How 72 birds, 17 reptiles and 12 fish created history in Sunderland

The Museum Room in 1911.
The Museum Room in 1911.

Here’s a Wearside quiz question for you?

How did 34 mammals. 72 birds, 17 reptiles, 12 fish, and two cases of insects make history in Sunderland?

A view of the museum over the lake.

A view of the museum over the lake.

They were all exhibits in the first publicly funded museum in England - and it was here in Sunderland.

This piece of city history comes to us courtesy of Elsie Ronald, vice chairman of the Friends of Sunderland Museums and secretary of the Friends of Mowbray Park.

The popular venture began in 1793 when a subscription library was opened. A subscription museum followed in 1810. They shared a building in High Street to house their collection.

As well as the exhibits listed above, there was wood from a submerged forest at Seaton Carew, 427 minerals and fossils, and miscellaneous antiquities and curiosities.

In 1855, two years before the People’s Park was opened, there were plans for a crystal palace on Building Hill, with space in for a museum. It came to nothing, but by the 1870s, it was realised that a new purpose built building was needed for the museum and library

Elsie Ronald, vice chairman of the Friends of Sunderland Museums and secretary of the Friends of Mowbray Park

The collection passed into the hands of the Sunderland Natural History and Antiquities Society, founded in November 1836 and housed in Villiers Street.

By 1843, the Society had moved to the Athenaeum in Fawcett Street. Two years later, the Museums Act of 1845 was passed.

It meant councils could run museums financed by the rates, and the SNH & AS was eager to transfer the running of its museum to the Council. By 1846, it had happened and the council put an extra halfpenny on the rates to finance it.

Colchester in Essex was next to open a museum but not until September 1860.

The Natural History & Ethnography display in the Museum Room in 1960.

The Natural History & Ethnography display in the Museum Room in 1960.

In 1855, two years before the People’s Park was opened, there were plans for a crystal palace on Building Hill, with space in for a museum.

It came to nothing, but by the 1870s, it was realised that a new purpose built building was needed for the museum and library.

And soon, plans were afoot for a building which would house gardens, a museum, library and council offices.

But more of that next week.

The 1964 extension

The 1964 extension