I also find this subject intriguing.
It’s likely that we’ve exhausted our Online research into this puzzle, and any further investigation would need to be via local archives.
Barrie Mortimer posted an image on the board that he found on the Durham in Old Pictures Facebook website. Barrie contacted the lady that posted the image, though without response. My daughter is on Facebook, so also contacted the lady without any response.
James Goring, kindly visited Hebburn and inspected the surrounding walls of both the St Oswalds church/old vicarage of St Oswalds Road, and the old former St Cuthberts vicarage, at Witty Avenue, and no plaque was evident - which proved that the plaque was not at those 2 places, therefore must be at St Johns.
On the same day that James e-mailed me his photographs, the lady from Facebook replied to my daughter about the vicarage plaque photograph that she had posted on the Durham in Old Pictures Facebook website; she said that the 1944 photograph came from and was taken by her late Father-in-law, and he normally took photographs of things about to fall down or get demolished.
Later, while researching on the Internet I found the following information:
“In 1886, Colonel Ralph Carr Ellison altered the servants' quarters of Ellison Hall into a vestibule for the newly-converted St John's Church, on the north side of the hall. The hall's west wing became the vicarage.
[What we must ask ourselves, is, were these building projects separate entities? What I mean by that is, did the newly formed St Johns church have a foundation plaque (11 Aug 1886 (Chris is will look for this on Sunday)), and did St Johns vicarage have its own foundation stone (sometime in 1886 – possibly the one in the wall with the ‘J6 + RE + 86’ inscribed onto it)?]
And to confuse the matter, Ellison Hall must have had its own foundation stone prior to 1886.
There are presently two ideas of what the stone in the wall signifies:
1. Barry Cram: Ralph Ellison converted part of the hall into a vicarage in 1886: maybe this is what is recorded on the plaque? Ralph Ellison 1886 = R. E. 86.
The lady on Facebook said that the plaque was in a vicarage wall in 1944, so the above information (R. E. 86) seems to fit with the opening of St Johns vicarage, but, what does the ‘j 6’ indicate? Could it be ‘January’, ’June’ or ‘July’ 6th, or even 'J' = St Johns, and '6' = June?
The newspapers show that the foundation stone of St Johs Church was laid 11 August 1886, though, searching the newspapers, I can’t find which month in 1886 the vicarage opened – though it’s possible that they were classed as one property.
2. Mac Cummings: Robert Ellison became 21 in 1686: maybe this was recorded on the plaque at a time when the vicarage was part of Ellison hall.
This would only be logical if the stone plaque was a private thing, hence no need for elaboration, as the family knew what it meant and outsiders didn’t need to, but the case is still open.
It’s possible that either ‘1’ Or ‘2’ could be correct, though I’m leaning towards Mac’s idea, as it fits all of the criteria and mine is lacking because of the unsure inscription, ‘J6’.
Like you, Don, I’ve searched Online, but can’t find any stone inscriptions that show the letter ‘J’ in place of the number 1; though, I did find proof that the letter ‘j’ was used in place of the number 1 on metal, as follows:
Searching the Internet, I found this rubbing of an inscription of a bell in Belfast, which reads: WMP Wightman made me 1686:
It was so exciting when Chris Wilson, church warden at St Johns church told us that local Sunday School children had searched for and found the plaque: ‘J6 + R E + 86’ – how good’s that? :
At first, I thought that the plaque might have been left in situ and the wall heightened, but, after doing some measuring, it seems that the plaque in the original wall is just over 3 times the height of the wall we can see, and the plaque in the wall behind the unit is only just over 2 times the height of the interior wall, which would signify that the plaque was removed from the vicarage wall in about 1944 and set into the interior wall.
The 1941-42 map below, of St Johns church and vicarage, shows that there was no church hall at that time, though the up-to-date map shows the hall, which would have likely been built just after the 1944 photograph was taken:
It is probable that the plaque was in a wall at the rear of the vicarage, shown by the red X, and that the wall was replaced by or incorporated into the new hall wall in about 1944.
The following pic taken by Chris Wilson, shows the modern plastic plaque. I think this new modern plaque could be erroneous, as I expect the church has its own plaque/foundation stone: (11 Aug 1886) which should still be intact on the church, and which the Sunday School children will look for on Sunday.
In the wall underneath the plastic plaque sits the ancient stone plaque: J6 + RE + 86.
Looking again at the following 1944 image of the plaque in the wall, a tree can be seen behind it:
Is it possible that the tree is still there, as shown in the image below?
Red X equals roughly where the ancient plaque now sits… is it possible that one of these trees, is the same tree in the pic above, only older?
The trees have likely been pollarded over the years, so could have lost their original shape.
These are the facts so far and give us something to ponder over.
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