When most people think of Billingham on Teesside they think of a twentieth century town best known as the site of a huge petro-chemical works but like neighbouring Norton, Billingham has ancient origins and even has an an Anglo-Saxon church and an historic village green.
The old part of Billingham – the original village of Billingham – is now called Billingham Green and you have to climb a bank to reach its hill-top site. Here in times past there would have been extensive views of the surrounding vale of the Tees out towards the marshlands of Cowpen and the estuary of the Tees itself, with Roseberry Topping and the Cleveland Hills over on the old Yorkshire side of the river beyond to the south.
Billingham has an Anglo-Saxon name that was once thought to mean ‘the homestead of Billa’s people’ but is now thought to come from the location of the old village on a ‘billing’ – the bill-shaped hill on which it stands.
In the seventh century Billingham had been part of the Saxon district called Heortness which stretched from the River Tees to Castle Eden, but later, around the 9th century, a separate district called Billingamshire was established.
In about 800 AD a man called Wada was attacked and defeated in a battle at Billingham or possibly on lands between Norton and Billingham by Ardulf, the King of Northumbria. Ardulf’s predecessor, Ethelred, had been assassinated at Corbridge by a band of men under the leadership of Wada five years earlier.
It was about the year 900 AD that Billingham and its shire was given by the Bishop of Chester-le-Street to a nobleman called Elfred who had sought refuge in the North East at a time when his native North West was being invaded by the Vikings.
From the late Anglo-Saxon period Billingham belonged to the followers of St Cuthbert until it was captured by the Irish-Norse leader King Ragnald of Dublin in the tenth century A.D.
Ragnald gave Billingham along with other lands in the vicinity of the north Tees vale to one of his men, an Irish-Viking knight called Scula or Scule who was probably encouraged to exercise patronage in favour of his own people. Scula’s new territory stretched from the Tees to Castle Eden Dene and possibly included School Aycliffe to the north of Darlington, which means Scula’s Aycliffe.
There are a small number of Viking place-names in the Billingham and Stockton area, notably those beginning with Thorpe, such as Thorpe Thewles which means the ‘farm of the immoral’. The local term ‘beck’ used for streams in the area is of Viking origin though the Billingham area also has a stream called the North Burn – burn being a word of Anglo-Saxon origin that is used today by the Scots and Northumbrians.
After Viking times Billinghamshire was the estate of the Priors of Durham Cathedral and it was given to them or confirmed as their possession by King William I. The shire included Billingham, Belasis, Cowpen Bewley, Newton Bewley and Wolviston.
Billingham church, dedicated to St Cuthbert, is one of Billingham’s biggest surprises with a Saxon tower dating to 1000AD though some other parts of the church including parts of the nave are older, dating to the 7th or early 8th century. Modern extensions of the church date to the Victorian era and late 1930s.
In medieval times a family called Billingham descended from a man called John De Cowhird lived at Billingham and had taken their surname from the place. They later moved to Crook Hall near Durham City, a place with which they became more closely associated. By the 1600s notable families at Billingham were the Andersons and Chapmans.
In the nineteenth century Billingham was still a tiny village and was even smaller than the village of Norton, to the west, from which its lands were separated by the Lustrum Beck and a mill race. To the north of Billingham across the countryside to the north was Wolviston, a village that was then much larger than Billingham but now just falls short of being physically absorbed by the town of Billingham today.
Another village, called Cowpen Bewley lay across the countryside to the north east of Billingam near the Cowpen marshes. About the same size as the old village of Billingham, like Wolviston, it too has now almost been absorbed by Billingham’s growth. Between Wolviston and Cowpen Bewley another village, Newton Bewley still remains as an isolated separate village on the Stockton to Hartlepool road.
Staying in the 19th century, to the east of Billingham and towards a sweeping broad meander of the Tees at Bamlet’s Bight was yet more open countryside, save for the site of farms called Billingham Grange and Tibbersley and a small salt works near the river. Today this whole former countryside area is now the home to the Billingham chemical works (and has been since 1917) along with other neighbouring industries.
