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The Sunderland Cottage: History of a Unique Housing Type

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industrial revolution, Sunderland, North EastEngland, Sunderland cottages, Sunderland cottage

During the industrial revolution, Britain’s towns and cities experienced rapid expansion. Faced with the problem of housing the new industrial classes, Sunderland, in the North East of England, evolved a distinctive form of low-cost housing: single-storey terraces that came to be known as Sunderland cottages.  Virtually unique in England, the Sunderland cottage can be understood as a ‘terraced bungalow.’ They were built for the skilled workers of Sunderland's shipyards, and constituted an affordable housing type that provided a high degree of privacy and social status. Each had its own entrance and backyard, and many had private gardens, allowing residents to emulate the domestic ideals of the middle class.


The origins of the Sunderland cottage are obscure. In a pioneering study, the design historian Angela Long suggested that the first examples were built as early as 1840. Historians have speculated that the form developed from the County Durham pit row, a form of miners’ housing that was often built as single-storey terraces. This is an archival image of pit row houses in Easington, County Durham. It’s likely that the pit row model was introduced to Sunderland by the Monkwearmouth Coal Company, which built a substantial amount of colliery housing in the 1840s and 50s. This served as a useful model for the speculative builders who erected the first Sunderland cottages.

Working class housing was immensely varied before 1850, but after this date towns and cities increasingly adopted regular forms. With the additional pressures of industrialisation, local authorities were forced to consolidate working class housing by issuing regulatory bye-laws. However, a small number of distinctive regional housing types persisted, and in some cases the new bye-laws tended to codify these traditional forms, ensuring their continued importance.

The Sunderland cottage pre-dated the municipal bye-laws that came into force in 1851. From this date onwards, plans for new buildings and alterations had to be submitted to the Corporation for approval. Rather than prohibiting the cottage form, the bye-laws accepted it as an integral part of Sunderland's built environment and merely sought to ensure that cottages were built to exacting standards. Daunton has commented on this tendency of the bye-laws to 'freeze' development by restricting the range of permissible types. Indeed, the Sunderland cottage can be regarded as pit row housing mediated by the Sunderland bye-laws.


This is a typical plan of two houses in St. Leonard’s Street, Hendon. Behind the front door is a tiny vestibule, which is like a miniature version of the middle class hall. The parlour was the main front room. The kitchen and bedroom are at the rear. There’s usually a back extension containing a washhouse and sometimes an extra bedroom. You can see the typical dimensions here. The architectural historian Stefan Muthesius estimates that overall, a typical cottage offered more or less the same accommodation as a Tyneside flat, a two-up-two-down in Manchester or a back-to-back in Leeds.

The last plot in a street was often too small for a standard cottage, so builders developed various ways of maximizing the site. This is a plan of Ancona Street. You can see a conventional house here, but this one has been rearranged to fit the triangular plan. The front door opens between the parlour and the kitchen. It also includes a shop, as many of the corner houses did.

Sunderland cottages feature clearly-defined rooms, often with separate corridor access. This configuration was designed to accommodate the nuclear family. With their private entrance and backyard, Sunderland cottages fulfil the middle class ideal of the self-contained family, and this encouraged individual family identities to take precedence over the more communal street identities associated with pit row housing. Despite its small scale, the Sunderland cottage was a fully-formed private house, allowing well-paid artisans to emulate the living habits of the middle classes. The form thus contributed to the increasing permeability of class boundaries in industrial society.

Bye-laws and other local factors

The cottage form was modified by the bye-laws. This is a cross section of a house in Abingdon Street. Ceilings had to be 10 feet high. The bye-laws also demanded that every habitable room had a means of ventilation, so air vents were fitted in any room without a fireplace.  Each house had to have a separate toilet, or 'convenience’ as they were called. The bye-laws regulated the thickness of walls, the dimensions of rooms and the situation of flues.

Of course, single-storey housing is not economical in terms of land or materials: a two-storey house on the same plot could provide twice as much accommodation as a Sunderland cottage. However, it’s significant that while most national bye-laws stipulated that streets be 40 feet wide, the Sunderland bye-laws permitted single-storey streets to be 30 feet in width. This means that the Sunderland cottage was not as wasteful of space as is often supposed.

