain in-consistencies (notably in the structure of the tower and also in the relative proportions of the different parts) so it is still difficult to make positive architectural analysis or to draw definite conclusions. However, one researcher considers that the tower could quite possibly have been Saxon, judging by its proportion, string courses and narrow round headed windows. The building evidently had various early English additions, and if one subtracted the measurements of these from the whole, then the proportions of the basic structure accorded to the Saxon norm.

Originally it would have consisted simply of the nave and the tower, the nave being on two rows of three columns supporting semi-circular arches, about 14 feet high, with rolls for capitals. In about 1300 the extension was built, in late Early English style, leaving little of the original but the tower and the arches. The nave was rebuilt to include the north and the south aisles, and the chancel was added, with the high pointed arch between it and the nave. In the pictures mentioned we can see how relatively long the chancel was, according to the custom of that time.

There is a slightly mystifying entry in the Register of Deaths for the 29th February, 1583, relating to a yeoman called George Topias, who was one of the first known to be buried in the vaults. He left some money to the church . . . “forgiving the said church 4s. which it was indetted unto me at the makinge her of”, which would imply some rebuilding or alteration during his lifetime. However, no other reference to this has been found.

The record of the Will of this George Topias also leads to another interesting point, for his request was to be interred in a vault beneath the seat where he was accustomed to sit. This is significant because at that time there was very little seating in churches and only the more eminent inhabitants enjoyed such a luxury. In the stark Puritanism of Elizabethan times the church would have had very little furniture or ornament and the floor was very probably of unpaved earth. It was not until the early 1600’s that there was a restoration of some display and ceremony, which had previously been condemned as a return to Popery. When William Laud became Archbishop of Canterbury he fully encouraged the beautifying of churches and the installation of regular seating systems, and it is from the period of about 1630 to 1640 that most of the fine Jacobean woodwork in English churches dates. Over the years, with all the changes that have been made, the furniture in Bishopwearmouth Church has been lost, with two exceptions.

In 1925 a neglected and forgotten pulpit was found at the Wesleyan Mission in Trimdon Street; at some time it had been painted and latterly had been standing in the open, exposed to the weather, but upon investigation it proved to be the old pulpit from St. Michael’s. It had been replaced in about 1808 and had originally been transferred to St. Andrew’s Mission at Deptford, before finding its way to Trimdon Street. On it were carved the date 1632 and the initials R.P., which possibly referred to Robert Pattison who was a considerable yeoman farmer at the time; he may have been a churchwarden, and as such would have been largely responsible for the installation of the new furnishings.

In spite of the pulpit’s sorry state it was found possible to restore the four carved hardwood panels, and these were incorporated into a new altar table which can now be seen in the church’s Bede Chapel. There are also still two high backed pews which very probably date from the same time.

These first furnishings would have been paid for out of the parish rates and also a special Church Rate levied specifically for the purpose, although many householders would have been too poor to pay. The new pews were allocated to those who had contributed and the payment of 4d. secured a seat for the rest of the occupant’s life, although he did not own it and when he died the right might either pass to another member of his family, or be sold. The churchwardens were responsible for the organisation and allocation of seating and plans were drawn up accordingly. There still exists a copy of the seating plan headed “A List of the Seats in Bishopwearmouth Church as they were at first and also in the year 1658”, which we might reasonably assume is the first plan drawn up for the newly installed pews, in or about 1632, including, as it implies, any changes which had occurred by 1658. The 233 seats were shared out between 121 parishioners and their families (of whom at least 21 could definitely be said to be from the neighbouring township of Sunderland), the highest ranking names having “Mr.” or “Esq.” affixed, while the poorer folk would have had to stand and kneel in the remaining floor-space. Many of the family names which appear are of particular interest and crop up frequently during the parish’s history~such as, for example, Middleton, Bowes, Goodchild, Shiperdson, Lilburne, Ayres and Storey.

