Houghton-le-Spring is a former mining town in the City of Sunderland, formerly in the County of Durham and three miles south from the outskirts of Washington and a similar distance from Lumley and Chester-le-Street to the west. Like Chester-le-Street, the name Houghton-le-Spring contains the Norman-French element ‘le’, which also occurs in the name of nearby Hetton-le-Hole.
Also in Darlington is the similar sounding Haughton-le-Skerne, again within the former realm of the Prince Bishops, although this is named from a ‘haugh’ (flat riverside land) rather than from a hill (hoh/heugh).
The proximity of two Hettons called Hetton-le-Hole and Hetton-le-Hill to the south of Houghton-le-Spring could also be a factor in the use of the distinguishing suffix at Houghton.
As far as ‘le-Spring’ is concerned, it might be thought the ‘Spring’ in Houghton-le-Spring is named from some kind of well or spring that emerged from the neighbouring hill and although this is a possibility the name seems to have sprung – if you will pardon the pun – from its association with a family by the name of Spring. In 1311 Houghton was held by the widow of a Henry Spring and later, in 1420, a John Del Spring is mentioned in connection with Houghton.
Much of the early history of Houghton-le-Spring is centred upon the attractive church of St Michael and All Angels which was the centre of a very large parish but the town has at least two centuries of industrial history that resulted in Houghton’s expansion.
As well as coal, limestone quarrying has long been an important industry at Houghton but coal was the dominant industry until the early 1980s.
It was in the nineteenth century that Houghton became a significant colliery district. This followed the opening of Houghton Colliery (1823-1981) which was one of the first collieries to mine the coal that lay beneath the magnesian limestone of eastern Durham, where it was previously thought that coal was absent.
Being on Lambton land, Houghton Colliery, (just north west of Houghton), was opened by Lambton, the Earl of Durham, the year after the rival Hetton Colliery Company’s Hetton Lyons Colliery at Hetton-le-Hole, opened to the south. It was at Hetton in 1822, that mining in the previously ‘concealed coalfield’ of east Durham began.
Houghton’s busy town centre is centred on Newbottle Street which led to Houghton colliery and then onward to Newbottle. It resembles the main street of many other former mining towns in County Durham and ‘Tyne and Wear’.
The main street at Chester-le-Street or Durham City’s North Road are similar streets that spring to mind. Like both of those towns Houghton is a place with mining links that had also been a town of importance in medieval times.
Bernard Gilpin and Houghton Feast
Houghton’s church of St Michael and All Angels dates back to Norman times but possibly stands on the site of an ancient place of worship on this prominent hill, perhaps even pre-dating Christian worship.
Some parts of the church are still Norman but it is mostly of the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries with impressive windows from this later period. The Norman church was burned by the much-feared Scottish raider ‘The Black Douglas’ in a raid on County Durham in 1319.
The medieval and pre nineteenth century roots of Houghton are very apparent in and around Houghton’s parish church where there are attractive buildings of earlier ages that reflect Houghton’s past importance.
Notably, on the east side of the church is Kepier Hall, a building of 1574 that was once the Kepier Grammar School founded by the local rector Bernard Gilpin. Next to the old grammar school is an almshouse of 1668 founded by prominent Sunderland merchant George Lilburne with a commemorative plaque in the stonework to mark the foundation.
The plaque reads: “George Lilburne esq built the moiety of this hospital at his own charge and endowed it with ten pounds per annum forever for the maintenance of the poor people Anno Dom 1668”. The Lilburnes of Sunderland had been prominent North East figures during the Civil War.
A second plaque on the opposing wing and also set into the wall notes: “The charitable intention of the Reverend William Sharp M.A., carried into effect by Miss Dorothy Spearman his heiress by will. Who added to the revenues of the almshouses £18 per annum”.
Across the green over Broadway to the west of the church is the castle-like Houghton Rectory where the sixteenth century rector, Bernard Gilpin once resided. It is medieval and was embattled after 1483 with much work in the 1560s and 1664. Its eastern wing was added in 1794.
All of these buildings reflect Houghton’s importance and are rather surprising features of a place that might be considered a mining town. Even the town’s most prominent nineteenth century building, the nearby former brewery of 1874 (now converted into apartments) is something of a surprise.
