Jump to accessibility statement Skip to content

Sunderland story to set sail centre stage on BBC Radio 4

Home / More / News / Sunderland story to set sail centre stage on BBC Radio 4

Published on 27 March 2024

William's Castle illustration by Jacob Goff
William's Castle illustration by Jacob Goff

The story behind a letter written by an orphaned choir boy in 1897, which was discovered over 100 years later during a church renovation in Sunderland, is the inspiration behind a new BBC Radio 4 audio drama.

Written and produced by a University of Sunderland graduate and starring north-east television and film actress Charlie Hardwick, William’s Castle is based on a true Sunderland story.

Thirteen-year-old William Elliot lived at the Sunderland Orphan Asylum; a home dedicated to educating boys whose fathers died at sea. Haunted by dreams of his late father, and troubled by his fate, he scribbled a plea to be remembered on the back of an order of service.

“Dear friend. Whoever finds this letter, don’t tear it up or throw it away. Keep it, in remembrance of me. Signed, William Elliott.”

Over 100 years later, during the renovation of arts and events venue 17Nineteen in the East End of Sunderland, formerly the Holy Trinity Church, his letter was found hidden between the wooden panels of a pew. The discovery inspired the community of Hendon to reach back through history and find out: What happened to William and his plea to be remembered? 

A search began, eagerly pursued by various volunteers in the local community united by the quest; they engaged in extensive research, scoured the records, and eventually uncovered William's story.

Research by 17Nineteen – operated by the Churches Conservation Trust – revealed that by 1901 William, who received a good education at the orphanage, was working as a clerk for a local solicitor. Further research from volunteers who came forward after reading about William’s letter has revealed he joined his older sister Edith in America when he was just 19. He arrived in New York in March 1903 and, seven months later, enlisted in the US Navy. That was the start of a 42-year career, during which he served in the First World War and later on a variety of Navy vessels before retiring in 1939.

William died in a San Diego rest home in 1960, aged 84. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C; the final resting place for more than 14,000 US military veterans.

Lily Daniels, 17Nineteen’s Participant and Engagement Officer, was so touched by William’s story that she felt it would resonate with people nationwide and reached out to University of Sunderland MA Radio graduate-turned Lecturer in Audio, Jay Sykes, to develop the idea into a drama for radio.

Jay, who has written and produced the programme for north-east based audio production company Sister Sounds, said: “There’s something universal, and also beautiful, about wanting to be remembered.

“When writing William’s Castle, I wanted to explore the metaphor of the murkiness of time, in both directions; people in the present reaching back through time, just as much as a scared young boy reaching out into his unknown future.” 

Alongside boasting a range of talented north-east actors, including Charlie Hardwick, William’s Castle features original music by singer-songwriters Holly Rees and Paige Temperley; both who have written songs connected to the church and surrounding area in We Make Culture’s ‘Songs of the Streets’ project, funded by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Sunderland MA Radio graduate Chantal Herbert is executive producer of William’s Castle and founder and director of Sister Sounds.

Chantal set up Sister Sounds shortly after graduating to pitch stories from the area to national BBC networks. William’s Castle is the company’s first show to be aired. 

Chantal said: “Bringing William’s Castle to BBC Radio 4 has been an enriching experience. I have learned so much and met so many wonderful people. The story is captivating and universally thought-provoking. 

“Jay has done Sunderland proud with his script and storytelling, and I can’t wait for everyone to hear how well this has been put together.”

Chantal is also a Charles Parker prize winner, audio producer, community organiser, public speaker, DJ and an intersectional feminist whose work centres around social inclusion and change. 

She said: "I have spent half of my 40 years living in the north-east, so much so that I now feel that this is much more my home than anywhere else. I have noticed the disparity of voices and stories heard on national radio, and I am making it my mission to change this in some small way. 

“Championing and amplifying the voices of this most marginalised is my central focus. As an intersectionality marginalised person, I understand the need for this focus, and I am delighted to have the ability to bring these stories to others."

You can hear William’s Castle on Easter Monday (April 1) at 2.15pm on BBC Radio 4.

There will also be a listening party with live music and a panel discussion on Friday 12 April, 6pm – 7pm, at 17Nineteen, Holy Trinity Church, Sunderland, SR1 2BB. Entry is free with a ticket. Book here.  

For more information on the University of Sunderland's Radio, Audio and Podcasting MA, click here.