The Rector at the time was Francis Burgoyne (1595 to 1633) and he seems to have been in favour of the new attitudes en-couraged by Archbishop Laud~unlike some of the clergy. One Peter Smart, Rector of Boldon and Prebend of Durham, was imprisoned and fined for his public condemnation of the evi-dent rejection of the Puritan ethic, and he wrote . . . “you, Francis Burgoyne, took out of your church at War-mouth, the Communion table, you lockt it up in your house and not only denyed, but violently detayned the sayd Table from the church-wardens calling for it; in steed where of you erected an Altar made of a gravestone, in the east end of your chan-cel, set upon a wall and not a frame, which being adorned with gilded hangings, you worship and bow down your body before it ,so profoundly that you dash sometyme your nose to the ground, til it make it bleede, making thereby known to the world, that you love your lord god the Altar with all your heart, with all your soule and with all your strength; on which you think no cost too much to bestow, even your blood and lyfe”.

Until the time of the Civil War the church probably remained basically unchanged, but then it apparently suffered some damage, although not as much as the Rectory. Even so, it seems that Burgoyne’s furnishings survived throughout the incumbency of three “intruders”, or Dissenters, during the Commonwealth period, through the Restoration and until the first major alterations at the beginning of the 19th Century. In 1661 the new climate of the Restoration brought Robert Grey to Bishopwearmouth as Rector, and vestry books from that time show that he was responsible for a number of repairs in the church; we find listed expenses for the purchase and carriage of timber and lead; for a new font cover and bell ropes; for mending the clock, mending windows, flagging part of the floor and erecting new guttering; also payments to a plumber, a wright, a joiner, a smith and a mason; and not forgetting the provision of bread and beer for consumption by the labourers involved. Grey also partly rebuilt the southern part of the Rectory and John Smith, his successor in 1704, continued the work on both, apparently spending a considerable amount of his own money. It was thought to be Smith who had the walls of the chancel faced with oak panelling, causing some of the stonework and mouldings to be cut away level with the wall to accommodate the woodwork and so covering over the piscina, the three trefoil-headed sedilia, the arched doorway in the south wall and the aumbrey on the north.

Later, in 1771, nine windows were removed and remade, as shown in Grimm’s drawing and in about 1792 the old north entrance was stopped up and two new doorways built on the south and west sides. In Hutchinson’s History there is a description of the interior as it was at this time:

“The altar rails form a square, thereby admitting many communicants to the service. The enclosure is six paces in length and three wide steps ascend to the rail; the whole is wainscotted and the east end ornamented with tabernacle work. The east window is under a pointed arch and formed of five lights; there are four south windows and one to the north having two lights each, under pointed arches. From the steps, the chancel on each side is double stalled with oak in the cathedral form, ornamented with a carved entablature in open work. The entrance from the nave is under a lofty pointed arch, rising from a cluster of small round pilasters; closed with stalls and a handsome wood screen, suitable to the rest of the chancel. The whole length of the chancel within the rails and without is about 19 paces. The nave hath two regular aisles, formed by two rows of three round columns, about 14 feet in height uniform, with rolls for capitals, supporting circular arches; there are four upper windows on each side. The nave and aisles together are about 15 paces in width and 16 in length, regularly stalled with oak and carved with fleur de lys. The pulpit is lofty and well ornamented. Near it in the end wall of the north aisle is a monument, having the effigy of a man in I armour to the waist, with elevated hands in high relief, belonging, as it is presumed, to one of the family of Middleton. The tower rises on short round pilasters supporting pointed arches in the sides and a lofty arch towards the nave. The west end of the nave is galleried.”

The year 1805 found the Reverend Robert Gray as Rector (later to be Bishop of Bristol) and his church by this time is reported as having been in a terrible state of disrepair. It was draughty and leaking, and one account claimed that during the winter snow drifted in at one end of the building and out at the other! It was also far too small for the growing population and Gray’s zeal and enthusiasm to adapt to contemporary needs was such that many critics later condemned the changes he made as little short of vandalism. On 5th November of that year there was a meeting of parishioners and the need for an enlargement scheme was unanimously agreed upon. The Rector, the 12 vestrymen and a committee of 26 were appointed to take the scheme in hand and a Durham architect, Mr. Christopher Ebdon, was subsequently contacted. A scheme to seat about 1,250 was accepted and subscriptions raised to a total of £1,300 and in 1806 the old church was virtually demolished, to be replaced by a rather severe looking Georgian building.

