Felling, Sheriff Hill and Heworth

Felling Mine Disaster

The Felling Colliery mining disaster of 1812 was one of the region’s most important events. It was not the region’s first, worst or biggest colliery disaster, but the 92 lives it claimed had a lasting impact on coal mine safety.

Plaque commemorating the Felling Colliery disaster at Heworth church
Plaque commemorating the Felling Colliery disaster at Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

There had been many mining disasters in the North East region before the Felling event. Sixty-nine miners had died in a pit at Fatfield near Washington in 1708 and in Gateshead, 80 died at Bensham, in 1743 but for the first time a concerted effort was made to prevent such disasters happening in the future.

The underground explosion at Felling pit on the morning of May 25 1812 claimed the lives of 92 men and boys. Sixteen were aged 12 or under including boys of 8, 10 and 12 years of age. A further thirty were in their teens. It was the first disaster to create widespread public concern, largely due to the campaigning work of the Reverend John Hodgson, local vicar of Heworth and Jarrow who performed the burials and consoled the bereaved.

Felling Colliery
Old postcard showing Felling Colliery

Hodgson’s work resulted in the formation of the Sunderland Society whose members included the safety lamp developer Dr W.R Clanny. By increasing public awareness of the dangers of mining, greater urgency was given to improving mine safety helping to spur on improvements in mine ventilation and the development of safety lamps by Sir Humphry Davy and George Stephenson.

Unfortunately the safety developments could not come soon enough for Felling. On December 24, Christmas Eve of the following year, 1813, there was another explosion at the colliery this time claiming the lives of 9 men, 13 boys and 12 horses.

Felling History

The name Felling means the clearing, where trees were felled. It was often known until recent times as ‘The Felling’. There were originally two villages – Low Felling and High Felling – which merged in the mid nineteenth century but the two areas still retain their respective names. In Medieval times the Manor of Felling belonged to the Priory of Durham who leased it to William Selby during the reign of Henry III. In the 1300s it passed to a branch of the Surtees family.

From the 1500s Felling belonged to the Brandlings of Newcastle who lived at Felling Hall until 1760 when they moved to Gosforth. Felling Hall fell into ruin but part became a pub called the Mulberry, though this was demolished in the early 1900s and replaced by a new pub of that name.

Historic Brandling station building at Felling
Historic Brandling station building at Felling © David Simpson 2022

In 1836 a railway called the Brandling Junction Railway was built at Felling and in 1842 Brandling Station was built on the line at Felling. Though no longer used, the station building is one of the oldest in the world and can still be seen near the present Felling Metro station where it is marked by a plaque.

Historic Brandling station building at Felling
Historic Brandling station building at Felling © David Simpson 2022

Felling Shore north west of Felling developed around the coal staithes of Felling Colliery. There were quays here used for shipping grindstones from quarries in the Felling area.

Beacon Lough and Sheriff Hill

Beacon Lough is one of Gateshead’s highest points, where the Old Durham Road crosses Gateshead Fell between Sheriff Hill and Wrekenton. It’s said there was a beacon here in Celtic times. A beacon was certainly placed here in Elizabethan times as one of a series warning of Scottish raids but it was blown down in 1808.

In Northumberland and Durham a ‘lough’ (usually pronounced loff) is a lake and it’s thought the lough referred to in Beacon Lough’s name was Hazlett’s Pond, a body of water once located at the foot of the hill that was seemingly named from a highwayman .

Gateshead Fell, Sheriff Hill, 1828
Gateshead Fell, Sheriff Hill, 1828

In 1770, highwayman named Robert Hazlett was tried and hanged for robbing a lady and a postman on Gateshead Fell. His body was left hanging close to the pond near Beacon Lough. In the 1700s Gateshead Fell was a place of terror feared by travellers. It was inhabited by such villains as Walter Clark, Jane Trotter and their gang of pickpockets known as the Gateshead Fell-Bishop Auckland Gang.

