Restoration Diary

The Donnison History

In 2002 we had a major setback on site.

Vandals had accessed the building through the roof and started a fire in the back room of the single storey cottage.  To reach the fire, the fire service had to go through the porch.  The damage to the back room and entrance porch was significant.  Unfortunately some original features were lost and the damage to the central entrances in particular were dreadful; it looked like a burnt out shell.

Not deterred.... the group continued to fundraise for the site. People of Sunderland were given the opportunity to buy a single roof tile in an effort to raise the project costs.

Fundraising started after the initial purchase in 2001, and eventually in 2005, £550,000 - the sum needed to commence the restoration work - was secured from a group of interested funders in the sector, namely the Heritage Lottery Fund, Sunderland Local Authority, Back on the Map and the Communities Fund.

Human Remains Find

Work started in October 2006. After just two weeks of clearing the building, work was stopped. Human remains were found in the school room and outside, under the garden wall area. The police were called and the pathologist identified the remains as being over 100 years old. The building is built directly on the Sunderland Parish graveyard. This area is plot E and many of the grave sites are 6-7 deep around the Donnison School perimeter. An archaeologist was employed through Tyne and Wear Museums to provide a ‘watching brief’ and to supervise the removal of any remains that were found. These were collected and stored until work was complete.  A burial plot was purchased and the remains were re-interned, but only after advertising for any living relatives who might wish to reclaim the remains.


The Finished School Room

After an 11 week delay and an additional bill of £60,000 work restarted. Work finally finished in August 2007 – with an official opening of the site in December 2007.

Stage 2:

This work really involved the outside space of the site. Original plans were to create a Victorian walled garden and herb garden but were not quite clear on how this was to be implemented.

However like always we had some enthusiastic volunteers who were 100% behind this development.  Dennis Bulmer, a founding member and Trustee, alongside fellow Trustee Fred Bewick, and local resident Bill Dove supported some major clearing of weeds, bushes and trees; the garden was like a jungle! We had additional support from some volunteers from an environmental organisation called CEED in Sunderland - Community Environmental Educational Developments.

After clearing the site, the advice of a gardener from Eighton Banks Nursery, who had worked on other similar projects, was very helpful.  The gardener was asked to draw a plan of the site and make some suggestions. He visited the Donnison and advised that the garden should be divided into smaller sections. After some consideration and a review of the plan by Dennis Bulmer and Fred Bewick, we re-drew the scheme and decided to include the lawned area and to section the top area with reclaimed bricks.

Janette Hilton secured further funding for the garden development and work started in earnest. We sectioned the area out. We received some free bricks from Thompsons and employed several young men to help lay out the bricked section over one weekend.

Once this was done we could start to think about buying plants and trees to help furnish the site. But before we did that we needed the grass for the lawn. Janette and Dennis Bulmer bought the grass for 50p a section from B&Q and transported it back in Dennis's car!!!

Can't tell you the mess we left for Connie, Dennis's wife and fellow Trustee, to clean up!

The garden really began to take shape with the help of Dot and Alan Davison. Dot was a gardener who had a keen eye for development and really 'green fingers'.        It was through their skills and the help of Ann and Gordon Foster, that the garden picked up its first Sunderland in Bloom awards.  We then received two more awards, including an award from the Royal Horticultural Society in 2011.


Part of the prize-winning garden at Donnison School was the herb garden.  The herb garden was a feature that was started around 2013. We decided to use a mixture of reclaimed and new materials. Dot, Alan, Gordon and Ann created a second area of interest that is still being developed. We also added a green house through some funding from another agency.

The next phase of development at The Donnison School will involve significant changes to its events and catering capacity.  This will include the erection of a large conservatory in the Victorian Garden - this will be accessed through a side door in the back room – before lockdown this was used as a cafe.  There will be refurbishment of the kitchen and other smaller structural changes to the building to improve events capacity.

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Donnison School                         Heritage and Education Centre
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