Further economies were made with regard to materials. External and internal walls could be thinner in single-storey dwellings, because they didn’t have to support an upper floor. Materials were relatively cheap, due to Sunderland’s status as a port. Timber was used extensively for internal construction and the port ensured a steady supply of timber from North America and the Baltic. Welsh slate was imported for roofing. Other materials were produced locally. Bricks were manufactured from clay excavated from the town moor and mortar was produced from local limestone deposits.

Cottage design

Within their limited historiography, cottages are often regarded as ‘vernacular’, i.e. sub-architectural buildings, lacking the aesthetic refinement of more ‘polite’ architecture.  However, close analysis reveals that many cottages exhibit recognisable architectural styles, albeit crudely.

In most cases, the configuration of the frontage follows Classical proportions, and the lintels over doors and windows resemble Classical architraves. For example, this is Dickens Street in Southwick. These houses have a row of projecting bricks just below the roofline, echoing the modillion cornices of Classical architecture. In common with most English terraced housing, then, the majority of Sunderland cottages fall within the tradition of Neo-Classicism.

By the 1860s, Gothic motifs had begun to permeate domestic architecture. This is apparent in Ridley Terrace, Hendon, one of the earliest surviving streets. Here the doors have rudimentary Gothic arches executed in brick. These are very crude, but they align the cottages with the High Victorian Gothic movement that flourished c.1850-70.

Some cottages exhibit high-quality detailing, particularly woodwork. Undoubtedly, this was derived from techniques employed in Sunderland shipyards, reminding us that cottages were built for the town’s skilled workforce. Style is rarely consistent throughout an entire street, since cottages were usually built up by various builders.

Builders and architects

The form evades attribution, but I found an extensive series of building plans in the Tyne and Wear Archives, which had never been properly catalogued. These revealed the names of the architects and builders, as well as the dates of construction. This allowed me to overturn much of what had been written in secondary sources.

The first Sunderland cottages were built close to bases of industry such as Monkwearmouth Colliery and the shipyards along the banks of the Wear. Despite this correlation, most writers have argued that very few industrialists engaged in cottage-building. However, surviving plans reveal that a significant number of industrialists did erect workers’ housing.

On the South Hendon estate, the Wearmouth Coal Company built 24 cottages in Cairo Street and 25 in St. Leonard’s Street, all of which were designed by company’s architect H.E. Robinson. These streets were built parallel to the railway line, producing unusually long terraces. High standards of design are evident from the bay windows, front yards and tiled paths. The adjoining Tel al-Kebir Road was named after a decisive battle in the Egyptian Revolt in 1882. Because of the exotic street names, the South Hendon estate is known as ‘Little Egypt.’

In the largest single instance of cottage building, the glass maker James Hartley built 80 cottages in Lily Street, May Street, Rose Street and Violet Street to designs by James Henderson. All of these were 1½ storey variants of the Sunderland cottage, having rooms in the attic and a projecting dormer window. Of course, industrialists had a vested interest in providing a large stock of housing, as this helped them to secure a stable, reliable workforce.

The majority of Sunderland cottages were built by speculative builders eager to capitalise on Sunderland’s dramatic industrial expansion. Speculative building became an industry in its own right and by 1901 it was the second largest employer in Sunderland (after shipbuilding). Estates were planned out before development commenced and a small number of plans survive showing how land was partitioned. The owner of the land would employ an architect to draw out the estate plan and define the plots. These would then be sold or rented to individual builders. The same architect would usually provide plans for each block of houses.

For example, the builder W.G. Browell employed E. Sidney Wilson to plan out the King’s House estate in 1898. Wilson delineated an area to be developed as St. Luke’s Road and defined the individual sites on which cottages were to be built. In this case, Browell himself built 29 cottages in St. Luke’s Road, all of which were designed by Wilson. Cottages were built in piecemeal fashion, with builders erecting small blocks of houses. The result was that streets were built up gradually, often with gaps that were not filled for several years.


Most historians argue that cottages ceased to be built after 1910. However, the plans reveal that substantial numbers were built into the 1920s and 30s. The vast majority of late examples where built under a scheme entitled ‘Housing Assistance to Private Enterprise,’ instigated by the Housing Estate Act of 1923. The largest concentration of new cottages occurred among the ‘Scottish streets’ in Fulwell. Forfar Street was commenced in 1906, but was extended in 1925. The building of Inverness Street had begun in 1899, but a further 47 cottages were built between 1923 and 1926. Moray Street was built entirely between 1926 and 1933. All of these new cottages were designed by the architects Joseph Potts and Son.