Wolviston – the farm or estate that once belonged to someone with the Anglo-Saxon name Wulf is still a substantial village just outside the northern edge of Billingham. It has excellent links to the adjoining road network being very close to the A19 and A689 and the nearby business park at Wynyard. For significant parts of its course, the A19 more or less follows the course of the old Stockton to Sunderland turnpike but it passes Woviston to the west. Here in Wolviston, the village High Street on the eastern side of the village follows the course of the earlier turnpike road.
One of Wolviston’s best-known residents in medieval times was Richard De Ingeniater who used a wolf emblem as his personal seal and seems to have undertaken engineering works for Bishop Pudsey of Durham in the 1100s. It was Richard who built the keep for the bishop’s castle at Norham on the River Tweed near Berwick. Norham and Norhamshire was a distant northern part of Durham that lay on the border with Scotland.
A railway – the old Clarence Railway – which has been here since 1833 divides the chemical works area of Billingham from Belasis Hall Technology Park to the north. The business park is named from Belasis Hall which has an Old French name meaning beautiful seat. From about the time of the Norman Conquest Belasis was home to a family called Belasis who took their name from the site and their moated hall once stood here. It was later a manor house of the Lambton and Eden families.
Around 1272 one member of the Belasis family, a John De Belasis, was desperate to go and fight in the Crusades but his legal obligations as the owner of the manor of Belasis prevented him from doing so. His solution was to make an exchange of the lands with the Prior of Durham Cathedral for lands at Henkowle in the Gaunless Valley near St Andrew’s Auckland at South Church.
Belasis regretted his decision on his return and his mistake was recalled in a window of St Andrew’s church, with the following couplet:
“Bellysis, Bellysis, daft was thy sowell,
When exchanged Bellysis for Henkowell”
Later owners of Bellasis included members of the Great Stainton branch of the Lambton family and from the 1570s, the Eden family. Belasis should not be confused with a village called Belasis that was created in 1917 at bearby Haverton Hill to serve the Furness Shipyard.
Cowpen Bewley is an interesting old village situated around a green on the north eastern edge of Billingham with the Cowpen salt marshes to its east. The village is a quiet secluded spot in a rural setting and in medieval times the Priory of Durham Cathedral owned a grange (or farm) here.
It might be easy to forget that you’re still close to the heart of industrial Teesside save for a perfect framed view of the not-so-distant Transporter Bridge which can be seen through a gap between two of the old houses in the village. The most intriguing old house in the village is called Ivy Cottage and has interesting brickwork. The house has a late 18th century or 17th century façade.
The name Cowpen is incidentally pronounced ‘coopen’ and could derive from a Viking word ‘kupa’ meaning ‘a cup like depression’. This may have been caused by the construction of salt pans in the area. Salt has been excavated in the Billingham area since ancient times and was arguably the first chemical industry in the district.
However, the more favoured view for explaining the name is that the ‘coop’ comes from the Anglo-Saxon word ‘cupe’ meaning ‘basket’ – a basket for catching fish – which was used to trap fish in the streams that feed the Tees estuary.
Cowpen Bewley and the nearby village of Newton Bewley to the north were both historically part of a manor called Bewley which is a name that comes from the Old French ‘Beau-Lieu’ meaning beautiful place.
Seal Sands and the Tees Estuary
Just north of Cowpen Bewley we find the extensive woodland of the Cowpen Bewley Woodland Park but to the east and south east of Cowpen Bewley we find a very different landscape. Here we enter the vast plain of an estuarine landscape of marshes, ponds and a multitude of creeks and pools bordered on the river bank areas by much industry.
The extensive interconnecting nature reserves of the area include Paddy’s Pool Nature Reserve and the RSPB Saltholme Nature Reserve near Port Clarence, with the Cowpen Marsh Nature Reserve further along the Seaton Carew Road. This road crosses the most prominent creek of the area, the Greatham Creek (named from the village to the north near Hartlepool) which enters the mouth of the Tees at nearby Seal Sands.
