Queen Street Masonic Heritage Centre
Sunderland Incorporating the
Phoenix Hall of 1785
Historic England building investigation and assessment of significance. Report number: 54/2018
Here we are in the Heart of the East End of Sunderland in a unique Masonic Hall dating back to 1785.
It is one of the oldest surviving yet still used buildings in the City.
It is surpassed in age only by Sunderland Parish Church of the Holy Trinity which lies some 200 yards to the South East and was opened in 1719. The hall and the church are the only Grade 1 listed buildings in Sunderland. This listing puts these buildings within the top 4% of all historic properties in England and Wales in terms of importance to the heritage of the nation; A unique privilege that puts them on par with the great stately homes and cathedrals of the land.
It was on the 5th April 1785 that the Phoenix Lodge of Freemasons opened the hall in Queen Street in the East End of Sunderland. Little did they know that over 200 years later, their Lodge would still be meeting there and that their hall would have the distinction of being the oldest purpose built Masonic meeting place in the world.
One of the remarkable things about the hall is that the many deeds and documents associated with it still survive as do the records of Phoenix Lodge from its consecration in1755. Whilst the Lodge records (minute books, cash books, membership registers etc) provide the bones of a chronological history of the hall, it is the Title Deeds that provide the meat.
This then is a short story of the hall; from its humble beginnings, its glorious past and continuing through the present to, hopefully, a 3 dignified future that is befitting such an important building. It is a story, therefore, with a beginning, a middle, but as yet, no ending for what the future holds for this very important building can only be a matter of contemplation at the present time. Let us first of all take a brief look at the history and geography of the area surrounding the Queen Street Hall.
To the population outside of this area, it has been referred to as “The Docks” after the South Docks of 1847 that dominates its boundary with the sea. These docks were a source of great employment in the heyday of shipbuilding and coal exporting and are currently being developed.
However, to the people who live and have lived in the area it was always known as “the East End” and this name is now being used for the many initiatives for the regeneration of the area.
The East End, with its prominent river frontage and natural quayside, is where the original township of Sunderland first evolved. This natural low lying land was certainly inhabited during mediaeval times and possibly during the Bronze Age. The regeneration of this historically important location started a few years ago with the pedestrianisation of the river frontage and the restoration of the Bonded Warehouse, the Exchange Building and the Eagle Tavern (Fairgreaves Bakelite works).
Whilst this work was underway, the City Council announced a major long term regeneration plan of the area. The hall is, without doubt, of historical importance to the East End and Sunderland. It was felt, therefore, that the hall should make, in its own small way, its contribution to this work and become once again part of the community.
The road layout of the East End has changed little since 1785.
Running parallel with the river, Low Street and High Street always formed the commercial part of the Town. Here were the hotels, chandlers, rope and sail makers, indeed all the facilities required by ships and shipping.
Extending South off High Street ran rows of narrow cobbled streets with open drains down the centre. Two or three storey timber framed houses on either side and with the upper storeys overhanging the ground floor, the streets were reminiscent of the works of Hogarth.
On the corner of High Street and Queen Street was the Golden Lion Hotel. This was the major Coaching Inn for Sunderland for many years and a celebrated place for banquets, meetings and festivities being patronised by the local gentry such as the Tempests and the Londonderry’s.
Stretching up Queen Street were the extensive stables required by the hotel. At the South End of these was the hotels bowling green, a small oasis of green in the centre of the cobbled streets. The Golden Lion also had a malt kiln and a windmill.
The circumstances surrounding the building of the hall are, of course, essentially linked with the history of the Phoenix Lodge which was constituted on the 25th November 1755 and has the proud distinction of now being the 54th oldest Lodge out of approximately 10,000 that are currently within the United Grand Lodge of England.
The formation of Phoenix Lodge marked the start of regular freemasonry in Sunderland. From brief snippets in the Newcastle Press and occasional references in the minute books of the Marquis of Granby Lodge in Durham, there would appear to have been a lodge or lodges operating in Sunderland at various intervals between 1735 and 1751. 5 What this lodge or lodges were, however, is nor known, as no evidence has, to date, been discovered.
At first Phoenix Lodge, in common with other lodges of the period, used to meet in hotels and taverns where a room could be rented for meetings and food and refreshments provided. Indeed, the Golden Lion Inn which I previously mentioned served as a meeting place at various times totalling 9 years between 1755 and 1778 and was at that time known as “The Lodge at the Golden Lion”. However, in the period shortly before the building of the hall in 1785, Phoenix Lodge used to meet in another purpose-built hall in Vine Street, a hundred yards or so to the east of the Golden Lion Hotel.