Nearby Sheriff Hill is named from a former meeting place. As early as the 1200s the Sheriffs from Newcastle used to meet the judges from Durham here as they came north for the assizes.

Nearby, Carr Hill east of the Old Durham Road between Sheriff Hill and Deckham, was called Carrs Hill in 1754 and is likely to be named from a family called Carr. At that time it was a village noted for windmills and quarries. By the nineteenth century it was also a home to potteries and glass working.

Deckham was the site of Deckham Hall which belonged to a Thomas Dackham in 1614. In the nineteenth century it was the home to Benjamin Biggar, a Newcastle merchant who was a mayor of Gateshead. The hall was demolished in 1930.

Heworth church
Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

Windy Nook and Heworth

Windy Nook to the east of Sheriff Hill and to the south of Felling was described as ‘a populous hamlet’ in Fordyce’s History of County Durham in 1857 when it was home to three pubs, two schools and a Methodist chapel. It is simply named from a nook of land exposed to the elements.

Heworth to the south east of Felling has an Anglo-Saxon name meaning high enclosure. It was the site of a medieval park belonging to the Priors of Durham Cathedral and was originally two villages, Upper Heworth and Nether Heworth.

Nether Heworth was the site of an ancient chapel, replaced in 1822 with a church for John Hodgson the Reverend of Heworth. The chapel was said to have Anglo-Saxon roots, possibly founded by Ceolfrith, Abbot of Monkwearmouth and Jarrow. In 1813, Hodgson, who was also a noted historian, found a coin in the chapel yard dedicated to Ecgfrith, King of Northumbria who reigned from 669AD to 685AD.

Felling Disaster Memorial, Heworth church
Felling Disaster Memorial, Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

Ninety-one victims of the Felling Colliery disaster were buried in the Heworth churchyard in 1812 and it was the Reverend Hodgson who was instrumental in campaigning for changes in mine safety that brought about the development of the miners’ safety lamp.

Names of lives lost, Felling Disaster Memorial, Heworth church
Names of lives lost, Felling Disaster Memorial, Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

A blue plaque can be seen on the outside wall of the churchyard commemorating the Felling disaster and just within is the memorial itself with the names of the deceased miners on four sides. At the time of the burials the graveyard covered a larger area and the miners’ graves are now lost beneath the roundabout next to Heworth Metro station.

Names of lives lost, Felling Pit Disaster
Names of lives lost, Felling Disaster Memorial, Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

In addition to the Felling disaster memorial, Heworth churchyard is notable for the headstone of union leader Thomas Hepburn (c1795-1864), who was a great hero to the miners of Durham and Northumberland. The stone commemorates his important activity within the miners’ union movement.

Hepburn, who was born into a mining family at Pelton near Chester-le-Street lived in an era when deaths in the mines were common and conditions were, to say the least, very poor. At the age of 8 he started working in the mine at Fatfield near Washington and as a young man he worked in mines at Jarrow and then at Hetton.

In 1825 Hepburn became a union leader, forming The Colliers of the United Association of Durham and Northumberland, otherwise known as Hepburn’s Union. Hepburn campaigned for better conditions and shorter hours and was successful in bringing an end to the Tommy Shop system where miners had to purchase their equipment from shops owned by mine owners – with the costs of these necessities automatically deducted from their wages.

Heworth church © David Simpson 2015

In 1832 a strike involving Hepburn’s Union was crushed as miners found themselves unable to survive without the work and as result Hepburn was banished from working in the mines for many years and became destitute. In later life he was given employment at Felling Colliery on the understanding that he would no-longer be involved in union activity. He eventually retired from mining in 1859 due to ill-health and died in 1864.

Wardley: St Cuthbert’s rest stop?

Wardley lies south east of Heworth near the Roman Wrekendyke road. Traces of a moated medieval manor house that belonged to the Priors of Durham have been found here. Hugh of Darlington, who was Prior of Durham from 1258-1272 and again in 1286-90, built a camera and hall here. He wasn’t a keen photographer or ahead of his time, a camera was a kind of round medieval house. The Prior was the chief monk of Durham Cathedral monastery and the monks of Durham used Wardley as a place of recreation.

