Time capsule find is 200-year-old window on Sunderland

A plaque marking the 200th anniversary of Sunderland's Exchange Buildings was unveiled yesterday

The Exchange Buildings in Sunderland which are celebrating their Bicentenary, the Mayor of Sunderland Coun. Bob Heron, unveils the plaque
The Exchange Buildings in Sunderland which are celebrating there Bicentenary, the Mayor of Sunderland Coun. Bob Heron, unveils the plaque

A time capsule find has provided a picture of life two centuries ago in an expanding North East port.

A plaque was unveiled yesterday to mark the 200th anniversary of the opening of the Exchange Buildings in High Street East in Sunderland.

It was built in 1814 as a commercial, administrative and cultural focal point to reflect Sunderland’s growing status and prosperity, with money being raised by public subscription.

People were invited to buy shares for, in today’s prices, around £3,000.

The building became Sunderland’s first town hall in 1836 but fell into dereliction in the 1960s and was threatened with demolition.

The building was finally restored by the North of England Civic Trust and, during the work, contractors uncovered a stone in a basement wall which housed a lead box.

Inside the box was a glass vessel containing a rolled-up vellum scroll of the names of the individuals who had bought shares.

Research into the 42 names has now shed light on life in Sunderland in 1814.

The Exchange Buildings in Sunderland
The Exchange Buildings in Sunderland

Listed are 12 ship owners and ship builders, underlining the importance of shipping to the port and riverside area of the town.

They include John Laing, who launched his first ship in 1794, and John Scott, who married Ann Horn, the sister of his business partner Thomas.

Thomas and his brothers, Nathan and Robert, owned a shipyard, a brewery, rope works and a bottle works.

There are allied traders to shipping, such as rope makers Thomas and William Cockerill.

Businesses based in the High Street are well represented on the list, including drapers James Burnett; William Kirk and Richard Markham, who was Lieut Col of the Sunderland Artillery Volunteers.

Other High Street occupiers who subscribed were solicitor Thomas Jones jnr, whose portrait painter father Thomas snr also paid up, and printer and bookseller Thomas Reed.

Attorneys who subscribed were Thomas Collin; Michael Laws and Robert Shafto, as did the Rev Dr Gray, rector of Bishopwearmouth and Hilkiah Hall, who owned a glass works.

Others who came up with the money were ironmonger James Myers; farmer Thomas Powell and his inn keeper son John; fitter Robert Reay; ship’s captain John Lotherington and collector of Customs George Robinson.

Research has provided glimpses into the backgrounds of some of the individuals, such as brewer George Featherstonehaugh.

He was a servant to the wealthy Lambton family, who gave him a monet-ary reward for good and faithful ser-vice.

He used it to start up his own brewery.

“As the town was expanding and becoming more important, these people wanted somewhere to represent their interests and where they could conduct their business,” said a trust spokeswoman.

“They probably looked upon it as a kind of business club, which provided a large reading room with newspapers, market and coffee house.

“In today’s terms, it was something like a development company, with all the key industries also represented.

“The scroll would have been their idea of a time capsule and was probably part of the foundation stone laying ceremony.”


David Whetstone
Culture Editor
Graeme Whitfield
Business Editor
Mark Douglas
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Stuart Rayner
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