The first plot of land for this hall was purchased in 1764 by Captain George Thompson who was His Majesty’s Surveyor of Customs for Sunderland and served as the Master of Phoenix Lodge for several years. This plot was too small to accommodate a hall and it was not until 1775 that Captain Thompson could purchase the adjoining land and thus build his hall which was opened on 16th July 1778. As Captain Thompson purchased the land and paid for the building of the hall out of his own pocket, he retained ownership of it and rented it out to his Lodge for a small fee.
In this context, it is interesting to note that the site of the Freemasons’ Hall in Great Queen Street, London, was not purchased until November 1774, several years after George Thompson had first conceived his idea.
Indeed, had Thompson been able to proceed with his plans in 1764 when he purchased the first parcel of land, the Masons Hall in Vine Street, would probably have been the first building in England to have been erected solely for Masonic purposes.
The history of the Hall is recorded in a manuscript volume in the library of Provincial Grand Lodge.
With the opening of this Hall in Vine Street in June 1778 a new era appears to have begun and the membership considerably increased. It also marked an apparent change of attitude by members of the craft who wished to divorce freemasonry from the common inns and taverns of the period and to move from such public places to the more private and appropriate environment of their own room.
In 1782 Captain George Thompson died and in the November of 1783, the Hall was severely damaged by a disastrous fire when all of the furnishings include valuable paintings and books were destroyed.
Fortunately, the Lodge records were kept at the house of the secretary and were, therefore, saved.
The Hall remained derelict until1793 and was partly rebuilt and let for a variety of purposes before finally being demolished in January 1937.
Sometime prior to this (in June 1936), 128 brethren from the Phoenix Palatine and St. John’s Lodges of Instruction met in the ruins of the old Hall to hear a description of its history by W. Bro. Waples.
Until that time, most brethren had accepted, without question, the belief that the present Queen Street East Hall, stood on the site of the former building. Indeed, the late W. Bro. T.O.Todd in his “history of Phoenix Lodge” 1906, mentions it as a matter beyond dispute.
In fact, the present Hall stands approximately a quarter of a mile West of the Vine Street site.7 It was, therefore, obvious that the brethren of Phoenix Lodge would take some convincing before abandoning the cherished tradition recorded in Todd’s book and it was not until after a very close examination of the evidence, that it was accepted that the first permanent home of the Lodge had been in Vine Street.
That evidence was the result of many years of research by the late W. Bro. William Waples.
Following the fire, Phoenix Lodge immediately decided to build their own hall (the Vine Street hall, of course, being owned by Captain Thompson) and appointed a group of members to consider this. This group was known as the “Gentlemen of the Committee” under the Chairmanship of Dr William Tipping Brown, a prominent surgeon and Worshipful Mater of the Lodge.
Dr Tipping Brown was the son of Dr Isaac Brown, one of the earliest members of the Lodge.
Tipping Brown was educated in Newcastle and initiated into Freemasonry in May 1776. Shortly after his initiation, he left Sunderland to study medicine in Edinburgh and in 1778 he was elected as a member of the Royal Medical Society.
After gaining his degree, he returned to Sunderland where he lived with his mother on Bishopwearmouth Walk. This was, as the name suggests, in Bishopwearmouth which at the time was a separate town to Sunderland as was Monkwearmouth and Southwick.
As well as his medical qualifications, he was also an excellent musician and wrote an ode for the dedication ceremony of the new Hall in Queen Street.
Dr Brown was also a great benefactor to the poor of Sunderland. Whilst having a thriving practice, he also gave free medical assistance to those who could not afford to pay.
This was, of course over 170 years before the start of the National Health Service when medical treatment was the privilege of the rich. As a vast majority of the population of Sunderland were poor at that time, Dr Brown’s free treatment was a magnificent humanitarian gesture.
He also assisted in the establishment of a dispensary in Sunderland which expanded to become the Sunderland (later the Royal) Infirmary. As an aside, it is worthy of note that in 1889, the Freemason’s of Sunderland furnished one of the wards at the Infirmary from collections made after Lodge meetings on behalf of the institution. He passed away in 1811.
From among the Gentlemen of the Committee were appointed five Trustees whose names appear on the original deed of 4th January 1785.