It had apparently been intended to save the old tower, but it was found to be unsafe; the walls and arches of the nave were to be removed for the reconstruction and being the tower’s only support this would have caused it to collapse. So in 1807 it was rebuilt, and the turrets added two years later.

In 1808 the chancel arch was carefully dismantled, every stone being numbered and the whole thing re-erected 24 feet to the east, reducing the chancel to the proportions we see today. The nave had been lit by clerestory windows, above the height of the aisles, but now, removing the Gothic arches, the north and south walls were built up to a height to accommodate galleries along each side and the new, plain sash windows reputedly left the interior rather gloomy. The south doorway was blocked up and replaced by a new west entrance under the tower. All was contrived to allow the maximum pew space throughout, as seating plans of the time show. The chancel was ready for use within the year, a new organ installed in the west gallery at a cost of £425 in 1809, a set of six bells hung in the belfry and the entire work completed by 1810.

It is known that the old pulpit was removed at about this time, as Gray replaced it with a grand three tiered fixture, but that it has been restored to the church as previously described. However, the fate of some of the other furnishings dating from Burgoyne’s time is less certain. Among the various tales which abounded about the eccentric character “Dicky” Chilton, who lived on the far side of the Green, there was a rumour that various pieces of carved woodwork from the church had found their way to his house and ultimately been used as firewood, which seems a sorry end for Jacobean craftsmanship, to say the least!

By 1848, as the commercial life of the area flourished and the population increased, it was found once again that the demand for pews was greater than the provision, and with the custom of renting pews to the wealthier members of the community, there was very little free seating at all for the ordinary townspeople. The new Rector in 1849 was Dr. John Eden, and he and his vestrymen proposed the idea of building transepts. The Newcastle architect John Dobson submitted a design which provided another 550 seatings and this was put into operation and finished in 1850 at a cost of £500, the roof undergoing repairs in the process. Costs must have been offset to some extent by the pew rents, for it is recorded that the new pews in the transept galleries cost £40 each for the four front rows and then £36, £32 and £28 respectively, behind these.

Also in 1850 James Hartley, the local glass manufacturer, do-nated a stained-glass west window which unfortunately was later destroyed in a gale. At about this time there were also two beautiful stained-glass windows in the south side of the chancel, which were a memorial to the Lotherington family; they portrayed the figures of John the Baptist and John the Evangelist and were set in stonework in the Gothic style. An-other was later erected by parishioners, on the north side, in memory of Canon Cockin’s wife.
By 1872, during Canon Cockin’s time, another problem had arisen. Although burials in vaults beneath the church had been forbidden since 1854, there were about 53 such vaults beneath St. Michael’s and their insanitary condition was caus-ing considerable unpleasantness in the church. To rectify this, a six inch thick layer of concrete was added to the floor. At the same time the heavy oak pews in the nave were replaced by open pitch pine pews and the height of the pews in the galleries was reduced. A new pulpit and prayer desk were installed in place of Gray’s three tier pulpit and the building was painted throughout. Also the two approaches to the church were widened and flagged and the churchyard was enclosed.

Canon Cockin is particularly remembered for his part in the formation of the “Bishopwearmouth Fund”, into which were transferred funds from the substantial income of the old parish, to be used for the newly created daughter-parishes and district chapels.

A few years later the chancel was restored, with the Eccle-siastical Commissioners footing the bill of about £1,000 and the wood panelling of 1704 was removed, disclosing the damaged stonework. Originally there had been a flat leaded roof over the chancel and this had had a high-pitched slate roof built over it, presumably in the 1806 to 1810 altera-tions. These were now both removed and replaced by a new pitched one, finished with Westmorland slate. Later again, in about 1887, the new organ loft on the north side of the chancel and a larger vestry were built, and two large safes installed for the safe keeping of such things as registers and the church plate.

Following the 1914-18 war, a folding oak door was installed at the west end of the nave as a memorial to the 72 men of the parish who gave their lives in the conflict. The door was unveiled by the Bishop of Durham in January, 1922.

