The kind vicar who helped Sunderland through cholera outbreak

Sunderland Parish Church  June 1960.
Sunderland Parish Church June 1960.

THE kindness of a vicar who devoted his life - and fortune - to helping Wearside’s poor is to be marked by a memorial service this weekend.

Reverend Robert Gray, rector of Sunderland from 1819 to 1838, was hailed as a hero after tending the sick and needy during a cholera outbreak in 1831.

The tribute to Rector Gray at Holy Trinity Church - now known as the Old Parish Church.

The tribute to Rector Gray at Holy Trinity Church - now known as the Old Parish Church.

Tragically, when he showed the same compassion and concern for his parishioners during a typhus epidemic in 1838, he ended up dying from the disease.

“Rector Gray is a man who should be honoured as a hero for his achievements,” said local historian Sharon Vincent, secretary of Sunderland Old Township group.

“To that end we will be holding a memorial service in his honour this Saturday at Holy Trinity - the church where he did so much good work.”

Gray, the second son of Thomas Gray - a jeweller of Sackville Street, London - was born on April 1, 1787, and graduated from Oriel College, Oxford, in 1813.

His first curacy took him to Kyloe and Lowick in Northumberland and, the following year, he moved to Bishopwearmouth as curate for his uncle Dr Gray, who was rector.

“Rev Gray worked there for five years, until 1819, when the death of the Rector of Sunderland, John Hampson, left a vacancy in the neighbouring parish,” said Sharon.

“Bishop Barrington of Durham personally selected Gray to take over as Hampson’s successor, in return for a salary of £80 a year - several thousand pounds in today’s money.”

Gray took to his new role with “great enthusiasm”, establishing religious lectures at Holy Trinity Church each Wednesday evening and extra church services at St John’s.

One of his first personal acts of kindness, however, was to obtain a former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel in Vine Street, which he converted into a school for poor children.

“Each Tuesday it was his habit to visit the parish workhouse to impart religious instruction to inmates who either would not, or could not, attend church,” said Sharon.

“In 1820 he set up a Missionary Society to promote welfare and spiritual guidance to groups under his patronage and in 1834 he built an infant school near St John’s.”

Soon after Gray’s arrival in Sunderland, his father Thomas died - leaving him an ‘ample fortune’. Instead of enjoying the money, he used it to fund charitable works.

“On hearing of Gray’s benevolence, the Bishop of Durham offered him a prebendal stall – essentially a seat – in the Cathedral with an annual income of £600,” said Sharon.

“However Gray turned down the offer, saying he could not spare the time to live in Durham for part of the year and that his time was better employed helping the poor.

“Each day he could be seen out and about in the streets and lanes of the parish, delivering relief payments to the poor and destitute and visiting the sick and dying.

“And, when cholera gripped the town in 1831, he took an active role by personally attending the homes of many victims - encouraging his curates to do the same.”

Indeed, on one Sunday at the height of the epidemic Gray discovered several people with cholera had refused to go to hospital - fearful of the way patients were treated.

So, at the end of morning service, he left his children in the care of a curate and sent a message to his wife - saying he wished to be excused from the usual family dinner.

“He retired to the vestry, took a glass of wine and a biscuit - then set about persuading the chronically sick of the parish to go to hospital,” said Sharon.

“He spent the next few hours begging people to seek treatment; telling them it would help prevent the spread of the disease - and was their best hope of avoiding death.

“Gray then returned for his 6pm evening service and, after that, picked up where he’d left off - visiting yet more infected dwellings. His exertions certainly saved lives.”

Just a few years later, in November 1837, Sunderland fell victim to another epidemic - typhus. More than 230 cases were reported, with 99 within Gray’s visiting district.

Five streets - from Mill Street (formerly Love Lane) to Vine Street - were afflicted by the deadly illness. Gray risked his life to visit each victim at least twice a week.

“The typhus epidemic continued into 1838 and, on January 30, Gray began his usual routine of visiting the sick at 10am - and not just those of his parish,” said Sharon.

“Indeed, he only finished his visits at 4pm - after which a member of the church visiting committee warned him he was risking his life by breathing infected air for so long.”

Gray, however, appeared unconcerned. Indeed, he replied: “Why, my dear Sir, I have had typhus fever, and I believe I am now case-hardened; however, I have no fear.

“If I am visited with the disease, I will have no doubt but He who wills it to be so will carry me safely through, if it be His good pleasure.”

In reality, Gray was already starting to feel unwell. But he refused to stop working and, the next day, started on a journey to Shrewsbury - taking his sons back to school.

By the time he reached Thirsk, however, he was forced to write to a pal in Sunderland - asking him to take the boys instead. Gray returned to Sunderland - and death.

“He arrived home late on the evening of February 3 and took himself straight to bed.

“Notices of his condition were made public to his anxious parishioners,” said Sharon.

“By Sunday, February 11, his doctor believed Gray was starting to recover and a notice to that effect was pinned on the church door. But the medic was very wrong.

“Sadly, Robert Gray passed away at his home in Sunniside, Bishopwearmouth, before the end of morning service in his beloved church that very same day.”

Thousands of mourners paid their last respects as Rev Gray was laid to rest in the churchyard of Sunderland Parish Church - hailing him as a hero of the people. “Along High Street and elsewhere, every shop suspended business as the town mourned the loss of a truly benevolent friend and spiritual leader,” concluded Sharon.

l Sunderland Old Township will host a memorial service for Rector Gray this Saturday at 11am at Holy Trinity. Refreshments at the Donnison School will follow.