Thomas Sunderland (1744-1823)

Written by Tim Cockerill

Occupations: Ironmaster, Soldier and Watercolourist

Ancestry and early life

Thomas Sunderland, the distinguished amateur watercolourist, was born at Whittington Hall, Whittington, near Kirkby Lonsdale in Cumbria in 1744, the only surviving son of John Sunderland (1711-1782) JP of Ulverston, an ironmaster, whose father Samuel Sunderland (1682-1742) came from Badsworth, near Pontefract in the East Riding of Yorkshire. The family has been traced back to 1274 in that county (Dugdale). In 1734 John married Mary, daughter and heiress of Thomas Rawlinson (1689-1739) of Whittington Hall, where the young couple decided to make their home. Thomas Rawlinson was the eldest son of William Rawlinson of Graythwaite and inherited the estate from his great uncle John Rawlinson (1629-1699), barrister of Gray's Inn and secretary to the Master of the Rolls, Sir Harbottle Grimston Bt (1603-1685) and perhaps his successor Sir John Trevor from 1685.

Whittington Hall was built before 1557 by Miles Hudleston (d.1577) and was bought by John Rawlinson in the late seventeenth century. There seem to be no images of the old house but the estate later comprised about 600 acres. It was inherited by Thomas Sunderland on his father's death in 1782 but Thomas seems to have showed no interest in it and never lived there again, perhaps because his parents had separated and it held unhappy memories for him. He sold the house and estate in 1804. Subsequently the house was re-modelled and enlarged in 1831 by George Webster (1797-1864) (qv) of Kendal for Thomas Greene MP for Lancaster and so today it looks nothing like the mansion that was occupied by the Rawlinsons and then the Sunderlands. Thomas Greene’s father was a friend of George Romney (qv).

The early life of Thomas Sunderland after his birth in 1744 has not been traced nor is it known where he was at school. His name is not recorded in the printed school registers of Sedbergh or Giggleswick, two of the nearest boarding schools to Whittington, but he was to send two of his sons to Hawkshead Grammar School. No records of the latter school for the relevant period now exist so this remains a possibility for Thomas too. Otherwise he may have attended Kirkby Lonsdale Free Grammar School as a day boy. He certainly did not attend Oxford or Cambridge Universities.

Career and marriage

Both the Sunderland and Rawlinson families were prominent Cumbrian ironmasters and partners in the Backbarrow and Lowwood ironworks near Newby Bridge together with John Machell (qv) of Hollow Oak, Colton then of Aynsome, Cartmel and George Bigland of nearby Bigland Hall, both in the Cartmel district. Coming from this business background Thomas Sunderland was probably apprenticed to a local ironmaster or was simply taken into the family ironfoundry as a trainee and later as a partner at an early age.

In 1769 he married Anne (1736-1809) daughter and heiress of William Dickson of Beckbank, Thwaites, near Millom, Cumbria. The Dicksons were yeomen and millers on a modest scale but after Anne inherited her father's property in 1779 she sold Beckbank to John Lewthwaite of Whitehaven for £2,060 in 1787. The Lewthwaites, who were closely related to the Dicksons and who still live next door at Broadgate, continued to own Beckbank until the early 21st Century.

Thomas and Anne Sunderland had five children, two sons and three daughters, born between 1769 and 1776, four of whom were baptised at Ulverston.

The family consisted of the Revd John Sunderland (1769-1837), of Springfield, (later a school for young ladies and then The Golf Hotel), Ulverston. He was educated at Hawkshead Grammar School, Rugby and Trinity College, Cambridge (M.A 1795), the exact contemporary of William Wordsworth, qv, at the University. He was Vicar of Pennington 1806-1837 and Vicar of Ulverston 1807-1836. He married (1) 1806 Anne (d.1816), daughter of Edward King of Askham Hall, Askham, Westmorland, barrister-at-law and Vice-Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, by whom he had four sons and a daughter who died in infancy. He married (2) in 1827 Mary Elizabeth, daughter of John Morland of Capplethwaite Hall, Killington, Westmorland, who d.s.p. in 1871. The second son of Thomas Sunderland, the subject of this biography, was another Thomas Sunderland (1774-1823) who was educated at Hawkshead Grammar School, which he left in 1791, about whom there seems to be no further information. Of the three daughters of Thomas Sunderland senior the eldest Eleanora (1771-1823) was unmarried, the second daughter Mary (1775-1807) married in 1804 General the Hon. Sir William Lumley (1769-1850) GCB, Colonel of the 1st Dragoon Guards, 7th son of the 4th Earl of Scarborough but she died three years later and there were no children. The youngest daughter Anne (1776-18??), married in 1799 the Revd Henry Askew (1765-1852), Rector of Greystoke, Cumberland 1798-1852, of Redhugh, Co. Durham and Conishead Priory, near Ulverston and they had issue.

