A Victorian Orphan Asylum

As a thriving seaport, the town of Sunderland had to provide for the welfare of its many seafarers. Sunderland's Orphan Asylum was established in the East End by the Freeman and Stallingers who owned the Town Moor.

As a thriving seaport, the town of Sunderland had to provide for the welfare of its many seafarers. In this era, the poor were the responsibility of the parish. The Poor Law Act of 1834 linked parish authorities together into Boards of Guardians and one of the means by which these bodies strove to alleviate the effects of poverty was by building almshouses. Maritime almshouses were built at Trafalgar Square and Crowtree Road (the latter has since been demolished). As well as aiding mariners, Sunderland had to provide for their orphans and illegitimate children.

Sunderland's Orphan Asylum was established in the East End by the Freeman and Stallingers who owned the Town Moor. The building was funded from the proceeds of selling access rights on the Town Moor to railway companies. The design was the result of an architectural competition. The firm of Childs and Lucas came second in the competition, but their designs were eventually selected. As a London-based practice, however, their role in the construction process was minimal. Instead, construction was supervised by the local architect Thomas Moore. Moore was in fact Sunderland’s most prominent architect of the period, responsible for the highly-sophisticated Greek Revival design of Monkwearmouth Station.

The orphanage was designed in the Italian Renaissance style fashionable in the 1860s. The most prominent feature is the Italianate belvedere tower, which was based on the towers at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight (1845-51). Osborne House had been designed by Prince Albert himself (something of an architectural aficionado) in conjunction with Thomas Cubitt. The building spawned a number of provincial imitations, particularly its distinctive tower. Another local example of its influence is Bede Tower by John and Benjamin Green. In a further connection with the monarchy, Victoria herself donated £100 towards construction of the orphanage and asked to see the architectural plans.

Osborne House.

The orphanage is a two-storey brick building with a central tower built over the entrance. Symmetry is disrupted by a right-hand bay wider than the others. Paired Renaissance arches lead to a porch in the base of the tower and a roundel window occurs in the soffit between them. The upper section of the tower has three round-headed arches, affording a fair view or ‘belvedere’ of the port and the sea. The tower ends with a low pyramidal roof. As was typical of Renaissance-style buildings, the storeys increase in grandeur as they ascend. The windows in the ground floor are set within plain round-headed arches, but the first floor has more elaborate windows with segmental architraves and keystones. A cornice supported on brackets runs around the whole building. The chimneys are elaborate, with cornices executed in ashlar. Although the orphanage was designed in a fashionable Italianate style, the overall effect is severe and institutional. The gates and railings around the building feature maritime imagery - waves, harpoons and anchors. Opening on 17th October 1861, the orphanage was able to accommodate 40 boys at a time. It trained boys for careers at sea and for this reason the uniform was a sailor suit.

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