Beamish is best known for being the home of the Living Museum of the North. It was the brainchild of a Yorkshireman, Frank Atkinson, formerly the Director of the Bowes Museum at Barnard Castle, who began collecting artefacts related to the social and industrial history of North East England. His collections resulted in the foundation of a museum at Beamish Hall in 1970 that eventually developed into Beamish Open Air Museum.
The project to build such a museum was first conceived by Atkinson in 1958 and in the early days some artefacts were stored in the huts of the former Brancepeth Army camp near Durham City.
From 1970 the North of England Open Air Museum at Beamish was financed by a joint committee of local authorities from across the North East region and continues to be so today. Features preserved at the museum come from across the entire region from Teesside to Northumberland.
From 1970 to 1972 displays were confined to the hall but the open-air aspects of the museum became increasingly accessible after that time and the museum now covers an area of more than 300 acres.
Beamish Hall is no longer part of the museum and has been a hotel since the year 2000. Many of the buildings, features, artefacts and costumed staff of the museum recreate life in the North East of England as it was around 1913 with an additional area of the site at Pockerley focusing on 1820 and a new area currently under development will focus on the 1950s.
Buildings at Beamish include the Home Farm of about 1800. This farm stood on the site long before the museum and was originally the stables associated with Beamish Hall.
The museum town has been constructed from the re-erection of dismantled buildings brought from across the region including a terraced street – Ravensworth Terrace from Bensham in Gateshead, a masonic hall from Sunderland, a co-operative store from Annfield Plain and a public house called the Sun Inn from Bishop Auckland. Other buildings in the town include a print works and stationers, dentistry and a brewery with stables and real horses.
The museum’s railway station called Beamish Station is in truth Rowley Station brought here from the tiny settlement of Rowley near Consett and dates from 1867. Other features at the museum include a bandstand from Saltwell Park in Gateshead, a railway signal box from Carr House East near Consett and a goods shed from Alnwick.
In the coal mine area of the museum is the Wesleyan Methodist Chapel of 1854 that actually came from the real Beamish village (Pit Hill) that lies just outside the museum grounds while the museum school came from the nearby village of East Stanley.
The museum’s row of pit cottages come from a street in Hetton-le-Hole. This was Francis Street and in their original setting were back to back with with another colliery row in which lived a coal mining ancestor of Kate Middleton, the Duchess of Cambridge.
However, the nearby drift mine at the museum called Mahogany drift was here long before the museum opened. The Mahogany Drift was one of many mines that existed in the Beamish area. The colliery buildings in the museum are also from the locality. The winding gear and colliery building are from the Beamish Number 2 pit and dominate the colliery area of the museum.
The eastern part of the museum has an 1825 theme and includes a recreated colliery wagonway called the ‘Pockerley Wagonway’ with a working replica of George Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One and another early steam locomotive called ‘a steam elephant’.
The nearby farm called Pockerley Manor also has an 1825 theme, but this farm was here long before the museum opened. It is part-medieval stone house and replaced an earlier fortified manor house of Norman origin that stood here. Pockerley has an intriguing Old English name that derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Pocca’, its name means ‘clearing of the hobgoblin’. This part of the museum is also home to the medieval church of St Helen which was moved here piece by piece from Eston near Middlesbrough and rebuilt on the site. The individual parts of the museum are all linked together by means of real electric tramcars or an open top bus.
Beamish has a name that goes back to Norman times when it was given its French name ‘Beau Mes’ meaning ‘beautiful mansion’. The original Beamish was probably located where Beamish Hall stands today. The landscape around is certainly of great beauty.
There were still French connections in 1268 when one Guiscard De Charron became the Lord of Beamish. De Charron also inherited Tanfield after a man called Philip De La Ley gave him the land when De Charron married Isabel of Tanfield. The De La Ley’s were descended from Gilbert De La Ley after whom the Durham village of Witton Gilbert is named. The De La Leys are also remembered in the name of the village of Tanfield Lea.
Other owners in early times included the Monbouchers, Harbotels and Percys. In 1572 the manor and park of Beamish were granted to a Sir Henry Gate who in turn granted them in 1593 to a Henry Jackman of London. In the 1700s it belonged to Morton Davison (1721-1774) and then Sir John Eden of Windlestone, Morton’s grandson. Eden took the name Davison but was succeeded by a John Methold who, confusingly, took the name Eden.
At the end of the nineteenth century Beamish Hall was still owned by the Edens who remained until 1904 then it passed to the Shaftoes in whose hands it remained until 1949. In 1953 the hall became the regional headquarters for the National Coal Board for ten years and then home of an adult training centre run by Durham County Council. From 1970 it was part of Beamish Museum, housing the initial collections of the museum but in 2000 it became a hotel.
