A few weeks ago I was looking through some letters from my great-great-grandfather, Francis Pears (1840-1904), to his daughter, Annie (1864-1943), who was in service at Edmundbyers, and I came across this in a letter dated July 2nd 1888:
“… thair was a trip to Sunderland this Last Satturday and me and mother was thare we Spent a good day we were through the musuim and through the Splendid park …”
I felt guilty. Why? Because I’d never set foot in Sunderland Museum or Mowbray Park, despite having worked in Sunderland for six years, during which time I’d passed twice daily through a railway station which is only a three-minute walk from the museum. Yet 125 years ago my ancestor, a quarry labourer who was nearly crippled with arthritis, and struggled to make ends meet financially, travelled the 30 miles from Blackhill near Consett to Sunderland on the transport systems of the day, to visit the museum and park.
So on Tuesday last my wife and I paid a visit to Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens, and to the adjoining Mowbray Park – and what a revelation. A fantastic museum covering a vast array of topics and periods – fossils and minerals to glass, textile, pottery, ship-building and coal mining; a marvellous art gallery with some lovely works including several paintings by L.S. Lowry and six huge tapestries by the inimitable Grayson Perry; the Winter Gardens – a very large indoor space with exotic plants and a tree-top-height walkway to give a birds-eye view – plus a souvenir shop and an excellent cafe. It would take several visits to do justice to the wealth of fascinating displays, plants, works of art and artefacts within the walls of that great building.
The park is magnificent – beautifully landscaped with a large lake next to the museum. There’s something for everyone within the park’s 18 acres, and it’s very well used by all age groups. An elderly Sikh couple with a grandchild in tow happily feeding the birds next to the lake, a group of teens playing football, a girl, twentyish, roller blading around a little self-made obstacle course, a couple of photographers capturing the natural beauty of a gorgeous orange and yellow bloom, a group of workmen in overalls eating sandwiches, the distant sound of excited young children presumably playing in some concealed playground. Clearly it’s a valuable and valued asset to the city – a “Splendid park” indeed.
There’s one item in the park which I had seen previously – a monument commemorating one of the country’s worst tragedies, worse even than the dreadful Aberfan Disaster of 1966. This was the Victoria Hall Disaster of Saturday, June 16th 1883. The Victoria Hall was adjacent to Mowbray Park and during a children’s show on the above date, gifts were being distributed from the stage. The 1100 or so children in the gallery, determined not to miss the treats, dashed down the spiral staircase to the stalls, but at the foot of the staircase their way was barred by a door which could only open towards them. Tragically the rush of children was such that, before the door could be opened, the leading youngsters were already being pressed against the door by those behind them. The yells of delight soon turned to screams of terror as more and more children found themselves trapped. In the ensuing confusion no less than 183 children were crushed to death. Including, incidentally, a blood relative of mine, 11 year-old Emmerson Phillipson of Dame Dorothy Street. A large white marble statue of a grief-stricken woman holding a dead child was erected in the park near to the theatre in memory of the dead children. Doubtless Francis Pears would have seen it there when he visited the park five years later.
At around 3.00 am on the morning of April 16th 1941, a German parachute mine scored a direct hit on the Victoria Hall, reducing much of it to rubble. Few would have missed that awful reminder of a tragedy without equal – but sadly the same mine also severely damaged the old Winter Gardens and a large area of the town. At the end of the war, the monument to the dead children was moved to Bishopwearmouth Cemetery, which is where I saw it in 1970. Now, thanks to a lottery grant, a new Winter Gardens has been built and, at the same time, the monument was refurbished and moved back to a location in the park near to where it had originally stood. Her Majesty the Queen opened the new facilities on May 7th 2002.
So at last I’ve followed in the footsteps of my great-great grandfather and visited Mowbray Park and the Museum and Winter Gardens – it may have taken me 68 years to get there, but now I’ve been, I can’t wait to visit the place again.