The Hettons

In the 1820s, Hetton, now within the most southerly rural outskirts of the City of Sunderland, was the most famous colliery town in County Durham. It was the place where coal mining in East Durham (then including Sunderland) began. It was also the home of the famed Hetton Railway, the first to be purpose-built for steam locomotives and a major stepping stone in the career of George Stephenson.

Hetton Lyons Park
The beautiful Hetton Lyons Park on the site of Hetton Lyons Colliery : Photo © David Simpson

Such was Hetton Colliery’s local fame and significance that the name Hetton came to be repeated in the names of several other mining villages and collieries associated with the Hetton Colliery Company.

It all began with Hetton Lyons Colliery in 1822 but others followed. The Hettons included Hetton Downs Colliery (also called Eppleton), the North Hetton Colliery at Moorsley (actually south of Hetton) while further south still were West Hetton Colliery at Coxhoe, East Hetton Colliery at Kelloe and South Hetton Colliery at a place still called South Hetton today.

Originally, however, there was no mining in this area and in medieval times there were only two Hettons both of which were tiny farming settlements forming one manor. One was called Hetton-le-Hill, situated on a hill to the south and the other to its north in Houghton Vale (probably the ‘hollow’ or hole of the name) was called Hetton-le-Hole.

The two places were originally called Heppedon and were of comparable size. In both places the name Heppedon was later corrupted to Hetton.

Hetton-le-Hill not to be confused with Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

Spellings were notoriously inconsistent in the past and evolved over time but the fact that Hetton was originally a ‘don’ rather than a ‘ton’ is significant because ‘don’ is a word for a hill suggesting that the name comes from a hill, probably the one on which Hetton-le-Hill is situated. The original name Heppedon meant ‘hill where wild roses grow’.

The suffixes ‘le-Hill’ and ‘le-Hole’ were added to the two places in Norman times (along with ‘le-Spring at Houghton) under the influence of the French speaking Prince Bishops. It helped to distinguish these places from one and other for administrative and taxation purposes.

The tiny village of Hetton-le-Hill still exists to the south of the town of Hetton-le-Hole. It is situated between Easington Lane and Pittington near the outskirts of Durham City. It is still little more than a large farm with a small collection of neighbouring houses and cottages built from magnesian limestone.

Lake, Hetton Lyons Park, ©
Lake, Hetton Lyons Park © David Simpson 2017

Hetton’s Royal Connections

Early owners of the Heppedons included the Hepdon family who took their name from the place. Other medieval owners included Finchale Priory near Durham and later the Laytons, Musgraves and Tylliols. From the 1600s the prominent name in Hetton was the James family who included William James, a Bishop of Durham from 1606 to 1617. The James family sold Hetton in 1686 to John Spearman of Thornley, the Under-Sheriff of Durham.

Hetton House, Hetton-le-Hole
Hetton House, Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2014

The historic manor of Hetton has an interesting link to the present Royal family and is one of two notable and very different connections that Hetton has to the family. The first connection begins in the eighteenth century (1746) when Hetton was sold by Spearman to Jean Lyon, the Dowager Countess of Strathmore.

The dowager Countess was the wife of the late 8th Earl of Strathmore. She was called Jean Nicholson (alternatively spelled Nicholsen) before her marriage and records show she was born in the Hetton neighbourhood. Nearby West Rainton is given as her birthplace in 1713.

Lyons Royal family tree
Part of the Royal family tree (click on the image to open in full)

CLICK on above image (then zoom in) to see family tree : David Simpson

Jean’s eldest son, John Lyon would become the 9th Earl and was also born at West Rainton (in 1737). Later John married Elizabeth Bowes a member of the great coal-owning family of Gibside (near Gateshead) and so established the Lyon-Bowes family dynasty – that later became Bowes-Lyon. He was the Great-Great-Great Grandfather of Elizabeth Bowes-Lyon, mother of Queen Elizabeth II.

The dowager Countess gave Hetton to her younger son Thomas Lyon (brother of the 9th Earl) who was born at Hetton House in 1741. Thomas passed on Hetton to his own son John Lyon (died 1829) who was determined to find coal in the neighbourhood and was a key figure in the development of Hetton’s industrial history. There is still a Hetton House today that was connected with the estate of the Lyons family home of Hetton Hall that was demolished in 1923.

The family tree link above also shows the other Royal family connection at Hetton relating to the ancestry of Kate Middleton, the present Duchess of Cambridge whose ancestors were miners at Hetton. You can read more on this further down the page.

