Victorian maps of the Easington area of eastern Durham show an undeveloped, quiet landscape surrounding the rural farming village of Easington which was then the focal point of east Durham and had been since medieval times.
In the 1850s Easington was described as a considerable village with a village green and was the home to four pubs, a steam corn mill, a police station and a post office. A large number of its tradesmen were cobblers and tailors serving the coal mining areas to the west.
Today, the bounds of the old part of the village are marked by Thorpe Road on its eastern side, a street called South Side (on the south side) and Rosemary Lane and Hall Walks marking the northern edge of the old village.
St Mary’s church marks the western limit of the old part of the village along with a neighbouring street that still has the intriguing old name of Clappersgate. Today the village retains its very large, undulating village green with its haphazard mix of older farm houses and cottages and houses of more modern times.
The principal buildings of historic interest in the village are the Norman church of St Mary and the impressive old house in Hall Walk called Seaton Holme that was formerly Easington rectory.
The church is mostly Early English, of the thirteenth century and it is the church tower that is Norman. The tower once served as a useful landmark for mariners out at sea. Standing outside the church wall you get a view across the the village green with the backdrop of the sea. Inside, the church is also of interest with pews that date from the 1600s.
The substantial former rectory called Seaton Holme just north of the church is at its core a thirteenth century stone house with other medieval buildings to its rear. It is a very substantial hall for a building of this period and reflects the important status of the rectory of Easington which was usually held by the Archdeacons of Durham in medieval times.
Nicholas Breakspear, who later became Adrian IV, the only English pope is said to have resided here. One of the rectors connected with the building was George Liddell, grandfather of Alice Liddell on whom Lewis Carroll based his Alice in Wonderland stories.
On the western outskirts of Easington near a slip road adjoining the busy A19 is the tower of a former windmill once used in the milling of corn into flour. Known as Jackson’s windmill from the family who operated the mill, it was still in use at the time of the first edition of the Ordnance Survey map in the 1860s but had fallen out of use by the time of the second edition later that century.
The windmill was converted into a private house in the 1970s and 1980s and passing motorists on the A19 often catch a glimpse. A windmill was first recorded in Easington in 1260.
According to legend Easington was once the home to the elusive Easington hare. This intriguing little creature was persistently hunted on numerous occasions throughout the countryside around Easington but always somehow managed to escape capture much to the great frustration of the local huntsmen.
Finally, the day came when a hound bit the leg of the hare just before it escaped into a hole in the wall of a nearby ruined building. The huntsmen were determined to capture the mischievous little beast so entered the building to capture their quarry.
To their astonishment they could only find an old woman sitting nervously bandaging her bleeding leg. The building was searched throughout and there seemed to be no way that the hare could have escaped. It was concluded that the hare was the woman and that the woman was a witch.
Beacon Hill near Beacon Point just to the south of Hawthorn Hive (see Seaham) is the highest point on the Durham coast where in times past fires were lit to warn mariners away from the dangerous shoreline. A little further to the south of here is the site of the colliery at Easington Colliery.
The story of this colliery belongs almost entirely in the twentieth century. It opened in 1899 and operated for a little less than a hundred years up until its closure on May 7, 1993.
The colliery has gone but the village of Easington Colliery survives. It should not be confused with the older, adjoining and smaller village of Easington itself with which it merges just to the west. Easington Colliery village came into being with the establishment of the colliery that was opened by the Easington Colliery Company and brought a massive population surge to the neighbourhood and a significant change to the landscape.
On May 29, 1951 the colliery was the scene of a tragic event in which an explosion claimed the lives of 83 men working in the mine. Most are buried in a garden of Remembrance at Easington Colliery cemetery. Near the cemetery are allotments, so typical of many mining villages, in an area called Withering Hope and close by are a number of terraced colliery streets, some of which were used in the filming of the 2000 movie Billy Elliot that was set in the fictional East Durham town of Everington during the miners’ strike of the 1980s.
The broad green fields alongside the coast to the north of Office Street mark the site of the colliery itself. Its development was only kept away from the shore by the coastal railway line but an aerial ropeway from the colliery once carried colliery waste from the mine across the line to be dumped on the sea shore with a pylon standing within the sea itself to support the cables.
Today the site of the colliery is now a beautiful nature reserve with the sea as a backdrop. At the top of the hill within the reserve is a replica of the Easington mine shaft with an interesting timeline leading up to it.
The name Easington dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and means the farm or estate village of someone called Esi or Esa. An Anglo-Saxon cemetery of the sixth or seventh century has been found at Andrews Field just to the south of Easington village near the hamlet of Little Thorpe and was perhaps associated with Esi or Esa’s people.
The name Little Thorpe is however Viking and dates from a later period. ‘Thorp’ is the name the Danes gave to an outlying farm attached to a larger estate, suggesting that Anglo-Saxon Easington was later colonised and settled at some point by the Vikings.