The church is of course the focal point for the old part of the town and inside are some notable monuments including a thirteenth century effigy of a cross-legged knight. However, the biggest, and most noticeable feature is the huge tomb of Bernard Gilpin (1517-1583), who was known as ‘the Apostle of the North’, although there is no accompanying effigy.
Gilpin, a member of an important Westmorland family, was the great nephew of Cuthbert Tunstall, Bishop of Durham (1530-1559) and in 1552 the bishop appointed Gilpin as vicar to the historic parish of Norton on Tees.
Later, Gilpin became Archdeacon of Durham and in 1557 was appointed rector at Houghton-le-Spring, then one of the largest parishes in England. Despite his important status, Gilpin was a generous man who always had the interests of his parishioners at heart. On all Sundays between Michaelmas and Easter he declared his rectory an ‘open house’ and gave free dinners to all who visited, whether they were rich or poor.
Residents of Houghton today commemorate Bernard Gilpin’s generosity in the roasting of the ox at the annual ‘Houghton Feast’, a fair which he is said to have inaugurated. The tradition is that an ox was once donated by Gilpin to be roasted and distributed amongst the members of his parish.
Houghton Fair is now a more modern fairground attraction, which takes place on the first Friday of each October. Gilpin was a scholarly man, and keen to see that the humble and poor received a good education. He even sent some of his brightest young parishioners to university at his own expense.
With the financial help of a Londoner named John Heath (who owned land at Kepier near Durham), Gilpin founded the Kepier Grammar School at Houghton-le-Spring in 1557 and this considerably helped to improve the educational standards of the district.
Among the notable students to attend Kepier school in later centuries was Robert Surtees of Mainsforth (1779-1834), the County Durham historian.
Bernard Gilpin’s good works extended beyond his parish and he is perhaps best known for his journeys into the rough border country around Rothbury in Northumberland, where he evangelized among the Northumbrian people in the same way as St Aidan had done many centuries before.
Spreading the word of God was not an easy task for Gilpin in the North East of England, during a period of time when the local people were often ignorant and violent in nature. Indeed a sixteenth century Bishop of Carlisle observed of Durham and Northumberland:
There is more theft, more extortion here by English
thieves than by all the Scots in Scotland’.
Described as ‘tall and lean in person, with a hawk like nose and of charming and tactful manners’ Gilpin was a match for the reivers and his efforts were met with some success. Even the roughest of Border folk looked upon him with awe and respect and one incident recalling an interesting encounter between Gilpin and reivers in Rothbury church in Northumberland is recalled in a wall painting by William Bell Scott at Wallington near Morpeth.
Sadly, Gilpin’s interesting life came to a tragic and rather unexpected end on the 4th of March 1583, when he was knocked down and killed by an oxen in the market place at Durham. He was aged sixty six.
If it had not been for Gilpin living in an age of religious tensions (in which he refused to get involved), this ‘Apostle of the North’ as he was known could well have been venerated as one of Northumbria’s most famous saints.
Houghton Cut and Houghton Hall
The most familiar feature of Houghton is of course Houghton Cut which carries the A690 over the steep and prominent magnesian limestone escarpment. There is thought to have been a cut at the top of this hill since ancient times but in 1815 during the Napoleonic wars, French prisoners who were enforced into labour, were employed in blasting a deeper cut.
The road improvements made travel to the port of Sunderland quicker from the south and this was an important consideration in that time of war. Further blasting was undertaken by the English in the 1930s when 50,000 tons of limestone were removed and the Luftwaffe are said to have helped by bombing it. Further cuts were made in the hillside between 1968 and 1970.
Near the base of Houghton Cut, the A690 cuts deep in a canyon right through the middle of Church Street which is one of Houghton’s oldest and most attractive streets. In 1970 the east end of the street was sliced into two separate parts to make way for the A690 and Houghton Cut.
Before the A690, the old route from Durham to Sunderland followed the course of Sunderland Street through Houghton. The original Houghton Cut was the part of the cut north of Houghton beyond the quarry cemetery. Sunderland Street, like Church Street was also broke in two by the A690.
The A690 road turned Church Street into two quiet cul-de-sacs on either side of the busy dual carriageway that are now linked only by a footbridge. On the west side there are a number of old Georgian houses in Church Street stretching west to the church.