There must have been a prominent house at Beamish from relatively early times, but the core of present day Beamish Hall dates from around 1620 with the main part of the house dating from 1737. There was further remodelling of the building in 1813 and extensions to the entranceway were made in 1901.
Mining at Beamish
It was Morton Davison of Beamish Hall who opened the first known colliery at Beamish in 1763. It was unusual because although it was only about 8 miles south-west from Newcastle and situated amongst coal mines that generally shipped coals to the Tyne, the coals from Beamish colliery were sent, “by means of fixed engines, inclined planes, and horses” to Fatfield on the River Wear, a distance of about 6 miles.
For many years a powerful coal owning cartel called the “Grand Allies” gained the mining rights here after Beamish was acquired from the Davison family in the 1700s. By the 1830s the colliery belonged to Sir Robert Eden.
Two early wooden wagonways served Beamish collieries. One was Beamish wagonway, linked to coal staithes at Chatershaugh and Fatfield on the River Wear. This railroad developed by Sir John Eden of Beamish Hall partly followed the course of what is now the A693 in the Pelton and Handenhold areas. A branch of the Tanfield wagonway also operated in this area.
This line headed north west from Beamish and then north to the River Tyne at Dunston. Steam locomotives now work part of this line as a tourist attraction called the Tanfield Railway but of course the original wooden wagonway has long since gone.
A separate branch of the Tanfield wagonway further to the north and crossed a stream by means of the Causey Arch railway bridge of 1727, the oldest existing railway bridge in the world. This was an earlier stretch of line than that which was linked to Beamish. Here however we have strayed beyond the bounds of Beamish. We should of course note that it was horses and not steam locomotives that operated the early wooden wagonways of the 1700s.
Other mines opened at Beamish in the later eighteenth and through into the twentieth century included Edge Pit of 1763, the 2nd pit of 1784, the 5th and 6th pit of 1784, the Water Pit of 1832 and Air Pit of 1849. There were other small pits in the area including the Beamish Ice Pit, Beamish Centre Pit and Beamish Dike Pit all in the region of No Place and all marked on the 1860s Ordnance Survey map.
Deeper mining came to the area in the 1820s and 1830s that resulted in a significant increase in the production of coal. This caused an expansion of housing in the Beamish area. The Beamish 2nd pit opened as a new mine in 1824 and close by, near No Place, East Stanley Colliery (Beamish Colliery East Stanley Pit) opened in 1833.
By the 1850s the mine interests were in the hands of the ever-expanding coal owning business of the Joicey family and continued to be so throughout the rest of the century. In the 1920s they came under the ownership of Lambton, Hetton and Joicey Collieries Ltd but mining activity ceased at Beamish in 1966.
Before the time of the Joiceys, the local mines at Beamish had been linked to staithes on the River Wear at Chatershaugh and Fatfield near Washington via the Beamish wagonway that dated back to the 1780s.
From the Washington riverside coal was carried down the river by keelboats to waiting Sunderland ships. Like many mine owners of the time, the Joiceys were always looking for ways to reduce costs and improve the speed and efficiency of the coal exporting process. Their answer was to link the old Beamish wagonway to the Stanhope and Tyne railway at Ouston enabling coal to be taken to Pelaw Main Staithes on the River Tyne near Bill Quay. Here improved staithe developments allowed coal to be loaded directly on to waiting ships.
Despite the early development of collieries in the Beamish area, the pit village south east of Beamish Hall saw most growth in the second half of the nineteenth century.
The 1860s map shows there were at that time only a few houses and buildings in the area. One notable building that is still there today is The Shepherd and Shepherdess Inn. The painted lead figures of a shepherd and shepherdess outside this pub are said to have been smuggled into the country as works of art at a time when most lead was being claimed for the Napoleonic War effort. The pub is a familiar place to visitors at neighbouring Beamish Museum as it stands quite close to the museum entrance.
In the 1830s and 1850s the mining settlement of Pit Hill, which became Beamish village was described as a hamlet of “two farmsteads and two public houses”. The place was occupied by the viewer, agent, overmen and mechanics of adjacent pits.
Close to the Shepherd and Shepherdess are almshouses called Methold Houses built for the relief of the poor in 1863. The almshouses were built by John Eden (formerly John Methold) of Beamish Hall for the relief of eleven poor people with money donated by the donor for their upkeep.
