For many centuries Stockton was the most important settlement in the northern part of what is now the Teesside area, but in more ancient times Norton and Billingham were places of greater significance forming important agricultural settlements and major land estates as early as the Anglo-Saxon age.
Norton is situated to the north east of Stockton from which it was once separated by open country. The Lustrum or Lustring Beck. separated the lands of Norton from those of Stockton while the Billingham Beck to the east separated Norton from the lands of Billingham. All three places merge together today.
The name ‘Norton’ means the ‘northern settlement or estate’. A great estate was centred on the church of Norton and is thought to have consisted of three main settlements: Stockton, Norton and Carlton. Stockton was presumably the site of the manor house which later became a castle of the Bishops of Durham.
Norton was the home of the estate church and Carlton (a village to the north west) was once the part of the estate belonging to the ‘carls’ – or free peasants. Preston on Tees to the south was presumably a part of the estate belonging to a priest.
Norton may have fallen within one of the earliest parts of the North East to be settled by the Anglo-Saxons. However in some old records it is referred to as Normanton and although this may be an error, it is tempting to speculate about the term ‘Norman’ which in place-names usually refers to Norsemen (Vikings) rather than Normans. There is certainly much evidence that Anglo-Saxon lands of the Tees Valley later came into the hands of the Vikings.
Viking influence or not, Norton was certainly a place of importance in Anglo-Saxon times, and it is still the home to an important Anglo-Saxon church. In 1984 excavations at Mill Lane, Norton revealed a large Anglo-Saxon pagan cemetery that predated the Christian era and the church. The site was revealed by chance by children playing in the area. Following excavation more than one hundred burials were discovered at the site along with three cremations. The finds were dated from between 540AD and 610AD which is relatively early in the Anglo-Saxon period
An interesting assortment of personal items were found in the graves including shields, spears, combs, brooches, belt buckles, beads, keys, pots, and tweezers. One of the most notable finds was a Frankish style silver-plated buckle found in the grave of a female. All the objects found dated to the early 6th century and are thus pre-Christian. They nevertheless demonstrate that the people of the Dark Ages were more culturally advanced than is often thought. In fact Norton was inhabited in much earlier times than the Anglo-Saxon period as a Bronze Age burial site has also been discovered, to the east of the village green.
Norton Saxon Church
The beautiful church of St Mary the Virgin at Norton has a long history, being Anglo-Saxon in origin with an impressive Anglo-Saxon crossing tower. As we have noted Norton was the centre of an important Anglo-Saxon estate and lay within the realm of St Cuthbert and the Bishops of Chester-le-Street during the 10th century and the church dates from the later part of that century.
In later times its important status was demonstrated by a significant link to Durham Cathedral and the Community of St Cuthbert. The carriers of St Cuthbert’s coffin, who were the descendants of the monks who had departed with the saint’s body from Lindisfarne more than a century before, were a non-celibate community. Non-celibacy was unacceptable to the Norman churchmen of Durham who took over the Benedictine monastery at the cathedral following the Norman Conquest.
A number of the monks and their families were removed from Durham by the Bishop of Durham and sent to Norton while others were removed to St Helen’s Auckland and Darlington. A new community of celibate monks was established at Durham.
Two of the most notable sons of Stockton-on-Tees are incidentally connected with St Mary’s church at Norton. One is John Walker, the inventor of the friction match who is buried here and another is Thomas Sheraton, the furniture designer who was married here.
Close to the church to the north east is a building called The Hermitage that may have once been a house for the canons of the collegiate church. It was restructured as a grammar school in the 1670s. A canon is a member of a chapter – a group of people responsible for the administration of a collegiate church which has a similar administrative organisation to a monastery. Norton became a collegiate church around 1081 when the Bishop of Durham evicted the Durham monks and relocated them here.
Norton Village Green and High Street
As a village and suburb Norton is arguably the region’s best kept secret and if it was a suburb of London would probably be up there with some of the most refined and sought after.
Although Norton had started life as an Anglo-Saxon farm or estate it developed into a farming village where land holders in medieval times included Adam of Normanton and Adam son of Gilbert De Herdwic and then, a little later, a Sir Roger Fulthorpe. The Fulthorpes, presumably named from Fulthorpe Farm to the north of Norton owned land here for a considerable period.
