The Grecian-style Penshaw Monument is one of the North East’s most striking structures, seemingly entirely at odds with the rolling hills and pastures that surround it.
Built in 1844 in memory of John George Lambton, 1st Earl of Durham, Penshaw Monument is a symbol of Victorian architectural confidence, dominating the horizon to the south west of Sunderland.
110 steep steps uphill take you to this stone monument, which is surprisingly intimidating up close, despite the many carvings which have blemished it over the years, as well as it’s location close to the distinctly unglamorous A19.
On a cold autumnal afternoon, busy with dog walkers and families, the Penshaw Monument provides the perfect spot to take in incredible local views, with Newcastle to the north and Sunderland to the west.
1st Earl of Durham
Born in 1792, John Lambton was heir to a vast Durham estate, including a number of mining properties, which granted Lambton a huge fortune. Lambton was elected to Parliament at the age of just twenty, representing County Durham. In 1828, Lambton became Baron Durham, of the City of Durham and of Lambton Castle in the County Palatine of Durham.
Lambton’s political ascendancy reached new highs in 1830, when his father-in-law, Charles Grey, 2nd Earl Grey, became prime minister. Lambton was appointed to the Privy Council as Lord Privy Seal, which saw him support the drafting of the 1832 Reform Act. A year later, Lambton was made Viscount Lambton and Earl of Durham.
The later 1830s saw Lambton extend his political career to international responsibilities, serving as Ambassador to Russia between 1835 and 1837, and becoming Governor General of Canada in 1838. It is in this role that he is best remembered, due in large part to his recommendation that Canada introduce a form of responsible government, and that Upper and Lower Canada be unified.
Lambton died in 1840, aged only 48 and was buried in Chester-le-Street. Soon after the Earl’s death, a suggestion was made that a monument be built on nearby Penshaw Hill to commemorate his life, with around £6,000 soon raised for the construction of the Penshaw Monument.
In August 1844, four years after the Earl’s death, construction began on Penshaw Hill. The foundation stone was laid by Thomas Dundas, 2nd Earl of Zetland, a prominent Freemason. Around 400 Freemasons and 10,000 local spectators attended the ceremony.
The construction of the Monument was led by the Sunderland stonemason Thomas Pratt. Measuring 100 feet (30 metres) long, 53 feet (16 metres) wide and 70 feet (20 metres) high, each column is 6 feet and 6 inches (2 metres) in diameter. A spiral staircase is encased within one of the columns, allowing access to a walkway at the top of the Monument.
1926 Accidental Death
On Easter Monday 1926, a teenage boy from Fatfield, Temperley Arthur Scott, was killed after falling from the top of the Monument. Visiting with three friends, Scott went several times around the walkway, eventually falling 70 feet (20 metres) to the ground.
An inquest into the death was held on 7th April, with the Sunderland Echo reporting on the proceedings:
“Hind, and a boy named Mitchell, were sitting down watching Scott and another boy following. Scott, while walking, appeared to stumble forward, witness and Mitchell, who were then sitting in the middle of the peak, thought he had caught his foot on the masonry. Scott was hurrying to reach his companions, when he stumbled and fell, he rolled over once and then disappeared over the edge of the monument.
“It was quite an ordinary thing for people to go to the top at holiday times. There was nothing to prevent a person slipping off the peak and rolling off the end of the monument, and from the worn appearance of the stonework on the top of the peak quite a number of people had crossed from one side to the other. Although not called as a witness, Mr. J. Colpitts, who has the charge of the keys of the monument, informed the Deputy-Coroner that the monument had been erected 82 years and it was the first fatal accident that had occurred.
“In returning a verdict of Accidental Death, Deputy Coroner Boulton said that it was a terrible accident to have occurred and they must have the greatest sympathy with the parents of the boy. He suggested that iron railings with spikes should be put up at the sides to prevent people getting round and if that could not be done then he could only suggest that the place be locked up and the public not admitted.”
As a result, the door leading to the walkway was locked, reopening only in 2011, when the National Trust – custodians of the site since it was donated by John Lambton, 5th Earl of Durham, in 1939 – began public tours from Easter to September each year.
Penshaw Monument Today
The Monument is now known as one of the most famous landmarks of the area, even featured on the club badge of local football team Sunderland A.F.C. A breath-taking example of classically-inspired Victorian architecture, it is a must-see for any history enthusiasts or budding architects passing through the area.