In 1894 a trade directory seems to show that Pit Hill was still the preferred name for Beamish village, but that year a railway station opened in the village called Beamish Station and this will have encouraged the adoption of the name. The station was operational until 1953 and closed to goods in 1960. It has now gone and should not be confused with the railway station at Beamish Museum that has a quite different history. The new branch line on which the station was built served the Consett iron works and linked it to both Tyneside and Teesside.
Following closure the line was uprooted and now serves as part of a long distance footpath and cycle path that runs east to west through the Beamish area. On the section of the path near Beamish are rather intriguing sculptures of cows made from old JCB parts.
Known as the Beamish Shorthorns they were designed by an artist called Sally Matthews. There are many unusual sculptures of this kind at various points along the cycleway that stretches from Sunderland to the coast of Cumbria, though it should be noted that the Stanhope and Tyne Railway never stretched that far.
No Place and The Beamish Mary
A short wagonway once linked the Beamish Wagonway to East Stanley Colliery, also known as ‘Beamish Colliery East Stanley Pit’ and close to here was built a small street of four cottages called No Place that was already in existence by the mid nineteenth century though how the place got its name is a matter of dispute.
One view is that the houses stood on a boundary between parishes and that neither parish would accept responsibility for them. This could be true as No Place was historically situated on the boundary of the old parish of Chester-le-Street.
Another theory is that the name was once ‘nigh place’ or ‘near place’, but near to what? In 1983 signs were erected renaming the hamlet Co-operative Villas but the angry No Placers protested and it soon regained the old name on the signpost, though Co-operative Villas still remains on signposts as well.
In truth Co-operative Villas was a separate place that appeared later in the nineteenth century and it consisted of a long terrace just to the north of No Place. By the 1920s three further terraces were added to Co-operative Villas and by the 1950s No Place was demolished but Co-operative Villas lived on. However locals often referred to Co-operative Villas as No Place and the No Place name survives.
Just to the east of No Place and Co-operative Villas were Beamish Colliery’s Mary Pit (opened 1883) and Beamish Ann Colliery. The name of the Beamish Mary Pit is still remembered in the Beamish Mary Inn, a well-known public house at No Place that dates from 1897. The pub has only been known by this name since 1987 and was previously called the Red Robin.
Beamish Burn : The Upper Team Valley
As well as mining other industrial activity associated with the Beamish area in past times included paper making at nearby Urpeth, a flint mill and a number of iron forges. These industries were all clustered around the Beamish Burn or Urpeth Burn as it also appears to have been known to the south of Beamish.
Beamish Burn is in fact the upper stretch of the River Team but starts life as the Causey Burn and Bobgins Burn to the north near Tanfield. The name Tanfield incidentally takes its name from a corruption of ‘Team Field’ – the field where the River Team rises.
Forges in the Beamish area included one at Urpeth along with Low Forge (also called Hustings Forge), Middle Forge, and High Forge. There was housing associated with this industry nearby, including a street called Hammer Square. All of these sites were on the southern or eastern banks of the burn where it forms a prominent meander that loops around Ousbrough Wood at the foot of Ousbrough Hill.
In 1841 around 76 people are known to have worked amongst the woods here when it was a great hive of activity. It seems to have been so since the late 1700s and by 1803 a plan was even formulated that considered linking the Beamish Burn to the River Tyne by means of a canal.
During the Napoleonic Wars High Forge was said to be casting what was described as the “finest muzzle-loading canon in England”. The forge industry lasted until 1877 when a milldam was swept away in a flood and the forges were dismantled.
Water was an important element in the forging process and the waters of the Urpeth/Beamish Burn provided the source. A watercourse called a leat – a kind of millrace was built alongside the burn to supply water to High Forge.
Low Forge, the most southerly of the three forges was probably the oldest and was situated on a tiny stream that joins the Urpeth Burn on its south side in the woods just north of Beamish village.
Forges in this area were operated for many decades by the Gateshead firm of Hawks and Co. Incidentally William Hawks, the founder of the firm had also operated a forge on the Lumley Park Burn near Lumley Castle from 1780 to 1830.
The goods made at the Beamish forge included shovels, hammers and files all needed in the local mining industry. The wages were relatively good for the time – much better than those of neighbouring coal miners. It is perhaps appropriate that a huge steam hammer from an iron forge greets the visitor at the entrance way to Beamish Open Air Museum.
The hammer known as ‘Tiny Tim’ makes a fantastic gateway to the museum and includes a plaque explaining its history: “Tiny Tim Drop Forge steam hammer built 1883 for the Darlington Forge Company, later moved to John Baker and Co. Rotherham. Donated by English Steel Corporation 1966 total weight 90 tons overall. height 35 feet”