Housing Aged Sailors and Orphans in the Nineteenth Century

During the 19th century, Sunderland was a thriving seaport. This brought pride and prosperity to the town, but it also meant that Sunderland had many aged or sick mariners to care for, as well as their wives, widows and children. To meet these needs, tw

During the 19th century, Sunderland in North East England was a thriving seaport.  This brought pride and prosperity to the town, but it also meant that Sunderland had many aged or sick mariners to care for, as well as their wives, widows and children.  To meet these needs, two charitable institutions were built in the historic East End of town: the Trafalgar Square almshouses and the Sunderland Boys’ Orphanage.

Sailors had compulsory deductions taken from their pay and these were paid into a fund known as the Muster Roll to provide pensions for aged sailors.  In 1840, this fund was used to build Trafalgar Square in Church Walk, a block of 14 almshouses for 104 elderly sailors and their widows. Built on the site of the former workhouse garden, Trafalgar Square was named after Admiral Nelson’s legendary naval victory of 1805, at which 76 sailors from Sunderland were present.  Surprisingly, it was opened five years before the famous Trafalgar Square in London was completed. The almshouses were designed by William Drysdale (1793-1856), a builder and surveyor who occasionally worked for Sunderland Corporation.  Built around three sides of a quadrangle, the houses frame an attractive garden.  Each is built of plain brick laid in English garden wall bond, with stone dressings over the white-painted sash windows. 

The central block features a commemorative plaque replete with maritime symbolism and heraldic emblems.  Brightly-painted figures of a sailor and a lion appear alongside escutcheons and Coats of Arms.  Around one of the escutcheons is written ‘Tria Juncto in Uno’ (Three Joined in One).  This is the motto of the Order of the Bath, of which Admiral Nelson was a member. A large plaque records the building of the almshouses and bears the inscription: ‘Trafalgar Square, erected by the Trustees of the Muster Roll Anno Domini 1840, under the 4th and 5th of William IV.’  Surmounting the whole composition is the famous signal sent by Nelson at the Battle of Trafalgar, ‘England expects every man to do his duty.’  One of Sunderland’s most remarkable residential developments, Trafalgar Square has survived and is still in use. 

 As well as aiding sailors, Sunderland had to provide for their orphans and illegitimate children.  Sunderland Boys’ Orphanage was built further south on the Town Moor in 1856-60.  In this case, funds were raised by selling access rights to the Town Moor to railway companies. An architectural competition was held in order to obtain designs for the building, but the winning design was not built.  Instead, designs by the firm of Childs and Lucas were selected even though they came second in the competition (this was typical of architectural competitions in the Victorian period).  As a London-based practice, Childs and Lucas were unable to supervise the construction and this task instead fell to the local architect Thomas Moore, who is best known for his supremely elegant design for Monkwearmouth Railway Station (1848).

The orphanage is a two-storey brick building with a central tower built over the entrance.  The upper section of the tower has three arches affording a fair view or ‘belvedere’ of the port and the sea.  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. The orphanage was designed in the Italian Renaissance style that was fashionable in the 1860s.  The belvedere tower was based on the towers at Osborne House, Queen Victoria’s summer residence on the Isle of Wight (1845-51).  In a further royal connection, Victoria herself donated £100 towards the construction of the orphanage and asked to see the architectural plans. 

Opening on 17th October 1861, the orphanage was able to accommodate 40 boys at a time.  It was intended to train them for a career at sea and for this reason the inmates’ uniform was a sailor suit. Sunderland Boys’ Orphanage has fallen into disuse and the interior is now largely derelict, but some of the ornate fireplaces and decorative tiles still survive.  Sunderland Heritage Quarter is currently working with a number of groups to find an alternative use for this historic building.  At present, the hope is to turn the orphanage into a home for people with dementia.

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