Over on the east side of the A690, across the footbridge, Church Street continues east where there are only a few houses before it becomes Nesham Place – named from the prominent coal-owning family of Newbottle. This street was home to some of Houghton’s more well-to-do inhabitants.
Church Street becomes Nesham Place at the junction with Hall Lane on the corner of which stands a large square, distinctive building of three floors and four bays. This is Houghton Hall, dating from 1589-1623 and built by local rector Robert Hutton. It was the manor house of the original village of Houghton and home to the Hutton family for around 250 years.
Occupants of the hall once included a Captain Robert Hutton who supported the Parliamentarians during the English Civil War. He is one of a number of ghosts said to haunt the building.
One of the hall’s most notable residents was Sir George Elliot, a businessmen and coal owner who started his career working down the mine at Penshaw as a boy. He lived at the hall in the 1850s and 1860s. Tragically, in 1861, Elliot’s daughter, Elizabeth, died at the house after her dress caught fire as she prepared for a party. She too is said to haunt the building.
In 1915 the hall became the headquarters of the 160th (Wearside) Brigade Royal Field Artillery who served in many famous battles in World War One, drawing in recruits from Wearside, Tyneside and neighbouring parts of Durham. In a more recent age the hall has served as a social club and as a YMCA. It is now privately owned.
Further east along Nesham Place there are a handful of town houses before we enter Houghton Market Place or rather what was once the market place. Once the heart of old Houghton village in times past, sadly its buildings were knocked down in the 1950s and replaced with semi-detached houses. ‘Market Place’ is still used for the street-name but it seems rather an odd name for rows of residential 1950s semis alongside the B104.
Graves in the Quarry
Houghton Cut was not the only feature blasted into the rocks of Houghton Hill. For many centuries the hill has been quarried for the magnesian limestone. Outcrops of this creamy-yellow limestone are as familiar in Houghton as they are in many of the neighbouring districts of east Durham and Sunderland.
In the 1850s the quarry on the east side of Houghton Cut was put to a rather unusual use. The cholera epidemic which had entered Houghton via Sunderland during that period took many lives and in a short period of time claimed the lives of so many people in Houghton that there was no longer any room for burials in the ancient graveyard of Houghton church. The Houghton rector, the Reverend John Grey, (nephew of Prime Minister, Earl Grey) campaigned for the old quarry to be consecrated as a new graveyard which caused much controversy in the town.
Many objected including a Houghton coal-owner, brewer and church warden called Thomas William Usherwood Robinson who was a fierce critic of Grey’s idea.
He said that no one would want to be buried in a quarry. Despite the objections, the plans were pursued and the new cemetery in the quarry, known as Houghton Hillside Cemetery, was consecrated in 1854 with a further extension in 1894. Ironically when Robinson died at his home at Hardwick Hall near Segefield, in August 1888, he was returned to his home town and buried in the very cemetery to which he had objected. It was the Reverend Grey who buried him.
The Robinsons, incidentally had established a brewery at Houghton in 1754. The brewery was extended and rebuilt with magnesian limestone in Durham Road around 1874. It is a significant building and can still be seen, serving as an apartment block. It closed as a brewery in 1926 and subsequently served a number of purposes, being a nightclub from 1976 to 1990.
As well as Robinson there are number of other notable burials in the cemetery including a local landowner with the peculiarly repetitive name of William Standish Standish of Cocken Hall near Finchale. There was a persistent legend – it has no truth – that Standish Standish rode his horse off a Houghton cliff to his death and there is another legend that he haunts the cemetery.
The largest grave in the churchyard is however the tomb vault of Sir George Elliot, the famed coal-owner, entrepreneur, friend of Disraeli and adviser to the khedive of Egypt. Elliot, one time resident of Houghton Hall died at his home in Portland Place London in 1893 but was brought north for burial at Houghton.
Newbottle, Shiney Row, Philadelphia
Several former colliery towns and villages stretch north and north-west from Houghton towards Washington and Chester-le-Street. They include Penshaw, New Herrington, Shiney Row, Newbottle, Philadelphia, New Lambton and Chilton Moor.
Shiney Row is one of the larger settlements and other than Penshaw is the most northerly of this group of places. Its name has never been satisfactorily explained. One story is that a visiting member of the Royal family remarked on the shiny nature of a row of houses during the nineteenth century.