Pit wheel, Hetton Lyons Park
Pit wheel, Hetton Lyons Park, Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

Hetton Colliery

Coal had been mined in County Durham for hundreds of years but there had long been a debate over whether there was coal beneath the magnesian limestone hills that dominate the eastern part of the county inland from Hartlepool to South Shields. Most geologists were convinced there was not. Even if coal was found there it was going to be much deeper than coal found in other parts of the county and there was no guarantee that it would be of good quality. This meant there would be considerable cost and expense in the search for coal in East Durham with a high financial risk attached.

Eastern County Durham (see Easington, Seaham, Horden, Castle Eden) remained largely untouched by industrial activity except along the rivers of the ports like Sunderland where coal could be shipped from more westerly locations and other industries could develop. The east remained largely agricultural with small farms, hamlets and farming villages. However, coal was a big money-making venture and there were a number of business people and wealthy individuals willing to take financial risks and invest in the search for coal in the hope of making very big profits.

Stone houses, Hetton-le-Hole
Stone houses, Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

In the late 1700s and early 1800s attempts to find coal had failed for many years. From around 1796 John Lyon of Hetton House bored for coal and although his attempts were set back in 1810 by problems with severe flooding he persisted with the challenge. His continued efforts were to no avail and he was virtually bankrupted.

In 1819 a colliery company was formed called The Hetton Coal Company and was the first major public company in County Durham. Its eleven shareholders included a Captain Archibald Cochrane but the main man was a former banker, of previously dubious dealings, called Arthur Mowbray. Three of the shareholders were relatives of Mowbray.

After the company reached an agreement with John Lyon to lease his land for mining, the operations of sinking for coal began in December 1820. Finally, on September 3rd 1822 coal was successfully reached. Moreover it was high quality coal and there was lots of it. By November it was being shipped to four coal drops at Sunderland via the Hetton Colliery Railway.

Nineteenth century view of Hetton Colliery

Named the Lyons Colliery from the landowner, John Lyon, the opening of the new mine was one of the major events in the history of North East coalmining. Many more mines would follow in this eastern part of the Durham coalfield as would many new colliery railways. The Hetton Coal Company became a major player in the coal mining of Durham, competing with the powerful coal-owning figures of Lord Londonderry and John Lambton, the Earl of Durham but without the aristocratic connections these coal owners had.

Plaque Stephenson Trail, Hetton
A plaque in the ground near the Hetton Methodist chapel recalls part of the course of the Hetton Railway © David Simpson 2015

Hetton Colliery Railway

The Hetton Colliery Company seems to have been very confident of finding coal. In 1819 before the coal was even found they set in motion the development of the Hetton Colliery Railway and employed the then barely known engineer, George Stephenson, who also laid out the colliery, to design it.

This eight mile long railway was the first in the world to be intentionally built for steam locomotives. It was also, at the time, the longest railway in the world and really set in motion Stephenson’s rise to fame that had commenced at Killingworth Colliery near Newcastle.

At Hetton, Stephenson used steam locomotives but the steep climb over Warden Law Hill to the west of Houghton-le-Spring was going to be a challenge at 636 feet above sea level. This had to be crossed to link the railway to the Wear so stationary engines were utilised on this section of the line to haul and lower the railway wagons.

Plaque commemorating Hetton-le-Hole
Plaque commemorating Hetton Lyons Colliery Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

George Stephenson’s son, Robert assisted his father at Hetton, but it was another Robert Stephenson, George’s brother, and also an engineer, who undertook the building work for the colliery and railway. This Robert Stephenson resided in Lyons Cottages near the edge of Hetton to the south. The cottages can still be seen near the present Hetton Lyons Industrial Estate and Robert Stephenson’s residence here is commemorated by a plaque.

Stephenson house, Hetton
House with plaque commemorating Robert Stephenson’s residence : Photo © David Simpson

Hetton railway opened on November 18, 1822 and was operated by three locomotives along with five fixed engines and five self-acting inclines. Four of the locomotives were given names. One was simply called Hetton and another three – Tallyho, Star and Dart were named from local racehorses.

An engine of the same kind of design as these early locomotives survives from the Hetton Railway. Now at Beamish Museum, it is thought to have been built by Sir Lindsay Wood (1834-1920), the son of the Hetton-based locomotive engineer Nicholas Wood (1795-1865). This locomotive called ‘Lyon’ (for a time confused with the locomotive called ‘Hetton’) is remarkable in that it was still being used at the beginning of the twentieth century despite its early primitive design.

