Sunderland’s unique Victorian homes are examined in a new book. Architectural historian Michael Johnson has published a major study of the distinctive ‘Sunderland cottages’ that opened the door to homeownership for the town’s hardworking families. Britain’s towns and cities experienced a dramatic rise in population during the 19th century, as people came seeking work in emerging industries. In many parts of the country this created a demand for housing that exceeded the existing supply.

Margaret Harrison and children posing for a photograph at Hazeldene Terrace, Pallion in 1906 (The Sunderland Cottage Amberley Publishing)

Faced with the problem of housing its working people, Sunderland developed a unique form of single-storey terraced houses that came to be known as Sunderland cottages. Resembling a terraced bungalow, the Sunderland cottage became the town’s dominant housing type during the 19th century. Row upon row of distinctive single-storey dwellings were laid out in tight grid patterns to accommodate workers and their families.

Well-preserved double-fronted cottages at Hazeldene Tarrace, Pallion (The Sunderland Cottage Amberley Publishing)

The form was favoured by the skilled workers of Sunderland's shipyards and represented an affordable housing type that provided a high degree of privacy and social status. Each had its own entrance and backyard, and many of the best examples had private gardens, enabling residents to emulate the living standards of the middle classes.

The earliest cottages were built close to industrial sites such as Wearmouth Colliery, the shipyards, and James Hartley's glassworks in Millfield. Later examples can be found in the suburban areas of High Barnes, Seaburn, Roker and Fulwell, as transport improvements made it possible to live further from the workplace. The new housing proved extremely popular in Sunderland, providing many workers with an opportunity to escape from the slum conditions of their previous dwellings by renting or buying their home.

Sunderland Cottages
Milk cart making deliveries in Hedley Street, Millfield (c. Sunderland Antiquarian Society, The Sunderland Cottage Amberley Publishing)

Sunderland’s foremost architects were the brothers William and Thomas Ridley Milburn, who were responsible for the design of the Empire Theatre. The Milburns designed cottages in the ‘ABC streets’ in High Barnes, as well as Kitchener Street, Nora Street, Hawarden Crescent, Queen’s Crescent, Tanfield Street and Hampden Road. Joseph Potts and Son were also prolific cottage designers, providing plans for the ‘Scottish streets’ in Fulwell – Forfar, Inverness, Moray and Roxburgh Streets.

The Sunderland cottage is now recognised as an important and distinctive approach to housing Britain's expanding urban population. Well loved by residents, the best of these houses exemplified the pride of Sunderland's elite workforce. They remain a popular housing type to this day and comprise a substantial portion of the city's housing stock.

Sunderland Cottages
Cottage in Hawthorn Street, Millfield displaying a classical door surround, bay window and attractive wrought-iron railings (c. Sunderland Antiqurian Society, The Sunderland Cottage Amberley Publishing)

Michael’s book examines the development of the Sunderland cottage and its place within the town’s social and architectural history. The text is illustrated with photographs taken especially for the volume, along with building plans and archival images. The book also includes a detailed appendix that documents the building of individual streets. The Sunderland Cottage: A History of Wearside’s ‘Little Palaces’ will serve as a valuable guide for Sunderland residents eager to know more about their own homes, and anyone with an interest in Britain’s 19th and early 20th century housing.


Michael Johnson's The Sunderland Cottage A History of Wearside's 'Little Palaces' is available for purchase now.