The original part of the mining village is that near the roundabout on the Chester Road including the pedestrianised Main Street with a number of white-painted shops. The main streets of the mining village were Barrack Row and Chandlers Row and on the Chester Road was Long Row and Chapel Row.
Shiney Row church, dedicated to St Oswald dates from 1910 and is built of red bricks. The village of Shiney Row was one of a number of places around Durham recalled in the collection of poems entitled In Shabby Streets by the Dean of Durham, Cyril Allington in his commemoration of King George VI’s coronation of 1937. It was set at a time when North East was suffering from the consequences of economic depression:
Shildon, Spennymoor, Shiney Row,
Pelaw, Pity Me, Seldom Seen
What have you got to-day to show,
What have you done for your King and Queen?
The flags are flimsy, the streets are shabby,
With mean low houses of cold grey stone;
But which of the guests that throng the Abbey
Paid for his flag with a meal forgone?
Paper streamers and cheapest cotton-
Sign enough for the world to know
That you in London are not forgotten
In Shildon, Spennymoor, Shiney Row.
Would you choose the Mall with its crowns and gilding,
If you were King, or if you were Queen,
Or a paper flag on a lonely building
In Pelaw, Pity Me, Seldom Seen?
There are plenty more unusual and peculiar place-names around the former County Durham coalfield. Near Houghton-le-Spring they include Philadephia, Success, Newbottle and Fence Houses and there was once even a farm or house called Pity Me.
Although there are many old mining terraces in the area “Shabby streets” would be harsh commentary today, particularly in the old hilltop village of Newbottle just north of Houghton-le-Spring, a place mentioned in the 1100s. The ‘bottle’ part of the name is from an Anglo-Saxon word ‘bothl’ meaning ‘house or abode’. It occurs in place-names such as Walbottle, Shilbottle, Harbottle and Bothal.
Exactly when Newbottle became the ‘new abode’ or ‘new building’ is not known. It developed as a mining settlement but houses of the original farming village can still be seen in the old heart of the village which dates back to medieval times when Front Street once encompassed the whole of the village with farm houses clustered along its course. The old agricultural heart of the village mixes with neighbouring mining terraces and there are views to the neighbouring hills occupied by other former mining settlements.
South Street is the main street of the old coal mining village and is overlooked by a few older buildings including the former vicarage of 1865 (now a private house) near the church of St Matthew (1885).
However, the old part of the village is Front Street which runs parallel to South Street. Here we find a small village green and a number of pleasing houses mostly of the eighteenth century. They include Church House of 1720 and the elegant Georgian three-storey, seven-bay Newbottle House again of around 1720 which serves as the home to the Newbottle Workingmen’s Club.
In the 1700s the coal mines at Newbottle were owned by the Nesham family whose collieries were subsequently bought by the Lambtons. One of the local mines, Newbottle’s Success Pit, killed 57 people in an explosion in 1811 and was one of a number of colliery disasters at Newbottle in that era.
Newbottle Colliery operated from 1774 to 1976 and its pits included the Margaret Pit, Dorothea Pit and Success Pit. All situated north west or Newbottle and just to the south west of Philadephia.
A neighbouring mining village associated with the Success mine was simply called ‘Success’ because of the coal successfully found at the mine. The village of Success has now gone and is now a housing estate in the Trinity Park area of Philadelphia but its name is still remembered in Philadephia’s Success Road. The road to Success commences at the Philadelphia pub.
One of Newbottle’s interesting if rather sad claims to fame is that it was the site of what could well be the world’s first railway disaster. In July 1815, a locomotive was demonstrated at Newbottle Colliery that had been developed by a Scottish engineer called William Brunton. He called his engine a ‘mechanical traveller’. In addition to its four wheels it had mechanical legs that gripped the track at the rear. Despite this cumbersome design it could apparently travel at around 3mph.
Not long before the demonstration, a new boiler had been fitted to the engine which was thought to be a great improvement so there was much excitement about showing of this innovative machine.
A curious crowd of onlookers turned up to see the demonstration but the metal boiler, fired and full of boiling, high pressure water was unstable. The whole thing suddenly exploded killing the engine men, one of whom was cut clean in two. At least 13 spectators were killed instantly with one little boy thrown to his death. Others died later. Many suffered from serious injuries or scalding.