Course of the Hetton Railway
Art installation near Hetton Methodist chapel recalls part of the course of the Hetton Railway © David Simpson 2015

The Growth of Hetton

Around 1,500 men were employed at the new colliery at Hetton which would bring about the rapid growth of Hetton from an obscure agricultural settlement into a busy mining town. Initially, more than 200 houses were built for the workers of the newly opened mine. Most of these were pit cottages much smaller and more basic than the houses you see in Hetton today. One row of pit cottages from Hetton called Francis Street has been rebuilt at Beamish Museum where it forms the famous pit row of the museum’s colliery village.

Methodist chapel of 1858 at Hetton-le-Hole
Methodist chapel of 1858 at Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

As the town grew the miners were joined by a whole host of tradesmen, publicans and people providing services that any small town required. The population growth at Hetton was as follows: 1801 : 253; 1811 : 322; 1821 : 994; 1851: 5,751 and this clearly shows the impact the opening of the mine had. So rural was this neighbourhood before the colliery that a study of the heads of household in the census of 1851 shows that less than 4% were born in Hetton parish.

Former girls' school Hetton-le-Hole
Former girls’ school Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015

Around 53% of the heads of household at Hetton were born in County Durham with about half of these originating from the nearest mining areas like Fatfield and Rainton. The other half were mostly from those parts of the old County Durham that lay to the east of Gateshead particularly Jarrow and Hebburn.

Around 28% came from Northumberland but again were mostly from areas near the Tyne like Benton, Long Benton, Wallsend and Newcastle. In addition there were a handful of miners from former lead mining areas like Swaledale in Yorkshire and Alston in Cumberland.

Old Blacksmiths at Hetton
Old Blacksmiths at Hetton dating from the pre-colliery age : Photo © David Simpson

More Royal Connections

Amongst the many miners working at Hetton was a John Harrison, a miner born at Byker near Newcastle around 1835. His last place of residence on his death in 1889 was Lyons Street (sometimes written Lyon Street) in Hetton.

This street was named from John Lyon on whose land the nearby colliery was built. Lyons Street has long been demolished. Like the other rows of terraced pit cottages in this colliery town they were simply unacceptable homes by later standards of living. A care home and medical centre now stand on the site of the street.

The back yard of Lyons Street terrace was back to back with those of the next street – Francis Street – the pit row now preserved and rebuilt at Beamish Museum’s colliery village.

Lake, Hetton Lyons Park, ©
Lake, Hetton Lyons Park on site of colliery © David Simpson 2017

The Lyon from whom Lyons Street was named, as we have noted, was the wealthy grandson of the 8th Earl of Strathmore. Strathmore was of course an ancestor of Queen Elizabeth II. Such a future Royal connection might not have surprised John Lyon, given his family’s aristocratic background. The humble Harrison, on the other hand, whose descendants also include Royalty would have been rather amazed.

It is a straight forward matter of genealogy so we will keep it short. Harrison, the coal miner of Lyon Street in Hetton was the great-great-great grandfather of Kate Middleton, the present Duchess of Cambridge and his family lived in Hetton for many decades. If you haven’t already opened this above, you can click on the image below to see more details of his family tree and also the tree of the Lyons family of Hetton.

Harrison family tree Kate Middleton
Harrison family tree Kate Middleton © David Simpson

CLICK for full tree. Kate Middleton’s Hetton ancestry : © David Simpson

John Harrison’s son, another John Harrison was born in Hetton in 1874. This Harrison had a son called Thomas who was also born in Hetton (1904). Thomas had a daughter, Dorothy Harrison, born in Sunderland in 1935. The Harrisons moved to London where Dorothy later married a Richard Goldsmith.

Their daughter, Carole (born 1955) married Michael Middleton in Buckinghamshire in 1980 and their daughter Catherine (Kate) Middleton was born in 1982. Catherine of course married Prince William, the Duke of Cambridge. William is himself a descendant, through his mother, Queen Elizabeth II of the Lyon family of Hetton and Rainton.

Lake, Hetton Lyons Park
Lake, Hetton Lyons Park © David Simpson 2017

Hetton today

Today Hetton-le-Hole is sometimes described as a village which probably reflects the community feel of the place but it is in reality a small town. Considering that it really only started to grow from the 1820s it will come as no surprise to discover that there are few very early buildings.

The main street is Houghton Road and is similar to that found in many mining towns across the region with no historic buildings of any particular note. In the adjoining Park Place there is a large house called Hetton House overlooking the street. Here a plaque on the wall saying that it dates from the early nineteenth century but is now thought to be older, dating from the 1700s.

