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Houghton Hillside Cemetery: Time Capsules in the lych gate

The lych gate at the top of Sunderland Street was erected in 1862 and formed a grand entrance to the Houghton Hillside Cemetery. The arch and accompanying walls were designed by Gothic Revival architect William Butterfield of London and built by a Mr Brookes of Houghton using sandstone from Usworth quarry. The works were at the expense of Sir George Elliot.

The lych gate at Houghton Hillside Cemetery, secret treasure chest to three Time Capsules
A year earlier, his youngest daughter, Elizabeth, died at the age of 20 years, and was interred at the Cemetery, and Sir George clearly wanted a more dignified entrance to the burial ground; the original entrance being through the yard of the neighbouring Hill Farm. Copyright © Books of the North 2010.

Mr Brookes, presumably a local stonemason, left a small surprise hidden inside the lych gate in 1862, and despite the archway being hit by a car and dislodged in the 1960s, it wasn’t until 2006 that the surprise was discovered.


In August 2006, the lych gate underwent restoration which saw it dismantled and rebuilt by local stonemasons. On the fourth day of the restoration, on August 11th, a small, corked glass jar was discovered inside the south ‘leg’ of the archway. Sadly the cork had become rotten allowing rainwater inside. The jar contained a soggy lump of paper and several rusty Victorian coins dating from 1853, 1860 and 1861. Six days later, the soggy lump of paper was inspected by Matt Parsons, a paper conservator at Tyne & Wear Museums.

The Time Capsule from 1862 found at Houghton Hillside Cemetery in 2006
The paper was submerged in clean water and slowly prised apart, revealing that it was in fact a ‘Handbook for the Clergy’, giving guidelines on Bible quotations and scripture for various services, such as Confirmation and Burial. The pieces were then placed into an alkaline solution for an hour, before been laid out on blotter paper to dry. Later the pieces were later sprayed with CMC, a preservative. Matt Parson’s observations revealed that the cork had signs of poisonous vermilion in the wax seal. Copyright © Books of the North 2010.


A watertight Time Capsule was constructed by Paul Lanagan using technology designed for drains and plumbing. It was announced locally that the new Capsule would be interred in the lych gate before the restoration works were completed and members of the community were encouraged to donate items for inclusion. Objects were donated from Houghtonians from far and wide, including a signed copy of Sheila Quigley’s first novel, and the Capsule was hermetically sealed. It was placed inside the same south ‘leg’ of the archway on August 29th 2006.

The new Time Capsule from 2006 interred in the lych gate at Houghton Hillside Cemetery

The contents included:

Several photographs; postcards; church magazines; family trees; personal letters; a USB memory stick featuring a website about the cemetery; stamps; coins; Houghton Feast programmes; drawings of the lych gate; poems; articles from the Sunderland Echo; leaflets for local businesses; badges and a neckerchief from Houghton 1st Scouts; and a signed copy of Sheila Quigley’s first novel, ‘Run for Home’. Copyright © Books of the North 2010.


On September 4th 2006, the 152nd anniversary of Hillside Cemetery’s consecration, a third and final Time Capsule was interred inside the lych gate. This second modern Capsule contained many valuable items donated by retired Houghton miner, George Davison, who had missed the first Capsule’s interment due to a broken foot!

The contents included:

A copy of ‘Poisoning People? Houghton Hazardous Waste Site’ booklet; several mint £5 coins for various anniversaries; Sunderland Echo article reporting the interment of the first capsule; Sunderland Echo Lledo model van; a bag of Spanish pesatas; a mint £1 note from 1984; a mint Crown coin; a bag of old 5p coins and shillings; Hillside Cemetery history documents; old 1p pennies from 1907 – 1940s; silver threepence pieces; the day’s Sun and Journal newspapers; a pewter medallion with George Davison’s face engraved on it; and a photograph and letter to the finder. Copyright © Books of the North 2010.

It is hoped that the two modern Time Capsules will not be discovered for a very long time.


Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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