Though still extensive today, the actual estuarine sands of Seal Sands were much broader with about a third remaining today. Much of the bay was reclaimed for industrial development and the reclaimed part of Seal Sands is the site of an oil refinery.
Here is the terminus of the two hundred and twenty mile long Ekofisk oil pipeline by which oil and gas liquids are piped ashore from the Ekofisk oilfield for processing at one of the largest plants of its kind in the world. Today oil exporting is one of Teesside’s most important industries.
Despite all the heavy industry, the Tees estuary as evidenced by the numerous nature reserves, is very important for its wildlife. In particular, the estuary is the winter home to thousands of wildfowl and waders.
Seals can still be seen basking in this curious landscape of nature and industry. Autumn and Winter is the best time of the year for viewing wildlife at the Tees estuary.
The main species are Little Stints, Curlew Sandpipers, Ruffs, Greenshanks, Wood Sandpipers, Bar-Tailed Godwits and Whimbrels. In winter time Golden Plovers may also be seen but Winter is best for duck-watching when the main species are Shoveler Ducks, Widgeon, Long-Tailed Ducks, Goldeneye and Teal.
On the north side of Seal Sands is the Hartlepool Power Station, Tees Bay Business Park and extensive nature reserves of Seaton Common just south of Seaton Carew. Adjoining the common is the breakwater pier of the North Gare and accompanying sands of the Teesmouth National Reserve where the Tees meets the sea at a sandy beach backed by dunes. The North Gare along with the counterpart South Gare at Redcar across the Tees mark the very entrance to the mouth of the Tees.
Haverton Hill and Port Clarence
Heading back up the river, Haverton Hill to the south of Cowpen Bewley is thought to be named from an old word ‘Hofer’ which means hill, and named from a rounded hill alongside the Tees, but at some stage the meaning was forgotten and the word hill was also added to the name.
Haverton Hill was once noted for salt making and an ironworks but it was for shipbuilding that it was perhaps best known. A shipyard was established here in 1917 by Christopher Furness of Hartlepool and a community of 531 houses was built called Belasis. The shipyard was taken over by Tyneside shipbuilders Swan Hunter in 1966 and finally closed in 1979.
Port Clarence is situated on the Tees to the east of Haverton Hill at the northern terminus of the famous Transporter Bridge of 1911 which links the north side of the river to Middlesbrough. Port Clarence owes its origin to the Victorian entrepreneur Christopher Tennant who developed the Clarence Railway here between 1828 and 1833.
Chrisopher Tennant had named Port Clarence and the Clarence Railway after William the Duke of Clarence, who later became King William IV. The Clarence Railway linked coal mines in south Durham with coal staithes on the River Tees.
The staithes were known as the Clarence staithes and became the site of Port Clarence. Port Clarence rivalled the newly born port at Middlesbrough on the opposite side of the Tees but never grew into a place of any significant scale though an iron works was opened here in 1853 by Losh Bell and Brothers.
Salt – the first Teesside chemical industry
The earliest chemical industry in the Billingham area was salt making which may have very early origins as an ancient salter’s track ran through this area north to Wearmouth and south to Whitby. Salt may have been made in this area in Roman times.
Whatever its early origins, salt exploitation was not specifically mentioned until the year 1290 when a certain Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce King of Scotland) granted a salt pan in Hart village to Sir John Rumundebi formerly held by Adam the Miller “at the rental of a pair of white gloves or a penny at Easter”. The large salt pans were used in the production of salt through the evaporation of sea water.
The De Brus family were important land owners in the district called Hart which extended along the east coast from the Tees to the valley of Castle Eden. Hart, also known as Heortness included Billingham and the port of Hartlepool.
