The town of Shotley Bridge is situated on the eastern bank of the River Derwent and is an attractive place of mostly stone houses. Shotley Bridge is in County Durham but the much smaller and original Shotley from which it is probably named is just over on the other side of the Derwent in Northumberland. The name Shotley is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon words ‘Sceot-leah’ meaning the ‘steep slope clearing’, though it may possibly mean ‘clearing of the Scots’.
Shotley Bridge was closely associated with the Quakers who established one of their first meeting houses in the North of England here.
During the early nineteenth century the place developed as a spa town after a supposedly medicinal spring with saline waters was discovered. The spring was situated on a ‘haugh’, meaning flat riverside land, near the Derwent, to the north of Shotley Bridge, in the vicinity of what is now the cricket club.
A bathhouse with a dressing room and a shower was built near the site and the well was surrounded by a circular wooden trellised building with a conical thatched roof.
Shotley Bridge has many attractive stone houses and its brief era as a fashionable spa town resulted in the building of a number of interesting houses associated with those who chose to visit and reside here during that period.
The spa encouraged the building of delightful stone cottages some of which adopted an Alpine, Swiss style appearance most notably in the Snow’s Green Road area of the northern part of Shotley Bridge. Snow’s Green, a once separate place near the Elm Park Burn, was apparently named from Cuthbert Snawe, a clergyman who lived in the area in the eighteenth century. His house is said to have had a large garden or green attached to it. Sadly there is no evidence that green snow ever fell hereabouts.
Jonathan Richardson of Shotley Park Hall (it is now a care home) was the driving force behind the development of Shotley Bridge as a spa town. He had also been instrumental in the foundation of the Derwent Iron Company and Consett Iron Works of 1840. At around the same time the Shotley Bridge Iron and Tinplate Company was established with a works just north of those at Consett.
Although the spa, along with the two neighbouring iron works both stimulated the growth of Shotley Bridge, the two enterprises were perhaps not mutually compatible.
In the 1850s it was remarked that the presence of the iron works “had caused the delightful watering place to be nearly deserted”.
The Shotley Bridge Iron and Tinplate Company was relatively short-lived. In 1863 the works closed and were taken over by a new owner with a focus on iron. They were renamed the Shotley Bridge Iron Works. Three years later in 1866 this company was amalgamated with the Consett Iron Works and the two neighbouring iron works sites merged into one large complex.
Shotley Bridge Swordmaking
Long before the ironworks, Shotley Bridge was the heart of Britain’s swordmaking industry. The origins of this industry here dated to around 1691 when a group of Lutheran swordmakers from Solingen in Germany settled at Shotley Bridge after leaving their homeland to escape religious persecution. A terrace of cottages was built for the community in Wood Street near the river but sadly these were demolished in the 1960s.
Shotley Bridge had probably been chosen because of the rich iron deposits in the area and because of the fast flowing waters of the River Derwent, which were ideal for tempering swords. Another factor may have been the remoteness of the area, as the swordmakers were keen to preserve their trade secrets. The Derwent valley seemed an unlikely setting for industrial espionage.
It is also worth noting that the swordmakers were able to employ the services of the famous local engraver, Thomas Bewick of Newcastle. Gradually the German families who settled in the area: the Woper, Henkal, Vooz, Moll, Faws and Oley families abandoned their native language and all but the family name of Oley disappeared.
There is a story that one of the Shotley swordmaking fraternity, a certain William Oley (Ohlig), was once challenged by two other swordmakers to see who could make the sharpest and most resilient sword. On the day of the challenge, the three men turned up, but it seemed that Oley had forgotten to bring an example of his work. The two other swordmakers, assuming that he had been unable to make a sword of a suitable standard, began to boastfully demonstrate the strength, sharpness and resiliency of their workpieces.
Eventually their curiosity got the better of them and they asked Oley why he had not brought a sword. With a mischievous grin, Oley removed his stiff hat, to reveal a super-resilient sword, coiled up inside. He challenged the other two swordmakers to remove the sword from the hat, but their attempts nearly resulted in the loss of their fingers. In the end the sword could only be removed by means of a vice. For strength, sharpness and resiliency Oley’s sword was undoubtedly the winner.
