Houghton-le-Spring, is a former mining town in the City of Sunderland, 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.

Rectory at Houghton-le-Spring
Rectory at Houghton-le-Spring : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Such ‘le’ suffixes often occur in the historic County of Durham where the ruling Norman Prince Bishops of Durham needed to identify places with similar sounding names for practical administrative purposes such as taxation.

Houghton, as it may be called for short, is pronounced ‘Ho-Ton’ (not Howton or Hoffton) and indeed its name derives from ‘Hoh-Ton’ (heugh-ton) which means the hill spur (hoh) with a farm or settlement (ton). There were two Houghtons within the Bishop of Durham’s land. The other is near Gainford to the west of Darlington and is called Houghton-le-Side to distinguish it from Houghton-le-Spring.

Houghton-le-Spring © David Simpson 2015

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) next to the River Skerne 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 hyphenated suffix at Houghton.

As far as ‘le-Spring’ is concerned, it might be thought that 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.

Houghton church tower
Houghton church tower © David Simpson 2015

Mining town

Much of the early history of Houghton-le-Spring is centred upon the attractive church of St Michael and All Angels but the town has around two centuries of industrial history that resulted in the growth of the town.

Limestone quarrying has long been an important industry at Houghton but until the early 1980s the town’s most recent industrial history was dominated by coal. 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 there wasn’t any coal.

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 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’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.

Houghton church
Houghton church © David Simpson 2015

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. 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 a number of notable and 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.

Houghton Almshouse of 1688
Houghton Almshouse of 1688 : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Next to the old grammar school is an almshouse of 1668 founded by prominent Sunderland merchant George Lilburne with a commemorative plaque to mark the foundation.

Houghton Almshouse plaque
Houghton Almshouse plaque : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Close by is the attractive Church Street divided by Houghton Cut and across the green over Broadway to the west of the church is the castle-like Houghton Rectory where Bernard Gilpin once resided. It is medieval and was embattled after 1483 with much work in the 1560s and 1664 and an eastern wing added in 1794.

These buildings reflect Houghton’s local importance and are rather surprising features of a place often considered to be 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. The biggest, and most noticeable feature is however 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 this bishop appointed Bernard as vicar to the historic parish of Norton on Tees.

Houghton-le-Spring church
Houghton-le-Spring church : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Later Gilpin became Archdeacon of Durham and it was in 1557 that he became the 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.

Most 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 was 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 famous students to attend Kepier school in later centuries was Robert Surtees of Mainsforth (1779-1834) the Durham historian.

Kepier Grammar School
Former Grammar School of 1557 at Houghton : Photo © David Simpson 2015

Bernard Gilpin’s good works extended beyond his parish and he is perhaps best known for his journeys into the rough border country of 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’ Bernard Gilpin was perhaps an ideal match for such a race of people and his efforts were met with some success.

Even the roughest of Border folk, looked upon Gilpin with awe and respect and one incident recalling an interesting encounter between Gilpin and some reivers at a Rothbury church in Northumberland is recalled in a wall painting 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 by an oxen in the market place at Durham.

He was aged sixty six. If it had not been for the fact that Gilpin lived in an age of religious tensions (in which he refused to get involved), this ‘Apostle of the North’ 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 at Houghton. There is thought to have been a cut at the top of the hill since ancient times but in 1815 during the Napoleonic wars, French prisoners, enforced into labour, were employed in blasting a deeper cut.

Houghton Cut
Approach to Houghton Cut : Photo © David Simpson 2015

The road improvements made travel to the port of Sunderland quicker from the south and this was an important consideration in this time of war. Further blasting was undertaken by the English in the 1930s when 50,000 tons of limestone were removed and the Germans 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 through Church Street which is one of Houghton’s oldest and most attractive streets sliced into two separate sections by the A690 in 1970. It has left two quiet cul-de-sacs on either side of the busy dual carriageway that are now linked by a footbridge across the busy thoroughfare. On the west there are a few old Georgian houses in Church Street and its surrounds.

Church Street, Houghton-le-Spring
Church Street, Houghton-le-Spring © David Simpson 2015

On the east side of the A690 across the footbridge Church Street continues east with only a few houses before it becomes Nesham Place – named from a prominent coal-owning family of the Newbottle area. This street was home to some of Houghton’s more well-to-do inhabitants.

Houghton Footbridge
Houghton Footbridge looking back towards Church Street © David Simpson 2015

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 of many windows. Dating from 1589-1623 it was built by local rector Robert Hutton, this is Houghton Hall, the manor house of the original village and was home to the Hutton family for around 250 years. One of the occupants was 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.

Houghton Hall
Houghton Hall : Photo © David Simpson 2015

One of the hall’s most notable residents was Sir George Elliot (See Penshaw), a notable 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.

Houghton hall Royal Field Artillery plaque
Houghton hall Royal Field Artillery plaque © David Simpson 2015

Further east along Nesham Place there are a handful of notable 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-detahced houses. Market Place is still used for the street-name but it seems rather an odd name for the rows of residential 1950s semis alongside the B104.

The 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 the Prime Minister, Earl Grey) campaigned for the old quarry to be consecrated as a new graveyard which caused much controversy in the town.

Former Robinson's brewery building, Houghton-le-Spring
Former Robinson’s brewery building, now apartments, Houghton-le-Spring © David Simpson 2015

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 Hilliside 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 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.

Gilpin shield on church gateway in Houghton-le-Spring
Gilpin shield on church gateway in Houghton-le-Spring : Photo © David Simpson

Newbottle, Shiney Row and 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 the largest settlements but the 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. Shiney Row, was one of a number of places around Durham recalled in the collection of poems 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 Philadelphia which is likely from a farm or field name of pre-colliery days. Fencehouses is named from a small estate called Biddick Fence that was mentioned in the 1600s. It was presumably fenced off in some way. Chilton Moor is probably from a William De Chilton associated with Newbottle in 1418 while Newbottle itself was from an Ango-Saxon word ‘bothl’ meaning ‘house or abode’.

Newbottle was mentioned in the 1100s although when exactly it became a ‘new abode’ is not known. In the 1700s the coal mines here 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. There was a neighbouring village associated with the Success mine that was also simply called ‘Success’, yet another village to add to the list of peculiar place-names.

Newbottle has a rather interesting if sad and horrific claim to fame for being 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.

Copt Hill Neolithic site near Houghton-le-Spring. © David Simpson 2021

Copt Hill

One of Houghton-le-Spring’s oldest features is prehistoric and lies just to the west of the town on the road to Seaham. Known locally as the Seven Sisters, it is the ancient site of Copt Hill, a prominent Neolithic burial site where traces have been found going back to Mesolithic times.

The hill called Warden Law, a little to the east 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.

Monkwearmouth | Old Sunderland

Bishopwearmouth City Centre

Sunderland South | Sunderland North

Industry | ‘Mackems’ 

Penshaw Washington Hetton-le-Hole

Rainton, Sherburn and Pittington

Seaham and Murton | Easington





North East England History and Culture