The beautifully carved lectern which stands in the nave was given to the church as a memorial to Major Robert Hudson in 1925. He had been in the belfry muffling the bells for a funeral peal when one of them swung down from its vertical position and struck him a fatal blow. Both Major Hudson and his father had served the church as leading bellringers for well over 60 years.
Early this century the church underwent its final large-scale renovation, which amounted to a virtual re-building and im-proved it almost beyond recognition. It had become increas-ingly apparent that colliery subsidence was seriously affect-ing the fabric of the building and by the time Prebendary Wynne Willson was appointed Rector in 1923 alarming cracks had appeared in numerous places, to such an extent that in 1927 a survey was carried out by the firm of Cackett and Burns Dick, of Newcastle. It seems that in view of their report it was not considered necessary to take immediate action to save the church at that point, but after three more years of continued deterioration the matter became all too obviously urgent; if it was to be saved, the nave and aisles would have to be rebuilt. Considering the rather gloomy and dated appearance of the building it may have been regarded as a welcome opportunity, but the cost of a rebuilding scheme seemed prohibitive. However, sufficient funds were eventually gathered, with a gift of £30,000 from Sir John Priestman, £5,000 compensation from the relevant colliery owners and some £10,000 in local subscriptions, as well as a grant from the Ecclesiastical Commissioners. The architects Caroe and Pasmore of Westminster were consult-ed and finally, in 1932, the new scheme was started. Alban Caroe was generally considered to be the greatest Gothicist of his time and his transformation of St. Michael’s must readily bear out that reputation. The architect Pevsner has written admiringly of his restoration of the church’s Gothic character and praises his sensitive use of contemporary ma-terials, especially as the work is on a scale rarely found in 20th Century churches.

The Early English east end was retained but renovated and the tower was refaced, but the nave and aisles were demolished. Now the nave was lit once again through windows above the level of the aisles, and the lost gallery space compensated by the additional side-aisles which gave the body of the church unusually square, almost cathedral-like proportions, while the transepts with their small galleries were retained. The style and construction of the stonework and general decoration, and the blend of the old and new, give the interior its individual atmosphere, and of particular note was an elegant and intricately carved oak screen, with which the architect extended the chancel, restoring it to its ancient proportions without actually altering the structure. The nave and chancel are in fact not in strict alignment, as the chancel slants slightly to the south; this is sometimes known as a “Weeping Chancel”, as it is said to represent the drooping head of Christ on the Cross. The east window at this time was of five lights of fine stained-glass, which had previously been installed in memory of Dr. Eden, but unfortunately this was to be subsequently shattered by the explosion of a war-time bomb which landed only yards from the south-east corner of the church. It was replaced in 1950 by the existing window, the symbolism of which is explained elsewhere.

At this time the Middleton tomb and effigy, described by Hutchinson in the 18th Century, was re-discovered. It seems that at some point it had been moved (possibly because it was occupying valuable pew space) and had lain for a while in the church porch, broken in two pieces, before apparently disappearing. It was now found, buried beneath the gallery stairs at the west end. It has been re-assembled, although most of the detail is missing, and can only be imagined as it once was, from earlier descriptions. It now stands in the south transept, far from the family vault.

The organ was rebuilt and the old organ cases redesigned to fit their new position. The small Bede Chapel was added to the south of the chancel and the new altar with its Jacobean carved panels installed as already mentioned. Also dating from this time are the four stone figures of the Saints Michael, George, Aidan and Cuthbert, set into the walls at various points, which were modelled by a Mr. Cameron of London. The new building was finally consecrated by the Bishop of Durham in June, 1935.

It is evident from certain letters and drawings that another architect, a Mr. Hodgson-Fowler of Durham (who had also designed Christ Church in 1864) submitted plans for another, less ambitious, renovation scheme as early as 1908 and that Caroe and Pasmore were also consulted at about this time. It seems that there was some difference of opinion about the merits of Mr. Hodgson-Fowler’s proposals and apparently they were subsequently shelved, although there is no clear indication of the reason. Whatever the story behind them, it is interesting to see the drawings of the church as it might have been today, if Caroe had not later been commissioned instead. Also we can see from drawings still in the church’s possession that a slightly different scheme, with a larger capacity, was also proposed by Caroe and Pasmore before the one ultimately adopted.