Hetton House, Hetton-le-Hole
Hetton House, Hetton-le-Hole : Photo © David Simpson

It apparently belonged, along with Hetton Hall, to the Lyon family. Hetton Hall stood nearby but has long since been demolished. It was a much larger mansion than Hetton House and was located in its own parkland on a site now occupied by ‘Hetton Centre’ – a modern outlet for the services of Sunderland City Council with a neighbouring swimming baths.

The date of the hall is uncertain. It was deserted by the 1830s but became the home of the Ryton-born colliery and locomotive engineer Nicholas Wood before 1857 and he may have rebuilt it. Unoccupied by 1902 and falling into disrepair, it was finally demolished in 1923.

Bob Paisley memorial

Hetton Hall was once at the centre of an extensive park and although the hall and park have gone much greenery remains including the wooded Hetton Dean of the Hetton Burn to the north, the neighbouring Eppleton Football Ground (home to Sunderland AFC Reserves) and a small park in which is contained a memorial to the extraordinarily successful Liverpool Football Club manager and former footballer Bob Paisley (1919-1996), who was born and raised in Hetton-le-Hole.

Bob Paisley was a talented footballer for Hetton’s Eppleton Junior School and later for Hetton FC. Paisley had hopes of playing for Sunderland but when Hetton FC recommended Paisley, Sunderland considered him too small.

Paisley had a tough upbringing and worked alongside his father as a miner for a short while before he became a bricklayer, a trade that he knew he could fall back on should his footballing aspirations fail.

Memorial to Bob Paisley at Hetton-le-Hole
Memorial to Bob Paisley at Hetton-le-Hole : Photo © David Simpson

Paisley played two seasons for the famed amateur County Durham side of Bishop Auckland FC where he was approached to sign for Liverpool to which he agreed. He kept his promise despite a change of heart from Sunderland who now wanted to sign him.

Unfortunately for Paisley his desire to play for Liverpool was temporarily suspended by the outbreak of the Second World War where he fought alongside Merseyside comrades, but his playing career for Liverpool restarted after the war and he would make 253 appearances in all. He became Liverpool’s assistant manager in 1959 and was manager of the club from 1974 to 1983 where his achievements are neatly summarised by the memorial at Hetton.

Despite his success over in the North West and his affection for Liverpool, Paisley never forgot his North East roots and was proud of his humble beginnings in Hetton. As well as his sporting achievements he is remembered for his great wit and soft-spoken North East accent which he employed to great effect as a manager. Later he would recall how a Hetton schoolmaster had once advised him that people listen when you speak softly.

The tiny little town park that includes the Paisley memorial is not the only park in Hetton-le-Hole. Over on the eastern side of the town is the much larger Hetton Lyons Country Park with its lovely lake forming a beautiful and unexpected feature of Hetton’s landscape. The park lies on the site of Hetton Lyons Colliery although part of the colliery site is also occupied by the neighbouring industrial estate.

Bob Paisley memorial Hetton-le-Hole
Bob Paisley memorial Hetton-le-Hole © David Simpson 2015


Hetton Lyons Colliery (1822-1950) was the first colliery to develop in the immediate vicinity of Hetton-le-Hole but others soon followed. Right up close to Hetton Lyons to the north was Eppleton Colliery (1833-1986) a site which is now a focus for limestone quarrying on the eastern edge of Hetton-le-Hole.

Eppleton Colliery, also known as Hetton Downs Colliery, from its location, actually takes its name from Great Eppleton, a farm along Downs Pit Lane to the west. Eppleton is a name going back to Anglo-Saxon times and was originally called Aepplingdene which means the ‘dene (or valley) where apples grew’.

In the 1390s Eppleton passed to the Herons of Ford Castle in Northumberland but one William Heron, Captain of Berwick upon Tweed, Governor of Norham on Tweed and Warden of the Eastern Marches sold it to a tenant called Todd.

Wind turbines and quarrying near Hetton
Wind turbines and quarrying near Hetton © David Simpson 2015

There are in fact two Eppletons. To the south of Hetton Lyons industrial estate out towards Murton is another Eppleton, a farmstead settlement called Eppleton Hall which was historically called Little Eppleton. Eppleton was historically associated with the Shadforth family from at least the 1500s up to the 1690s. A hall at Great Eppleton was demolished in the late nineteenth century. The hall at Little Eppleton, once owned by the Hetton Lyons Colliery Manager is now divided into apartments.

There is in fact a third Eppleton Hall but this is something entirely different and can be found far away in San Francisco, USA. This particular Eppleton Hall is a paddlewheel tugboat built at South Shields in 1914 by Hepple and Company for Lambton and Hetton Collieries Ltd (a company formed from the merger of Lambton Collieries and the Hetton Colliery Company in 1910).