By the 18th century, the village had become a favoured residence for wealthy business people connected with the town and port of Stockton-on-Tees. Norton still retains a village atmosphere though it has now been swallowed up by the growth of Stockton.
In fact, originally, Norton had been the senior settlement. For centuries, old Norton and its Saxon church were the centre of an important parish which included Stockton. Today the status of these towns has been reversed. Stockton became a parish in its own right in 1713. Norton retained its parish status but subsequently became a part of the Borough of Stockton on Tees.
Norton High Street (not to be confused with the High Street in Stockton) is the main thoroughfare through Norton and is a leafy street of some considerable length that is full of charming 18th century houses and it is worth a stroll for those with a passion for old houses to pick out some of the best ones. Some are occupied by pleasing outlets and places to eat.
The High Street culminates in the focal point of Norton – the huge village green that still retains a rural atmosphere with some 18th century cottages and a substantial village duck pond that once provided the water supply for the village. The church is tucked away about a hundred yards along the road from the green.
The village was once the site of a market at a spot called Cross Dike, near the pond. The market was established in Norman times but this ceased operating around the time of the Civil War in the 1640s. One story is that the market established by Henry II and Bishop Flambard of Durham was to operate on the sabbath and this offended God who caused the markets to collapse by swallowing them up with the sudden opening up of the ground by some kind of earthquake that then allegedly formed the village pond.
By the late nineteenth century there was already a scattering of houses along the Norton Road that links the Norton High Street to the High Street in Stockton to the south of the Lustring Beck. Here there was in historic times a toll bridge across the beck linking the two places.
The Norton Road area of Norton was the home to a number of large houses or villas at the north end and there was a nearby brewery. Terraces had developed at the south end just outside Stockton with a neighbouring brick works, the Clarence Pottery and the Clarence Windmill nearby. Generally Norton escaped the industrial developments of neighbouring Teesside towns but its industries did include an iron works to the north of the village where the first ever bell for Big Ben in the Houses of Parliament at Westminster was cast. It was tested and found to be perfect but there was a delay in London of sixteen months in having it fitted and it was then found to be cracked, possibly due to over-testing.
Holme House, Lustrum Beck and Potato Tom
In addition to the Norton Road, there was another offshoot road from the south end of Norton High Street that passed through the once open country to the south west. This was called Portrack Lane and terminated at a farm called Holm House near the old Portrack meander of the River Tees. It followed the course of the present South Road and part of what is now the eastern perimeter of the Holme House Prison.
This country Lane was not seemingly part of the road called Portrack Lane that is so familiar in Stockton today, though that too was originally a country lane called Portrack Lane East. That Portrack Lane was part of Stockton rather than Norton and led to a bridge across the Lustrum Beck and was presumably linked to the other part of Portrack Lane to the north.
Holm House has long since gone, its site now occupied by the Lustrum Industrial Park near the Holme House prison (built in 1992) which bears its name. The house was once the home of an eighteenth century character called ‘Potato Tom’.
Holm House itself was probably named from the ‘holm’ or ‘island’ of land at Norton Bottoms between the Lustring Beck and the Billingham Beck to the north.
Norton was a place noted for its boarding schools and the genteel occupations of its inhabitants and for its good soil, in times past. The attributes of the soil were acknowledged by Thomas Baker, farmer Quaker and preacher who lived at the aforementioned Holm House between Portrack and Norton. He became known as ‘Potato Tom’ as he was famed for introducing the potato to County Durham at Norton in about 1736.
Tom’s links to the potato may explain a Sir Walter Raleigh-type story or legend connected to him concerning his romantic pursuits in attempting to court a wealthy lady called Mary Jekyll. Once, as the pair walked in Stockton High Street during foul weather, they encountered a gulley or drain which the delicate Mary feared to step over.
As an act of gallantry Tom placed his foot within it allowing Mary to use his foot as a step – in an act which was seemingly enough to persuade her to marry him. Remember it was Sir Walter Raleigh who introduced the potato to England and he is also famed for an act of gallantry – throwing his cape across a puddle at the feet of Queen Elizabeth I – though that particular noble act did not end in marriage.