Donnison School

Coordinates: 54°54′29″N 1°22′04″W / 54.908054°N 1.367701°W / 54.908054; -1.367701
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several brick buildings on the left hand side of the photograph with a row of bollards dividing the photo in half horizontally. Very faintly, one can see a sign above a door of one of the brick buildings reading 'The Donnison School'
An external view of the Donnison School in March 1944.

54°54′29″N 1°22′04″W / 54.908054°N 1.367701°W / 54.908054; -1.367701 Donnison School (initially known as The Girls' Free School) is an English former school in the East End neighbourhood of Sunderland. It opened in 1798 to provide a free education to girls, funded by a bequest from Elizabeth Donnison. In the early 21st century it became a media and heritage centre.

Early history and curriculum[edit]

Founder Elizabeth Donnison was married to Sunderland businessman James Donnison, who died in 1777. This was her second marriage, having previously been married to Charles Guy. When she died in 1764, Elizabeth Donnison left £1500 in her will to fund a school which would provide a free education for female pupils from poor families.[1][2][3][4](Elizabeth Donnison was featured in the 'Rebel Women of Sunderland Project', an exhibit commissioned by Sunderland Culture and created by novelist Jessica Andrews and illustrator Kathryn Robertson in 2020.)[5]

The school opened to 36 pupils in 1798 and was also known as The Girls' Free School. Students from the ages of 7 to 16[6] were taught needlework, spinning, sewing and knitting in addition to reading and writing.[7] Pupils were also provided with clothes and shoes.[2] This type of charity school for deprived girls was part of a wider movement to educate girls and women in Britain,[8] but the Donnison School was the first of its kind in Sunderland. The school was located next to the Sunderland workhouse,[9] constructed in 1740.[3]

In 1827, Elizabeth Woodcock funded the construction of a schoolmistress' cottage on the site.[10][11][4]

The school closed at some point between 1905-1910[10] and the buildings became the caretaker's cottage to the Church of the Holy Trinity. They were Grade II listed in 1978.[11]

Current usage[edit]

During the 20th century, Donnison School fell into disrepair. In 2001 it was purchased by the charity Living History North East from the Church of England.[12][13] Five years later, the charity received a grant of £287,000 from Sunderland City Council and the National Heritage Lottery Fund to repair and refurbish the school.[14] It became known as the Donnison School Heritage and Education Centre in 2007,[10] hosting lectures, school visits, and a regional oral history centre.[15][16]

The school building and schoolmistress' cottage is in the East End neighbourhood of Sunderland, an area also referred to as 'Old Sunderland'.[17] The buildings are located on Church Walk near the Trafalgar Memorial and the Holy Trinity Church, near to Sunderland Town Moor and the Sunderland Docks.[18]


  1. ^ Gillan, Tony (3 September 2019). "Sunderland's historical gems which are baring their secrets for Heritage Open Days". The Sunderland Echo. Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  2. ^ a b Parson, William; White, William (1827). History, Directory, and Gazetteer, of the Counties of Durham and Northumberland: And the Towns and Counties of Newcastle-upon-Tyne and Berwick-upon-Tweed. Together with Richmond, Yarn, and Detached Places Appertaining to the Bishopric and Palatinate of Durham; Including Copious Lists of the Seats of Nobility and Gentry, and a Variety of Commercial, Agricultural, & Statistical Information. Durham, England: W. White & Company. p. 338.
  3. ^ a b Johnson, Dr Michael (2013). The Architecture of Sunderland, 1700-1914. Graham Potts. New York: The History Press. ISBN 978-0-7509-5303-0. OCLC 858762027.
  4. ^ a b Miller, Stuart; Brantingham, John (2010). Sunderland. Stroud: The History Press. ISBN 9780752449272. OCLC 1311147248.
  5. ^ Wheeler, Katy (9 March 2020). "Four more pioneering women are celebrated". The Sunderland Echo. p. 9. Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  6. ^ Dodds, Glen Lyndon (2011). A History of Sunderland (3rd ed.). Albion Press. pp. 91–92. ISBN 978-0993252730.
  7. ^ Public Charities: Analytical digest of the Reports made by the Commissioners of inquiry into charities. Digest of schools and charities for education. London: William Clowes and Sons. 1842. p. 74.
  8. ^ Miller, P. J. (1972). "Women's Education, 'Self-Improvement' and Social Mobility-A Late Eighteenth Century Debate". British Journal of Educational Studies. 20 (3): 302–314. doi:10.2307/3120775. ISSN 0007-1005. JSTOR 3120775.
  9. ^ "The Workhouse in Sunderland, County Durham". Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  10. ^ a b c "Donnison School Heritage Centre". Archived from the original on 3 November 2019. Retrieved 3 November 2019.
  11. ^ a b "Caretaker's Cottage to Church of Holy Trinity and Attached Wall, Church Walk". Historic England. Archived from the original on 3 November 2019. Retrieved 2 November 2019.
  12. ^ "Saving Sunderland's historic Donnison School". Sunderland Echo. 15 January 2015.
  13. ^ "Historic role for fire-hit old school". The Sunderland Echo. 7 October 2006.
  14. ^ "Building saved". Evening Chronicle. 22 April 2006. p. 11. Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  15. ^ "Current British Work". Oral History. 43 (2): 7–25. 2015. ISSN 0143-0955. JSTOR 24625374.
  16. ^ "Little gem of a Victorian school' nominated for What's On Where award". The Sunderland Echo. 15 January 2015.
  17. ^ "East End and Old Sunderland – Seagull City". Retrieved 24 December 2021.
  18. ^ "Sunderland's Historic High Streets Heritage Walk - stop 11: Donnison School". Historic England. Retrieved 2 January 2022.