John Maling, raff merchant of Bishopwearmouth;
William Charlton, Gentleman;
John Davison, coal fitter;
William Orton, mercer, and,
Anthony Taylor, coal fitter.
The Golden Lion Hotel has already been mentioned and it was that land used for the bowling green of the hotel that the gentlemen of the Committee decided to purchase to build their new hall. The Innkeeper at the time was William Irvine who was known locally as “Willie the King”. He was also a prominent member of Phoenix Lodge 9 and it was therefore from him that the Lodge purchased the bowling green.
The land is described in the original Deeds of 4th January 1785 as measuring:-
East to West - 22yds, 2ft and 3ins or thereabouts; and
North to South - 11yds, 1ft and 6ins or thereabouts
and bounded by:-
Queen Street on the East; Pewterer’s Lane on the West;
The Golden Lion Stables to the North; and,
The remainder of the bowling green measuring 7yds, 2ft and 6ins to the South.
The Deeds show that the remainder of the bowling green to the South was intended to be called Middle Street.
The Deeds also show that the total cost of the building was £600 of which £360 was raised in £20 shares by the members of the Lodge with remainder being by donations.
Having purchased the land, the Gentlemen of the Committee invited John Bonner, a builder and member of the Lodge, to build the new Hall. It is a testament to Bonner’s skills as a builder that a structural survey carried out in 1996 concluded that the only problems with the building after 211 years was that the end of one of the floor joists was rotting.
The Hall was opened on 5th April 1785, only 17 months after the fire. The opening was attended by 176 Freemasons whose names are recorded in the Minute Book which still survives. Many travelled from 10 outside the town. There were, for example, 34 from Newcastle, 15 from Gateshead and 10 from Stockton.
At the time that the Hall was built, Sunderland was a bustling seatrading port. In its inns and taverns could be heard many different tongues, not only from Europe but also from further afield, their speakers having endured the hardships of life on a sailing vessel to reach the safety of the harbour.
George III was midway through his reign as monarch and William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister. On the global scene, Captain Cook had discovered Australia only 15 years previous and the American War of Independence had been ended for just 2 years. It was still 4 years before the fall of the Bastille and the start of the French Revolution.
It was against this backcloth that the members of Phoenix Lodge built their Hall.
It is evident that the “Gentlemen of the Committee” appointed in December1783 to consider building the new hall intended hat it should be a replica of Vine Street.
The Vine Street Hall had been built and financed by Thompson, with considerable thought to the design and little regard to expense.
The “Gentlemen of the Committee” proceeded with the new building with considerable speed and efficiency. The foundation stone was laid as early as 1784 with the dedication ceremony taking place one year later, on 5th April 1785.
In 1785, the building consisted of the Lodge Room or Temple with a pent reminiscent of a lean-to extension at the East and West ends. The East pent still stands and is currently used as a bar area. It was originally the main entrance to the building which was through a portico doorway on the South elevation. This doorway can still be seen even though the portico has been removed and the door replaced by an infill brick panel. The West pent was possibly used for storage and, in 1812, it is known that it comprised of two rooms, for the records show that they were let to the care-taker rent free. The pent was removed in 1923.
Both pents had direct access into the Lodge Room and the original doors are still in place at the East and West ends of the Lodge Room. The interior of the Lodge Room remains as it was when built. In the centre of the ceiling is a large circular motif comprising of a blazing star and a triangle with the letter “G” and seven stars. The motif is made entirely of plaster set on timber boards and is partially painted and partially gold leafed. The gold leaf is original. It is an exact copy of that in the Vine Street Hall. The seating arrangements for the brethren comprised of long upholstered benches also follow the Vine Street Pattern.
The two fireplaces on the North wall are typical of the style of Robert Adam. It is not known however, whether they are actually the work of Adam himself, or the work of one of his apprentices or local copies. Both were used as coal fires until 1926.
On the same wall between and above the two mantelpieces, hung the banner of Phoenix Lodge, the Phoenix painted in colour on navy blue silk. Early in the second world war the remnants of the Banner were taken down and placed in the cellar below the Lodge Room where they rapidly deteriorated. It was rediscovered under the bench seat in the 12 north west by W. Bro. John James in 1986 and is now in the Provincial Museum.
The unusual Tracing Cloths of the Phoenix Lodge which date from 1815, or possibly 1811, are of interesting design and now occupy the North wall. These were restored to mark the bi-centenary of the Lodge in 1955 and again in 1985 and have been the subject of much investigation and speculation.