It is known that around 918-920 AD lands in East Durham were given by Ragnald the Viking King of Dublin and York to his chief warriors Scule and Olaf Ball.
Scule received land stretching from the Eden Burn (Castle Eden) down to Billingham while Olaf Ball received land north of the Eden Burn up to the mouth of the Wear. It was land confiscated from the Community of St Cuthbert at Chester-le-Street (they later moved to Durham). In 934AD King Athelstan of England returned lands in East Durham to this powerful religious community who were the guardians of St Cuthbert’s shrine and relics.
The place-name element ‘thorpe’ is very rare in the old County of Durham except in the far south eastern corner around Hartlepool and Stockton where we find Thorpe Thewles, Thorpe Larches, Fulthorpe and Thorpe Bulmer. There was also once a place called Threlthorp near Castle Eden (it means serf’s farm -from the Old Norse word ‘thrall’ – a serf). Though mentioned in medieval records, Threlthorp is no more.
Little Thorpe is the most northerly of these thorpes. Known simply as ‘Thorp’ in 1183, it was later called Thorp Juxta Esington in 1397 and had seemingly been an outlying farm of Easington. Today it is a pretty hamlet of white painted houses alongside the Thorpe Burn at the western end of the wooded Horden Dene.
South west of Murton and north west of Easington are the former colliery villages of South Hetton and Easington Lane. The two villages are neighbours but although Easington Lane is in the City of Sunderland (see Hetton-le-Hole), South Hetton is in County Durham. Easington Lane should not be confused with the villages of Easington and Easington Colliery which lie along the road over three miles to the south east.
The colliery at South Hetton Colliery opened in 1831 and was worked until 1983. The village of South Hetton itself was built on previously empty land to serve the mine.
The sculptor Ray Lonsdale, best-known for his corten steel ‘Tommy’ at Seaham is based at South Hetton. His work features at South Hetton itself in the 2016 sculpture ‘And the Village Remains : The Last Tub’ depicting a miner with a coal tub along with Ray’s words “Long gone, the shaft, the tub, the face. Long gone the black coal stains. Wiped our hands, turned off the lamps. But the village still remains”. It is a fitting epitaph, not just to the mine at South Hetton, but to collieries in hundreds of communities across the Durham coalfield.
Other works by Lonsdale include his depiction of the suffragette, Emily Wilding Davison in Carlisle Park, Morpeth, ‘Fiddlers’ Green’ at North Shields and ‘The Ball and the Bradford Boy’ at Witton Park near Bishop Auckland and Gan Canny depicting a Vaux Breweries dray at Sunderland. Others in the east Durham area include Bonnie Pit Laddie at Wheatley Hill and Da said “Men Don’t Cry” at Hetton-le-Hole.
A former railway bridge called Pesspool Bridge, now demolished to make way for a long distance footpath and cycle way was the scene of a notorious incident on January 5, 1967. The body of a man called Angus Sibbet was found in the back of his Jaguar beneath the bridge with three gunshot wounds.
He was found by a passing miner in the early hours of the morning. Sibbet was the victim of an apparent gangland murder for which Dennis Stafford, then of Peterlee, and Michael Luvaglio of Newcastle were later convicted. The murder is said to have inspired the 1971 gangster movie Get Carter which starred Michael Caine and was set in the North East.
Haswell and Haswell Plough
Near the village of Haswell to the south of South Hetton is Pesspool Hall Farm and the nearby Pesspool Wood. The peculiar name goes back to medieval time when it was first recorded as ‘Beos Pol’ meaning ‘rough grass pool’. A portion of the stalls in the south aisle of the church at Easington were once known as the Pesspool Seats, presumably the seat aside for the owners of Pesspool which lay within the Easington parish.
In medieval times Haswell had belonged to the Claxton family. and the village was first recorded as ‘Hessewella’ in 1131 and is thought to mean ‘the spring where hazel grows’. Place-name experts have made the alternative suggestion that it comes from ‘haetse’ an old word for a witch and could thus mean ‘witches well’.
The enigmatic ruins of a stone building with an arch, forms a striking landmark just outside the neighbouring village of Haswell Plough to the south. It looks like an ancient edifice or monastery of some kind but is in fact an industrial relic, being the remains of Haswell Colliery engine house dating from the 1830s.
Haswell Colliery operated from 1835 to 1896 and on September 28, 1844 was the scene of an horrific disaster in which 95 of the 99 men working in the colliery lost their lives in an explosion. The youngest victim was a boy of ten years old.
A moving sculpture created in 1996 by Michael Disley depicts the faces of miners trapped between layers of stone and commemorates the disaster and sited alongside the colliery ruins.
The nearby village of Haswell Plough, once called Haswell Terrace was the village that was specially built to serve the colliery. It is named from the former Plough Inn, now Plough Farm, a large white-coloured house on the edge of the village.