The vessel served on the Wear and Tyne and is one of only two surviving British-built paddle tugs. It was saved from being scrapped by Karl Kortum, the then Director of San Francisco Maritime Museum in 1969 and is preserved at the San Francisco Maritime National Historical Park. The other surviving British-built paddle tug is the John H Amos which was built on the Clyde in 1931 and served on the River Tees.

Penshaw from High Moorsley
View of distant Penshaw from High Moorsley : Photo © David Simpson

Easington Lane and Moorsley

The village of Easington Lane is a south eastward extension of Hetton on the road between Pittington and Easington, from which it takes its name. It came into being in the nineteenth century following the development of nearby Elemore Colliery by the Hetton Coal Company. The colliery was started by the Hetton Coal Company in 1827 and operated until 1974.

During the nineteenth century the residents of Easington Lane seem to have developed a penchant for emigration. On Sunday August 21, 1852 nine families left to join others from Easington Lane who had wrote back from the United States and told of great things. The following Tuesday a further 19 departed. They were all mostly destined for the United States but the following week several families left for Australia.

Weather station, top of the hill at Moorsley viewed from Sherburn Hill
Weather station, top of the hill at Moorsley viewed from Sherburn Hill © David Simpson 2020

In 1857 the Durham historian Fordyce remarked that there was still a deposition to emigrate from this mining town, but why so many wanted to get away from the place is not clear, someone they didn’t like, nasty neighbours or an unpleasant manager perhaps?

Along the road to the South East, Easington Lane becomes South Hetton, site of South Hetton Colliery from 1833 to 1982. This place remains in County Durham despite Easington Lane and Hetton now being in the City of Sunderland.

Just to the south west of Hetton-le-Hole within Sunderland are the long straggling villages of Low Moorsley and High Moorsley which hug the main road up to the the top of a hill where there are great views before the road descends Moorsley Bank into Pittington in County Durham. Back in medieval times the Anglo-Saxon name was Morselaw possibly meaning ‘the hill belonging to Morulf’.

A small colliery operated at Moorsley from 1826 to 1935. Low Moorsley has the dubious fame of being the birthplace of the Victorian multi-murderer Mary Ann Cotton who was born here in 1832. She is thought to have murdered at least 21 people and was eventually hanged at Durham in 1873. The hill at Moorsley which merges with nearby Pittington Hill is topped by a weather station.

Elemore Hall

Elemore Hall (in County Durham) lies east of Littletown near Pittington and west of Haswell and to the south of Easington Lane. In early times Elemore belonged to Finchale Priory and its name means ‘moor of the elms’. In the 1550s it belonged to Bartram Anderson, once a mayor and Sheriff of Newcastle. A house was built during Bartram’s time which was later rebuilt as the red brick Georgian hall we see today.

Baker and Baker Baker of Elemore at Pittington
Tombs of George and Judith Baker of Elemore Hall (left) died 1774 and 1810 and Isabella Baker Baker (right) died 1897 at Pittington church near Durham © David Simpson 2021

The original hall was bought from the Andersons by the Halls in 1631 who included Sir Alexander Hall, a Newcastle Alderman. It then passed to a member of the Conyers family and then in the 1700s to the Bakers of Crook Hall near Leadgate. In the early 1750s the Bakers converted Elemore into a large Georgian house.

Elemore Hall viewed from Pittington Hill
Elemore Hall viewed from Pittington Hill © 2022 David Simpson

Through marriages in the 1840s the Bakers adopted the double surname Baker Baker and were later called Conyers Baker Baker by the time they sold the hall to Durham County Council in 1947 for conversion into a special school. The Conyers Baker Baker family now reside at Sedbury Hall near Scotch Corner. The hall is now Elemore Hall School.

Elemore Hall viewed from Pittington Hill
Elemore Hall viewed from Pittington Hill © 2022 David Simpson

Elemore Colliery, which was located nearby until its closure in 1974 was opened by the Hetton Coal Company on land belonging to the Bakers. There were also collieries on the Baker’s land at Delves and Crook Hall near Consett (not to be confused with Crook Hall in Durham City) where nearby collieries included the West Elimore pit which despite its different spelling was named from the Baker family seat of Elemore.

Monkwearmouth | Old Sunderland

Bishopwearmouth City Centre

Sunderland South | Sunderland North

Industry | ‘Mackems’ 

Penshaw Washington Houghton-le-Spring 

Rainton, Sherburn and Pittington

Seaham and Murton | Easington




North East England History and Culture