John Thornhill, the Controversial Sunderland Businessman who left his imprint on the town

Photo: Tunstall Road leading up towards Thornhill, photo by SGM (2020)

On the outskirts of Sunderland City Centre to the south of the A690 sits the suburb of Thornhill. It’s one of the area’s older and “Victorian Era” suburbs which supplements Ashbrook (and is often mistaken for it). With Tunstall Road splitting it down the middle, Thornhill is a pleasant and leafy neighbourhood with a lot of character to it. Given such it might be easy to assume the origin of the area’s name was a “Thorn Hill”, right?

Not so. The name Thornill was derived from a man’s name, who was known as John Thornhill, a wealthy and influential businessman in the early town of Sunderland, who subsequently built a mansion on the land which is now Beechwood Terrace. As was common for most wealthy businessmen in early Sunderland, John was a philanthropist who’s money and name left a permanent imprint on the town. But in this case, he was not without controversy.

Thornhill was born into a “wealthy Quaker family” in the East End of the town in 1720. This was an era of transformation for Sunderland. The small town on the bank of the River Wear was starting to grow as Britain began to transform from an agrarian society into an industrial one. With this development, a new middle class of merchants and industrialists boomed and flocked to areas of emerging wealth, Sunderland of course being one.

The Thornhill’s ultimately profited from the rise of the British Empire and overseas commerce, being slave plantation owners in India. John emerged to become a significant local landowner on Wearside, creating a new fish market, and building what was known as “Thornhill Quay”. In conjunction with this, he also donated to a new church in the East End of Sunderland which was known as St. John’s Church in 1764. (The church was demolished in 1972).

In 1768, John bought what was known as “Plenty Hall Estate” in Bishopwearmouth. This estate became the location of the new “Thornhill Mansion” and his personal residence, which he would live in until his death in 1802. The name of the area of course survived his lifetime, and thus became the estate of Thornhill today, the mansion having been demolished in the 1930s for housing.

Despite his contributions to the city, John was an unpopular and divisive figure, and was described as “a curious mixture of piety, public spirit, conceit and fraud”. This was because of his feud with a local magistrate “Justice Etterick” who he waged a lawsuit against. John also constructed a controversial wall which blocked a “public riverside passage” which was unpopular. As such, as he was more than often resented as a wealthy, privileged man, and is not looked upon by historians as one of the city’s greatest servants.

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