Philadelphia situated between Newbottle and Shiney Row was named during the American War of Independence in the eighteenth century. Naming fields, farms or new mining villages from far away battles, events or distant places with a British link is not unusual in the North East. Sometimes a mining village might take its name from a neighbouring farm or field with a curious name.
Across the region we can find numerous examples of these sort of place-names ranging from isolated farm houses to substantial mining villages. They include Bloemfontein, Toronto, Quebec, New York, Bomarsund, Inkerman, Vigo, Nova Scotia, Boca Chica, Portobello, Dunkirk, Annapoorna, Gibraltar, Waterloo, Spion Kop, Moscow, Havannah, Canada, Camperdown and California. Of course, nearby Washington does not fall into this category as it is very much the original.
Philadelphia which merges with New Herrington to the east is situated north of Houghton and Newbottle with Shiney Row to the west. To the north east is Penshaw. Philadephia Colliery (1874-1985) was also known as Herrington Colliery or New Herrington Colliery and was situated in part of what is now the extensive Herrington Park beneath Penshaw Monument. It was a Lambton-owned colliery, acquired from Lambton, Hetton & Joicey Collieries by the National Coal Board in 1947.
To the west of Houghton-le-Spring is the Moors Burn (called the Rainton Burn further upstream) which rises in the moors near Hetton and Rainton. Near Bournmoor to the north west it becomes the Lumley Park Burn before flowing through a wooded dene near Lumley Castle to join the River Wear. Over on the west side of the burn from Houghton and to the south of Bournmoor are Fence Houses, High Dubmire, Colliery Row and Chilton Moor.
At the north west of this collection of former mining villages is Fence Houses. It is partly situated on the west side of the disused Leamside railway line and named from a small country estate called Biddick Fence first mentioned in the 1600s. It was presumably fenced off in some way but why this was seen as being remarkable or significant is not known.
Nearby to the west is Woodstone village with Bournmoor across the burn to the north. Fence Houses is split in two by the old Leamside line and administratively split by the modern boundary between the City of Sunderland and County Durham.
To the south west, Fence Houses merges with High Dubmire, Colliery Row and Chilton Moor. Colliery Row is of course named from a row of pitmens’ houses. The ‘dub mire’ in the name of High Dubmire means ‘black bog’ and along with Sedgeletch Farm just across the Moors Burn to the north indicates that this was poorly drained rough country. A letch is a small moorland stream, often overgrown with sedges and grass. The Dubmire area was also the site of a house or farm called Pity Me which like the Pity Me near Durham City may allude to the challenging quality of the agricultural land.
Chilton Moor is thought to be named from a William De Chilton or one of his predecessors. He is mentioned in connection with Newbottle in 1418 and he presumably claimed ownership of the moor here. It is an unusual incidence of a place-name deriving from a surname. William De Chilton himself was likely from a family with a surname that means ‘of Chilton’ that originally hailed from Chilton near Ferryhill.
Returning to the town of Houghton-le-Spring and heading out just to the east we find one of the most ancient features of the area’s human occupation. Copt Hill is prehistoric and lies just to the south of the road to Seaham on the very edge of Houghton-le-Spring.
Known locally as the Seven Sisters, Copt Hill is a prominent Neolithic burial site where traces have been found going back to Mesolithic times. It may have some kind of link to another important Neolithic site at Hastings Hill on the edge of Sunderland, which was likely the most important Neolithic site between the Tyne and Tees.
The hilly country of this district with the sea to the east and the vale of the Wear below in the Penshaw, Fatfield and Lambton Park areas may have had a particular appeal to ancient man. Perhaps place-names such as Herrington, Washington and Hastings Hill, though Anglo-Saxon in origin may allude to earlier tribal groups or ‘ingas’ kinships of the district, perhaps during the Iron Age when Penshaw Hill seems to have been an Iron Age hill fort.
The hill called Warden Law, is another ancient site, a little to the east of Copt Hill. Warden Law forms the highest point in the locality and was also familiar to ancient man. In later times it was reputedly the place where St Cuthbert’s carriers came to a halt on their journey with the saint’s body from which they were guided in a vision towards Durham, although this has also been claimed by Wardley on Tyneside. In the North East and parts of Scotland a ‘law’ is a hill and laws often have ancient connections.
See also our page on the prehistory of the North East.