Sadly, swords are no longer made in the Shotley Bridge district but in Cutlers Hall Road in adjoining Benfieldside just to the south of Shotley Bridge a remnant of this time is a house called Cutlers Hall which was built by the Oley family of swordmakers. It dates from 1787.
In the 1850s Benfieldside (the name means hillside of the bean field) was neither the site of a town nor a village. It was the home to a parish church built in the Early English medieval style by the famed North East architect John Dobson in 1849 and this can still be seen in Church Bank. The church would have served the blossoming population of the neighbourhood. Little is known of the early history of Benfieldside although it is known that two residents from the manor took part in the 1569 Rising of the North plot against Queen Elizabeth I.
The bridge across the Derwent at Shotley Bridge links the town to the smaller village of Shotley just across the river in Northumberland. The most notable feature of little Shotley on that side of the river is Shotley Hall, a romantic-style neo-Gothic house of 1863 built by the architect, Edward Robson, who was an associate of John Dobson.
Situated in Shotley Park, the hall was built for a wealthy local magistrate called Thomas Wilson whose family had made their fortune from lead mining in the Nenthead area of Cumberland. Nenthead is just over the border from Northumberland and Durham to the west of Weardale. A number of windows in this private house were created by the famed ‘arts and crafts’ designer, William Morris.
Ebchester and St Ebba
Ebchester was the place where the Roman road called Dere Street (the Forest way) once crossed the River Derwent on the route between York and Hadrian’s Wall. It was the site of a Roman fort called Vindomara, a name that means ‘Edge of the Black Moor’.
The site of the Roman fort has undergone very little excavation, as it is largely built over, but some Roman remains, including an altar are incorporated into the stonework of the village church.
Ebchester church, dedicated to St Ebba, stands at what would have been the south west corner of the Roman fort. It is a Norman church with nineteenth century alterations and is said to occupy the site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery founded by St Ebba in the seventh century.
St Ebba was the daughter of Aethelfrith, the first King of all Northumbria, but there is no proof of the existence of her monastery at Ebchester. Perhaps it was later destroyed by the Vikings.
Hamsterley, Derwentcote and Medomsley
Hamsterley derives its name from an old word ‘hamstra’, meaning a corn weevil which is a kind of beetle and has the same meaning as the Hamsterley between Teesdale and Weardale,
There are three Hamsterley villages on the Derwent. The first two are Hamsterley Colliery (where a colliery was worked from 1864 to 1968) and then we have the adjoining village of Hamsterley itself. Across the river to the immediate north of here is Blackhall Mill on the Gateshead side of the river.
The other Hamsterley is Hamsterley Mill on the Durham side just over a mile to the east. Hamsterley Hall to the south of Hamsterley Mill was once the home to the writer Robert Smith Surtees (1803-1864). Not to be confused with Robert Surtees the Durham historian, (who lived at Mainsforth near Ferryhill).
Robert Smith Surtees was famous for his novels about foxhunting and country pursuits. He was the founder of the New Sporting Magazine of 1831, which featured his best known creation ‘Jorrocks’ ‘the Sporting grocer’. Surtees is buried in the churchyard at Ebchester.
Half way between Hamsterley and Hamsterley Mill is situated the Derwentcote Steel Furnace, which is a property of English Heritage. It is the earliest and most complete steel-making furnace in Britain. Built in the 1720s it converted wrought iron into steel using a process called cementation. The furnace ceased operating in 1891.
Medomsley, on the road to Consett south of the Hamsterleys has a name that means ‘the middlemost clearing’ and was mentioned in Durham’s Boldon Buke of 1183.
Early owners of Medosmley included the Almoner of Durham, the Felton family and the Hastings family. In 1490 the Hastings sold Medomsley to George Carr, a merchant of Newcastle. Medomsley Colliery was established by Edward Richardson in 1839 and operated up until 1972.