The role played by architects in the development of Sunderland cottages is a complex issue. Angela Long states that the history of the Sunderland cottage is anonymous history, because ‘the form evades connections with individual architects.’ Nevertheless, plans reveal that they were designed by prominent local architects. The reason it’s difficult to make attributions is that architects were reluctant to have their lower-class domestic work recorded, even though it was a vital source of income. Architects preferred to base their reputations on their more ‘polite’ commercial and public buildings.

Sunderland’s foremost architects, William and Thomas Ridley Milburn, designed the ABC streets in the affluent area of High Barnes (Abingdon, Barnard, Eastfield and Guisborough Streets). They also designed Kitchener Street, Nora Street and Hampden Road. Just to put this in perspective, the Milburns were the architects of the Empire Theatre in Sunderland, an Edwardian Baroque building of 1909-7. They also designed the Dominion Theatre in Tottenham Court Road. The Monkwearmouth Coal Company built 15 cottages in Empress Street (1880) to designs by J. and T. Tillman, architects of Sunderland Museum and Library.

A hierarchy of housing

As cottages were intended as low-cost housing for the working classes, it was inevitable that they would be small and cheaply-built, but within these restrictions the builders and architects were able to imbue the form with a high degree of social status. Each had its own front door, yard and toilet. Within the house, rooms were clearly defined and given separate access via an internal corridor, which was a considerable improvement on one-room tenement housing. Many cottages even had a vestibule behind the front door, which replicated the middle class hall on a minute scale.

Accordingly, levels of owner-occupation in Sunderland far exceeded those in other towns and cities: 35% in Millfield and 80% in Hendon, compared to a national average of 20%. Evidently, the ability to purchase one’s house was a major point of pride among this elite workforce, suggesting that the inhabitants aspired to the domestic ideals of the middle classes.

The design of Sunderland cottages varied over time and according to location, and the various permutations divide themselves into a pronounced hierarchy of housing types. The earliest examples are single-fronted (only a corridor and one main room lie behind the frontage). This is Barnard Street. The front door is flanked by a living room and a front bedroom. Bay windows, which began to appear in the 1880s, were a clear signifier of status, not simply because of the additional cost involved in fitting them, but also because they facilitated illumination of the interior.

This is Barnard Street. The front door is flanked by a living room and a front bedroom. Bay windows, which began to appear in the 1880s, were a clear signifier of status, not simply because of the additional cost involved in fitting them, but also because they facilitated illumination of the interior.

The first cottages were built close to bases of industry, as it was imperative that the residents were able to get to work quickly and cheaply. Surveying Sunderland’s urban structure, the sociologist A.H. Halsey described the town’s housing as ‘an annexe to the workplace.’ However, as Sunderland’s transport network was improved by the addition of tram services between the town centre and the suburbs, the geography of Sunderland cottages became more diffused.

Cottages were built in suburban areas and gained additional cachet from their proximity to middle class neighbourhoods and amenities. The High Barnes estate, including the ABC streets, is characteristic of the more opulent cottages built around the turn of the century. These cottages were part of a well-developed framework comprising St. Gabriel’s Church, the Barnes School and the West Branch Library, which together offered spiritual and intellectual improvement. These institutions formed a spatial nexus that allowed to workers to participate in the construction and display of middle class identity.


In conclusion, the Sunderland cottage is now recognised as a distinctive housing type and an innovative solution to the problem of housing the working classes. Cottages were eminently preferable to the slum conditions in which many workers had previously lived. The form is a testament to the relative prosperity and social aspiration of the skilled artisans who worked in Sunderland’s shipyards. As the exceptionally high levels of owner-occupancy suggest, cottages were a major source of pride to their inhabitants. Each cottage was a minute bastion of privacy that connoted ideals of middle class domesticity, allowing residents to accumulate respectability and social status.

Owning to the difficulties of researching the form, particularly architects’ reluctance to have their domestic work recorded, cottages have evaded easy analysis and attribution. Most, however, were designed by Sunderland’s pre-eminent architects and formed an integral part of their work. This allows the Sunderland cottage to be extracted from the obscure category of ‘vernacular’ architecture, and seen instead as the product of concerted and mutually-beneficial interaction between Sunderland’s building trade and its emerging architectural profession.


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