Wardley was identified by the historian John Hodgson (Reverend of Heworth) as the place called ‘Wrdelau’ where, in 995AD, the monks carrying St Cuthbert’s coffin came to a sudden standstill, finding themselves mysteriously rooted to the spot by the demand of the deceased St Cuthbert before apparently receiving divine guidance to head to a place called Dunholm (Durham).

St Cuthbert's coffin
The carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin depicted in a painting in Chester-le-Street church

The story is recorded in 1105 by Simeon of Durham who says the monks were intending to return to Chester-le-Street with the saint’s body. Simeon records that they were coming with him on the east side of Durham and this has led to the suggestion that the temporary resting place of Wrdelau was Warden Law near Houghton-le-Spring.

Unlike Warden Law, Wardley is not east of Durham but is in the eastern part of the Durham Bishopric and old County of Durham. Wardley also lies close to the Wrekendyke Roman road that heads south west to Chester-le-Street. Given Wardley’s later connection with the Durham monks Wardley seems a possible candidate for this otherwise unidentified place.

White Mare Pool

White Mare Pool to the south west of Wardley over on the other side of the Wrekendyke lies on the edge of the open farmland that separates Wardley from Sunderland and Washington. The River Don, here nothing more than a tiny steam, drains the fields of this area en route to Jarrow.

Even at Jarrow the Don is still a small rivulet though being treacherously tidal there it has earned the status of river. A pool perhaps connected with the river or one of its feeding streams once stood near here. The White Mare Pool was originally called the White ‘Mere’ Pool and is first recorded under this name in 1220.

It was a stagnant pond tinged white by the soluble magnesian limestone of the neighbourhood. A popular story relates how a merchant travelling from South Shields to Sunderland went missing, presumed murdered, in 1753. His horse, a white mare was left standing near the pool.

Today there is no pond at White Mare Pool but there is a well-known roundabout of that name at the northern terminus of the A1(M).

Friar’s Goose, Bill Quay and Pelaw Main

Friar’s Goose, a riverside area east of Gateshead is named from the gorse (known as Friars Goose) that grew here. From the 1820s this riverside area stretching east through Felling and Heworth Shore to Bill Quay, today perhaps best-known for its community farm, was once dominated by the alkali chemical industry and one of England’s highest chimneys was built here in 1833 to drive away pollutant fumes of hydrochloric acid. The protected ruins of an early nineteenth century colliery pumping house may be seen at Friar’s Goose.

River Tyne pictured from Bill Quay Farm
River Tyne pictured from Bill Quay Farm © David Simpson 2022

Bill Quay is named from a projection of land in the Tyne called Bill Point that was cut away in Victorian times. Bill Point was on the Walker (Newcastle) side of the river opposite Bill Quay to which it was once linked by a ferry.

Bill Quay Farm © David Simpson 2022
Bill Quay Farm © David Simpson 2022

Pelaw, along the river bend north east of Bill Quay is named from Pelaw Main coal staithes of the early nineteenth century. The staithes were linked to mines near Chester-le-Street by the Ouston-Pelaw Wagonway.

Pelaw is a place near Chester-le-Street. There was also an Irpeth Staithes on the Tyne nearby, named from Urpeth, another place near Chester-le-Street. From 1902 several Co-operative Wholesale Society (CWS) factories were built at Pelaw that manufactured a range of products including quilts, books, pharmaceuticals, furniture, cleaning products and the famous Pelaw polish for shining your shoes.

Gateshead Quay and Town Centre | Medieval Gateshead

Angel of the North, Low Fell and Birtley

The Team Valley | Whickham and Gibside | Blaydon and Ryton

Newcastle Hebburn 

 Washington | Chester-le-Street | Stanley and Beamish


North East England History and Culture