Click here to find out more about this wonderful painting of the Fire Station by Ron Henderson.
In 1992 Sunderland's impressive Edwardian fire station of 1907 was closed. Unused for years but now the focus of an exciting development, it overlooks an open area or forecourt that is to be reinvented as a public square. The forecourt sets the building apart from the High Street and draws attention to the fire station's lovely features. Strangely, the fire station is not a listed building but it is of great importance to the whole townscape because of its quirky Edwardian details. Despite the unlisted status it merits mention in Pevsner's 'Buildings of England' for its "Elegant facade of 1906-07 with rusticated arched entrances for the fire engines" and for its "flaming torches between the windows above".
The building is distinct from its neighbours but still very much part of the local group of Edwardian architectural gems, not just because of its age and quirky architectural details but because its architects were the Milburn brothers. It is arguably the centrepiece of the cluster of Milburn projects with their Dun Cow and Empire Theatre to the immediate west and it is currently separated only by a small car park from their magistrates' court just to the north.
Historically the challenge of fire fighting in Sunderland was closely linked to the supply of water within the town. In early times water was supplied from local springs often with the assistance of pumps several of which were to be found in the rectory grounds (to the rear of the present Empire Theatre) as well as on Bishopwearmouth Green. Some houses in Bishopwearmouth had the advantage of private wells. A waterworks was established to supply Bishopwearmouth following a public meeting in 1824 and was built in Fountain Street. Here two engines raised water and supplied two new reservoirs. In 1846 a larger works followed about 2 miles to the south at Humbledon Hill. The water company was on hand to tackle any blazes that occurred in the town.
In the early nineteenth century it is known that "Fire engines were for many years kept in the porch of Sunderland church" by the Sunderland Water Company (later Sunderland and Shields Water Company) but by the 1850s a special house was erected on Bishopwearmouth green to house fire engines. A fire brigade headquarters was based next to the police station in West Wear Street and by the 1890s at least was under the control of the Chief Constable of the police. The provisions and equipment for fire fighting in Sunderland was however woefully inadequate and on the night of July 18, 1898 this was demonstrated by an incident described as the Great Fire of Sunderland. The fire in question began in Havelock's drapery store at the junction of Fawcett Street and High Street West right at the heart of the town centre. It quickly spread to neighbouring shops and destroyed around 48 businesses. Remnants of the fire were still burning several weeks later and in total there was around £400,000 of damage, about £23 million in today's money.
In recent times the natural elegance of the whole building has been enhanced with the creation of public art temporarily installed within the upper windows and inside the arches of the former fire engine ports. This has helped to draw attention to the beauty of the building and to the forecourt that forms a natural public square. It is an exciting building of great potential that will be appealingly utilised in the current development of the area.
The old fire station is currently being developed as a performing arts venue that will be the centrepiece of the city's arts and cultural quarter. It will retain its unusual facade and its architectural details and will be brought back to life as the building takes on a role as the hub for cultural activities, hosting drama studios, a heritage centre and a bar and restaurant.
Click here to read the next section on the Communities of Edwardian Sunderland