According to An Armorial of Westmorland and Lonsdale (1975), the male Sunderland family was then represented by Joe Langdale Sunderland (b.1917) of Hastings, Hawke’s Bay, New Zealand

In the early 1780s Thomas Sunderland, who had probably moved to Ulverston by 1770, built a neat mansion for himself in the town called Little Croft in the early 1780s.This house later became The County Hotel until it was destroyed by fire in 1911. The Coronation Hall and the main Ulverston Post Office now occupy the site of Little Croft and its grounds. He continued the family interest in iron-ore mining in the district, ceremonially cut the first sod of John Rennie’s Ulverston canal in 1795 and, in addition, Sunderland invested in the firm of Petty and Postlethwaite, the Ulverston bankers in Queen Street, who were closely associated with shipping as well as being wine and spirit merchants

Public life and the Ulverston Volunteer Light Infantry

As a prominent Ulverston citizen Thomas Sunderland played his part in public life as a local magistrate and deputy -lieutenant for Lancashire, under the Lord Lieutenant the 12th Earl of Derby (1752-1834). But his best known claim to fame in his public career began in 1803, when the fear of French invasion by Napoleon excited strong feelings of warlike patriotism throughout the country. Ulverston was no exception and Thomas Sunderland was the founder of the Ulverston Volunteers and recruited 320 local men to enrol. He was immediately appointed to command the battalion, first as a major but soon as its lieutenant colonel. It is probable that he also largely financed the enterprise with the help of several of his officers who were professional men in Ulverston.

The Ulverston Volunteers were soon re-named the Ulverston Volunteer Light Infantry and the officers wore a scarlet swallow-tail coat, blue cloth trousers and Hessian boots. Colonel Sunderland and his second-in-command sported cocked hats. There were four companies of soldiers under the command of  Captains Daniel Dickinson, Joseph Yarker, William Wilkinson and Myles Theodore Burton. The chaplain between 1803-1806 was the Colonel's elder son, the Revd John Sunderland (1769-1837), see above .In 1804 Anne Sunderland, the Colonel's wife, presented the battalion with their new colours at a public ceremony in which the colours were then consecrated by the chaplain. The volunteers then marched to St Mary's Church, preceded by their band, for a special service. Afterwards the officers dined with Colonel Sunderland and thereafter there was a well- attended ball at the Assembly Rooms.

Sunderland took great trouble to instruct and inspire his volunteers and produced a booklet entitled Exercise of Light Infantry with some instructions for their conduct in the field, and invented a military vehicle described at the time as ' a cart with side seats rather like an Irish jaunting car' for the purpose of conveying his troops rapidly around the countryside. The Colonel's enthusiasm and motivation apparently inspired his volunteers and he was universally popular with all ranks. Not only did the officers present him with various trophies ' as a tribute of respect, gratitude and attachment but, rather remarkably, the privates clubbed together and gave him a valuable horse as a charger.

However, after the decisive battle of Trafalgar 1805 the imminent threat of Napoleonic invasion greatly receded and in the following year Colonel Sunderland was forced to write to Lord Derby, the Lord Lieutenant of Lancashire, to say that due to the lack of continuing financial support, he had no option but to resign his command and disband the volunteers, having subsidized the enterprise from his own pocket since their inception. Both Lord Derby and the War Office wrote to him expressing their gratitude to him and his little army for their contribution at a time of national emergency.

The Artist

During all these years of busy public life and his many and various commercial enterprises in and around Ulverston Thomas Sunderland found time to pursue his hobby as a talented and prolific sketcher and watercolour artist. His works are now in the collections of many important English art galleries and museums, including Abbot Hall Art Gallery and Museum, Kendal, The Ashmolean Museum, Oxford, The British Museum, London, The Fitzwilliam Museum, Cambridge, Leeds City Art Gallery, The Whitworth Art Gallery, Manchester and The Victoria and Albert Museum in London.

Sunderland may have been a pupil of Joseph Farington (1747-1821), whom he certainly knew, and was probably also a pupil of either Alexander Cozens (1717-1786) or his son John Robert Cozens (1752-1797), or was influenced by their work, as is evident from his own style. As a gentleman amateur Sunderland never seems to have sold any of his work, so he presumably kept it or gave it to relations and friends; nor is there any evidence that he ever held a public exhibition

Thomas Sunderland usually drew or painted country scenes, sometimes featuring buildings, and, for the most part, they featured his travels in Great Britain and Ireland. He is thought never to have travelled abroad and any Continental scenes were apparently copied from other artists. As one might expect much of his work featured the Lake District, where he spent the whole of his adult life. For example he sketched or painted Muncaster Castle near Ravenglass, Belle Isle on Lake Windermere and Rydal Hall, Rydal. One of Sunderland’s most unusual and appealing watercolours, which echoes his military interests, is The High Sheriff of Lancashire crossing the sands at Morcambe Bay ( ex coll.Cornish Torbock, qv), which shows the High Sheriff’s coach preceded by soldiers marching into the sea up to their waists.

Apart from Sunderland’s work in public galleries and museums it appears that some of it remains in private hands, notably with his descendants the Frere family. There was a sale at Sotheby’s on the 14th July 1919, which included both prints and drawings by him. On the 5th May 1948 Sotheby’s sold a collection of six portfolios of drawings of country houses and castles by Sunderland. 

The last years

Thomas Sunderland's wife Anne died on 7 April 1809 aged sixty-five and the Colonel died on 4 July 1823 aged seventy-nine. They are buried together in the family vault in St Mary's churchyard, Ulverston over which there is an impressive hexagonal monument. All their children and several other descendants are also commemorated on this monument.

Thomas Sunderland's Will dated 20 June 1823 was a simple affair, leaving all his estate to his son the Revd John Sunderland but his Ulverston property was charged with sums of £2,000 each to his son Thomas and daughter Anne, Lady Lumley. However, the grant of probate (PCC, 1824) reveals that his personal estate was sworn at the low figure of ‘under £50’, although this would not have taken into account his real property, which must have been substantial if the combined charges of £4,000 was a realistic figure.

No portrait of Thomas Sunderland is known to exist.


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