QUEEN STREET MASONIC HERITAGE CENTRE SUNDERLAND
(Incorporating the Phoenix Hall of 1785 )
At the mouth of the River Wear on the north-east coast of England stands the port of Sunderland, a proud town which developed because the topography of the river banks afforded both flat areas for the construction of quays, docks and shipyards and a gorge for the erection of staithes for the loading of coal onto ships. In its heyday the town, (now a city of course), epitomised shipbuilding as well as heavy engineering throughout the world. These traditional industries have now disappeared but others have arrived to take their place and the city lives on.
Not everything has changed however, for deep in the heart of the oldest part of Sunderland, in the corner of an unkept car park stands one of the oldest buildings in town. From the outside it appears to be in the early stages of dereliction which in reality is a disguise for its magnificent interior, for this is the Phoenix Hall, built in 1785 by the members of the Phoenix Lodge to replace a similar hall nearby which had been destroyed by fire and is incredibly still being used by the Lodge that built it 231 years ago.
When the Hall was built, George III was on the throne, William Pitt the younger was Prime Minister, the United States of America was only 2 years old and Australia had been discovered only 15 years before. The Hall was actually built on a bowling green in the centre of the then town which at that time was only about ½ mile square. Within the small area lived and worked some 10,000 people. The Hall was surrounded by narrow cobbled streets with open drains down the middle leading down to High Street and Low Street which ran parallel to the river and formed the commercial part of the town with hotels, chandler, sail makers, indeed all the facilities required by ships and shipping. The colliers which passed up and down the river and, indeed the cargo vessels loading and unloading at the quays were of course wooden sailing ships, some of which had been built at the shipyards across the river.
The area has changed, of course. The shipyards which had progressed to steel super-tankers have gone to be replaced by housing and a new campus for the University of Sunderland. The ships have also gone to be replaced by fishing boats and pleasure craft and the quays have now been pedestrianised with seats and picnic tables and the old warehouses refurbished as offices, shops and restaurants. The narrow cobbled streets have also gone to be replaced by tenement blocks which in turn are now being demolished to make way for low density housing and open space as part of the ambitious, long term, urban regeneration scheme in which the hall will play a major part.
Whilst the surrounding area is changing beyond all recognition, the Hall remains virtually as it was 229 years ago with its plaster panelled walls, ornamental carvings with original gold leaf and valuable early 18 th century furniture. The house next door was purchased in 1890 and converted into a dining room at the same time installing a kitchen (coal fired, of course) in the basement. Until then meals were brought in from one of the local hotels and eaten in the Hall. A small extension was added in 1923 to provide a new entrance hall, toilet facilities and a caretaker's flat. At the same time, gas was brought into the building to replace coal for heating and cooking. The dining hall was extended in 1990 to accommodate the same number as could be seated in the Hall. The importance of the hall to the heritage of the nation was recognised in 1973 when it became a Grade I Listed Building thereby putting it in the same league as the great cathedrals and stately homes of England.
The Hall has served the members of Phoenix Lodge well over the years and continues to do so. A recent structural survey concluded that the hall is structurally sound and with careful maintenance should survive another 228 years. The building does however require external cosmetic work to restore it to its full Grade I listed status as well as improvements to the internal facilities to make the building more manageable and fit for the purpose for which it is used. The importance that the Hall has not only to Freemasonry but also to the heritage of the nation is fully recognised and a programme of work to restore the building and preserve it for future generations has been embarked upon. Without the preservation work, the building will decay and magnificent Hall lost forever.
The underlying theme behind this work is the openness that English Freemasonry is now promoting. The preservation work will be done in stages as finance becomes available culminating in the building of an extension with an Egyptian style façade to house a Masonic Heritage Centre and exhibition suite. This will be used to increase public awareness in Freemasonry with exhibitions and the promotion of Freemasonry within the community as well as providing historical information for Freemasons. The centre piece of the Heritage Centre will of course be the Hall. The Heritage Centre Trust has already been set up and has recently applied for charitable status which, if successful, Lucinda Lambton, the broadcaster and historian, has agreed to become patron. Her great, great, great, great grandfather, William Henry Lambton and his son, John George Lambton, the 1st Earl of Durham, were both involved in the early years of the Hall as Provincial Grand Masters of Durham.
Would you like to help in the preservation of the Hall?
All restoration and preservation schemes require finance and the process of identifying sources of local and national grant aid is in hand. Even with grants and internal fundraising activities, there will be a shortfall in the finance required.
If you wish to contribute towards the preservation of this important building or would like further information on how you can do so, please contact the Trust secretary via their website