On the mantelpiece at the North East end used to be an ancient brass Alms dish which, it is believed, was saved from the Vine Street fire in1783 unfortunately it’s whereabouts is unknown.
The Dias at the East End is an exact replica of that in the Vine Street Hall. The Pedestal and Altar both date from 1785.
Until 1947, there were two Spheres, celestial and terrestrial, situated on the Dias but unfortunately by neglect, both were broken beyond repair, in the minutes it is stated that one was damaged during a Mark meeting. A part of one was in the cellar but someone tidying the cellar threw it out. (if brethren would only seek advice before disposing of items)
On the West Wall, above the Senior Warden’s chair, is the Crescent Moon and on the South wall, above the Junior Warden’s chair, is the Meridian Sun, both of which are gilded and exact replicas of those in Vine Street. The respective symbols are also on the Warden’s chairs themselves. At the East end, above the Master’s chair, is the Rising Sun.
These symbols were carved and gilded by Bro. Pears of Newcastle, who had also been responsible for the originals in the Vine Street Hall.13 The carving and gilding work was completed by Bro. Pears in 1785 at a cost of £30.00 and no restoration work has been carried out since then.
With the original furniture being lost in the fire, new furniture was obviously required. Fortunately at that time St. John’s Lodge at Newcastle had recently ceased working and was selling its assets to pay off its debts. Phoenix Lodge therefore purchased the furniture from St. John’s which included the suite of three magnificent chairs that adorn the Hall. St. John’s Lodge was certainly in existence in1729 and it is understood that the furniture was purpose-made for the opening of the lodge. If so, the furniture was over 50 years old when Phoenix purchased it.
With the furniture came the chairs of the Treasurer and Secretary with the latticed carving. They are probably older than any of the chairs in the Lodge Room and are of typical Chippendale design although they are probably copies made at that time.
These two chairs, along with the suite of Past Masters Chairs and the Deacons Chairs appear to have been made specifically for a Masons Lodge. It should be noted that the Deacon’s Chairs are accompanied by pedestals with round tray tops.
It is believed that the Phoenix Lodge Wardens columns were recovered from the debris of the Vine Street Hall fire in 1783.
Two of the three candlesticks were saved from the fire. In the “Minutes of the Gentlemen of the Committee” it is stated that the two candlesticks be repaired and a new one of the Ionic Order, that is the one by the S.W., be made.
The Master’s Chair is certainly worthy of close examination, and the Vine decorations on it would suggest an origin connected with Christian Masonry. Above the chair is the “Tower of the Lodge” the Coat of Arms which the “Gentlemen of the Committee” of 1784/1785 specially directed 14 should be placed in that position, apparently to perpetuate the Badge of the Lodge from an early date.
It is worth noting that the original gilding on the Master’s Chair has never been restored and it may well be 200 years or more since it was done. The Chairs of the Senior and Junior Wardens match that of the Master.
The organ in the gallery on the West wall was specially built for the opening of the Hall by a Mr Donaldson of Newcastle upon Tyne in six weeks for the sum of 50 guineas. (For the post decimal Brethren that is £52.50p) Before the West pent was removed, the organ (which had six stops) extended into the alcove in which it now sits and the organist sat in the curved portion of the gallery railings. The installation of the organ was, no doubt, a great asset to the Musical Society who rented the Hall for a number of years afterwards for the sum of £10 per annum .
It will be noticed that there is a gap in the right hand side of the organ gallery rail. This accommodated a ladder which led to the gallery and existed until about 1922 when it was removed. Its present whereabouts is unfortunately not known.
The keyboard and bellows were repositioned at floor level leaving only the pipes in the alcove. This probably occurred in 1923 when the West pent was removed resulting in the depth of the alcove being reduced and the organ consequently brought forward towards the gallery railings. Unfortunately, the keyboard and valves were removed at a later stage leaving only the pipes. If there is a draught in the Lodge Room, the pipes have been known to eerily play!
The cost to build Freemasons’ Hall, Queen Street was atound £600.15 Several alterations and additions have since been made to the original hall.
Todd’s history records that in 1890, the house next to the Hall was purchased from a Mr William Hope (grandfather of W. Bro. W.H. Hope a past Mater of Phoenix Lodge) for the sum of £143.00 Bro. J.W.H. Swan was instructed to prepare plans for altering the property into a Banqueting Hall and the building work was entrusted to W. Bro. John Hudson, a Past Master of the Lodge.