Today we find circumstances have taken another turnabout and the new church, designed to house 1,200, with its parish only a fraction of its original size and the main residential areas now away from the town centre, is too big for to-day’s need. So once again changes have been made to adapt to society’s demands, by adjusting this time not the buildings capacity but its function.

During 1981 further alterations were made to provide facilities for the Action in Retirement project and the major change was the introduction of the oak partitions which now enclose the outer aisles on each side. On the south side are now the restaurant and kitchen, and on the north the lounge and meeting rooms with storage space beneath, and it is interesting to see that the reduced worship area is restored to the cruciform shape that existed between 1850 and 1932. Another change has been implemented by the removal of the oak screen which extended and enclosed the western end of the chancel, although the impression of additional length has been retained by the use of the raised platform on which the nave altar stands.

Sections of the carved woodwork from the screen have been incorporated into the new doorways at the west end of the aisles and also against the back wall of the small gallery beneath the tower. Great care has been taken to create a harmony between the old and the new, and the new oak partitions blend comfortably with the generally Gothic air of the interior. The worship area is now of a size more in keeping with the size and nature of the pre-sent day parish, and the new facilities mean that Bish-opwearmouth Church has once again become more involved in the life of the community which it serves.

Since the war the face of the parish has changed significantly. The local Council began to redevelop the western side of the town centre; large areas of terraced houses were cleared and the population re-housed on the growing estates on the perimeter of the town centre. They were replaced with a modern shopping area, the leisure centre, the Polytechnic and most recently with landscaped park areas.

This change in the character of the parish has been reflected in the life of the church. Over the last 30 years, the church has seen its own domestic life change; from being the centre of a thriving domestic community, it found itself left behind by the tide of redevelopment. A new style of mission and ministry was required.

Winds of change were, however, blowing in other areas of the church in the Anglican Deanery of Wearmouth.
In 1970 Bishop Ian Ramsay initiated a commission to examine the work of the Deanery. One of the recommendations was the appointment of a Bishop to act as leader of a team ministry which would include all Anglican clergy. To facilitate this, benefices were suspended as they became vacant. Bishop Skelton, formerly Bishop of Matabeleland in Rhodesia, Rector of Bishopwearmouth and Rural Dean from 1970, was responsible for implementing the Commission’s proposals.

In 1975 Timothy Tyndall was appointed as Rural Dean to succeed Bishop Skelton, to spend the major part of his time as Rural Dean and simultaneously to be Priest in Charge of Bishopwearmouth. By this time, the growing importance of the deanery as a unit was very ap-parent and it took more and more of the Rural Dean’s time and energy. This meant that the mission and ministry of the ancient parish church became increasingly the responsibility of assistant clergy.

With the arrival of Timothy Tyndall as Rural Dean it was decided to appoint a second priest as a town centre chaplain to develop the ministry of the parish church in relation to the town centre. Eric Shegog was appointed in January, 1976. His work grew in two ways: first by developing a ministry to different sections of the town centre life, in retailing, the Theatre, the Polytechnic and the Art Centre; secondly’ by extending the use of the church to include mid-week activities, lunch time forum, concerts, special services, drama and exhibitions. In this context, the Church Council responded to a request from Age Concern, Sunderland, to use part of the building for work with retired people. A major re-ordering of the building commenced in May, 1981 and was concluded in December, 1981, at a cost of £150,000. The architect, Mr. Ian Curry, of Charlewood, Curry and Atkinson, has achieved a harmonious blend of new and old in a very imaginative way. The removal of the chancel screen has preserved the sense of spaciousness and the high quality of materials and workmanship has enhanced the first class work done by Caroe in the 1933-1935 alterations.

Once again, the parish church has adapted and responded to the needs of a changing world. The congregation now has a building suited to meet the demands of the next decade.