The salt pan granted by De Brus may have been located at Cowpen near Billingham as this is known to have been an important centre of the salt making industry in the fourteenth century. It is recorded that 35 quarters of salt were bought at Cowpen in 1330 at different prices with a total cost of £5,7s and 6d. An early account of salt making at Coatham near Redcar over on the other side of the Tees describes the working of salt pans:
“And as the Tyde comes in, yt bringeth a small wash sea-cole which is imployed to the makinge of salte, and the Fuell of the poore fisher Townes adjoininge; the oylie sulphurousness beinge mixed with the Salte of the Sea as yt floweth , and consequently hard to take fyre, or to keepe in longe without quenchinge, they have a Meanes, by makinge small vaults to passe under the hearthes, into which by foresetting the wynde with a board, they force yt to enter, and soe to serve insteede of a payre of bellowes, which they call in a proper worde of Art, a Blowecole.”
The process of making salt was quite simple, it was extracted by perpetual boiling and re-boiling of sea water. The water was boiled in huge shallow salt pans made of lead. Often this necessitated eight boils before the salt could be obtained. Salt making continued in the area in the later part of the fourteenth century. In 1381 a salt pan in the area is recorded as belonging to the Lumley family. It is difficult to assess how many salt pans there actually were in the area but a manuscript of 1396 lists at least twenty four at Cowpen.
The local salt making industry achieved great heights in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when Greatham between Hartlepool and Billingham became a salt making centre and ‘Salt De Greatham ‘ was famed throughout the land. By 1650 the salt cotes were rendered useless by the tides of the sea and the centre of salt making in Britain had moved to South Shields where there was a plentiful supply of coal for heating the salt water.
Large scale exploitation of salt did not return to Greatham until the nineteenth century when the salt was extracted in the form of brine extracted from 1000 feet below the earth. Major production of salt making on Teesside during that century began with the opening of salt works at Haverton Hill by Bell Brothers in 1882. A big factor in the salt making boom on Teesside was a new process called the Solvay process which made salt making on the Tyne uneconomic and production shifted back to Teesside.
The Billingham Chemical Industry
In the fourteenth century Billingham was a little village noted for a small brewery and the making of fish oil. In 1834 an extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway called the Clarence Railway was brought to the deepwater dock on the north bank of the Tees. The railway passed close to Billingham and helped stimulate industrial growth. In 1837 an iron works opened nearby at Haverton Hill and was followed by a glassworks, a blast furnace and more iron foundries. Despite this industry, Billingham was still largely a village in 1857 noted for a brewery and skinnery.
World War One and the need to produce nitrates for the manufacture of explosives provided the spark which brought about the incredible development of Billingham as a great chemical centre. In 1917 Billingham was chosen as the site for the production of Synthetic Ammonia to be used in the manufacture of explosives.
A site of several hundred acres occupied by the flat farmland of the Grange Farm at Billingham was chosen because of its good supply of essential resources – namely air, water, cheap coal, labour a power generating capacity (the Nesco B Power Station) and good access by road, rail and sea.
The war was over before the Billingham Chemical plant was completed, but the works were taken over in 1920 by Brunner Mond. This company adapted the production of synthetic ammonia to the manufacture of fertilisers and their plant formed the basis of what was to become ICI’s agricultural division at Billingham.
In 1926 Britain’s four biggest chemical manufacturers including Brunner Mond merged to form Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI) and this considerably helped with the development of Billingham. The number of workers employed at the Billingham plant had reached 5,000 in 1932 when the population of Billingham was 18,000. In 1921 Billingham’s population had been 8,000.
With the onset of World War II the production of synthetic ammonia at Billingham for explosives was in big demand. Other products were also needed and the plant also became heavily involved in the production of high performance aviation fuel for RAF aircraft. The production of plastics established in 1934 became increasingly important at Billingham during the war and was used in the construction of aircraft cockpits. Other work relating to the war time hostilities included secret work carried out in relation to the development of atomic bombs. This work was given the code name ‘tube alloys’.
Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.