The house, which at the time was know as Nos 1 & 3 Lombard Square, had earlier been converted into a dwelling house from part of the stables of the Golden Lion Hotel. It is therefore older the Hall being originally built in the 1740’s
If you look at the East external wall of the building, the difference between the original Hall and the stables becomes obvious; the Hall being brick built whilst the much older stables are in random stone. Three tall windows that originally provided ventilation to the hayloft can clearly be seen as can a wide, arched door at street level through which the horses entered the stables.
The total cost of the project, including the purchase price of the house and furnishings for the interior was £379.00.
The opening of the extension took place on 1st October 1890 and was attended by a deputation of Officers from Provincial Grand Lodge.
A fascinating feature of the Hall is the cellar under the Lodge Room, the floor of which being the former bowling green. The North wall of the cellar is part of the original South wall of the stables in which can be seen windows and a door with steps leading out onto the bowling green.
Archaeological investigations within the cellar have unearthed a drainage channel adjacent to the four walls. This channel is of two rows of bricks about 9 inches apart and covered with stone slabs. It outfalls into a sump near the centre of the South wall of the stable. The site of the Hall is close to a known medieval burgage plot. It was thought, therefore, that the Hall may be on a rubbish tip of the same period.
In 1921, two houses in Lombard Street, which adjoined the Lodge premises, were demolished. One of these houses was occupied by the Misses Baglee, caretakers of the Hall and descendants of William Baglee who was Master of Phoenix Lodge several times in the nineteenth century.
The former Committee Room which is now the dinning room extension, the toilets and entrance lobby were built on the site of these properties.
The Lodge Room itself remains much as originally built. However, the original entrance was situated in the West. It was later moved to the East End and the present door, in the North West, dates only from 1921.
Over the years, commencing with Thornhill Lodge which was consecrated in July 1907, other Lodges and Masonic bodies have made the Hall their permanent home. Without these, there is no doubt that the building would not have survived in its present form.
Indeed, upto more recent years, improvements to the building had been largely cosmetic and mainly restricted to decoration, essential maintenance and modest improvements.
The Hall had always been in the ownership of Phoenix Lodge whose members, of course, financed and built it in 1785. With the Hall being a Grade 1 listed building, the Lodge members, whilst recognising the 17 importance of the need to firmly secure its future were limited in what they could themselves achieve. It was subsequently decided that the future of the Hall would be more secure if it was in the ownership of a company with specialist directors.
On 9th September 1997, therefore, the freehold interest of the Hall was transferred from Phoenix Lodge to the Queen Street Masonic Heritage Centre Ltd, a company limited by guarantee and not having a share capital. This is a private company with aims, amongst others, to restore the building and firmly secure its future as part of the local community.
The Company became a Registered Charity in June 1999.
Whilst the relationship between the Heritage Board and the Queen Street Board of Directors has not always been an easy one there can be no doubt that the progress made over the last decade or so, has been remarkable.
The Trust has raised approximately £25,000 from donations from Lodges, individual masons and members of the public which has been used to pay the Trust’s share of the external works which were grant aided by English Heritage and Sunderland City Council.
The final bill for the essential works totalled £107,000. Which the Trust had to find. There were no grants from Grand Lodge or provincial Grand Lodge.
In addition, the Queen Street Board has been instrumental in facilitating significant improvements to the toilets, upstairs facilities, the kitchen and other works.
Much of that has been achieved by brethren volunteering generously, their time and skills. We should be grateful to all of those who have brought this about.
In conclusion, there is no doubt that the Hall plays an important role in the heritage of Sunderland in general and the East End in particular.
In company with Sunderland Parish Church, it has stood for well over 200 years from its beginnings in the very heart of what was then a small but developing Seaport.
We need as Queen Street Masons to be firmly committed to ensuring that the Hall will continue to play an important role in the regenerated and revitalised East End for generations to come.
We all need to co-operate to see the Hall develop and expand its newly rekindled ties with the community. The Hall is already part of the tourist scene that will, no doubt, expand as the regeneration of the East End continues.
Indeed we should all be grateful for the foresight and enthusiasm of Dr Tipping Brown and the “Gentlemen of the Committee” who gave us the heritage of the Hall and passed on to us, their successors, the responsibility to preserve and cherish this Ancient Monument to Freemasonry.
Much of the history is based on the research and expertise of local Masonic Historians of the 20th Century:-
W. Bro. William Waples
W. Bro. Sinclair Bruce
W. Bro. John James