Pelton, Ouston, Urpeth and High Handenhold


Pelton, Ouston, Urpeth and High Handenhold are villages and hamlets situated between Beamish and Chester-le-Street. Kibblesworth Common and the wooded valley of the River Team separate Urpeth and Ouston in the Chester-le-Street area from Kibblesworth village in Gateshead Borough to the north .

High Urpeth
High Urpeth Photo © David Simpson

Urpeth, near Beamish has an Anglo-Saxon name meaning ‘path of the Urus’. Urus was an old name for the auroch, a kind of bison or wild ox that used to roam wild in these parts many centuries ago. Intriguingly there is still a bit of a connection with wild beasts today as it has been claimed that a mysterious beast, a wild cat of some kind, roams the moors of the neighbourhood. It is known as the beast of the Urpeth mist.

Urpeth is mentioned in the Boldon Buke, County Durham’s equivalent of the Domesday Book in 1183. According to the book Urpeth was expected to provide a ‘tun’ of wine for the Bishop of Durham “at any place in the land between the Tyne and Tees where he might request it”.

In later medieval times a local family called Urpeth took their name from the place and other later owners included the Greys, Hedworths and Lambtons. In 1640 a mayor of Newcastle called Robert Bewicke owned Urpeth. Residents of a more recent age have included former England and Newcastle United football manager, the late Sir Bobby Robson.

High Urpeth
High Urpeth © David Simpson

In the eighteenth and nineteenth century there were paper mills and corn mills on the River Team here close to where it becomes the Beamish Burn. An Urpeth Main Colliery was opened sometime before 1807 with an associated wooden wagonway and an incline that linked Urpeth to coal staithes on the River Wear near Washington. The colliery was distinct from the later Urpeth Colliery that operated from 1835 to 1937.

Buildings at Urpeth Farm at High Urpeth near Beamish include Urpeth Hall, a building dating to the eighteenth century but considerably altered around 1890. It was once the home of the Joicey coal owning family who later lived at Tanfield House. Urpeth Hall was also the home for a time to a nineteenth century MP called Calverley Bewicke. During World War Two it housed two American sky fighters and then Italian prisoners of war. In recent times the hall has been divided into separate residences.


Ouston to the north of Chester-le-Street and west of Birtley was originally called Ulkilstan and still known by that name as late as 1244. It was the settlement of Ulfkil. The word ‘stan’ in the name means ‘stone’ and is thought to refer to a boundary stone of some kind. Ulfkil is a Viking personal name, making Ouston a rare Viking place-name in northern County Durham.

In 1284 Nicholas Farnham, the Bishop of Durham gave Ouston to the Hospital of St Edmund in Gateshead, which was a religious foundation, but after Henry VIII’s dissolution of the monasteries in the 1500s the hospital’s lands were sold off and Ouston passed to the Anderson family and then to the Hedworths.

Ouston subsequently came into the hands of the Jolliffes and the Milbankes and in 1865 belonged to the executors of the will of the late Lady Byron (formerly Ann Isabella Milbanke) who was the wife of the poet Lord Byron. Miss Milbanke’s family held land at Croft and at Seaham where the couple were married.

A colliery operated at Ouston from at least as early as 1807 and was linked to a wooden railroad called the Beamish Wagonway to the south which transported coal to staithes on the Wear at Fatfield. This first pit was located near to what is now Drum Industrial Estate.

The Beamish Wagonway ran through this area from 1780 linking collieries to Fatfield and Chatershaugh on the Wear. It was joined by William Jolliffe’s Way, another wagonway linked to a colliery at Waldridge.

From around 1810 the newly built Ouston and Pelaw Waggonway (later called the Pelaw Main Railway) linked mines at Ouston and Urpeth to the Wear by another route and an offshoot of 1811 reached the Tyne with the assistance of various inclines and stationary steam engines and terminated at Pelaw Main Staithes near Bill Quay and Hebburn.

Pelaw Main on the Tyne was named from the Pelaw near Chester-le-Street. There were also staithes on the Tyne called Urpeth or Irpeth Staithes where ‘a coal drop’ was introduced to the region for the first time. Further pits opened at Ouston during the nineteenth century to make up Ouston Colliery and the colliery operated until 1959.

Today Ouston is a housing estate between Chester-le-Street and Gateshead. Ouston’s Front Street becomes the Front Street of Perkinsville to the south. Perkinsville is named from the Perkins family who owned collieries in the district and the iron works at Birtley.


Pelton to the south of Ouston traces its origins to Saxon times though the meaning of the name is disputed. It could mean ‘village with a palisade’ or ‘village near the shovel-shaped hill’. It apparently refers to a shovel of triangular shape – if any of the local hills can be described as resembling such a shape.

Holy Trinity church, Pelton
Holy Trinity church, Pelton © John Simpson

Pelton village is situated on Pelton Lane which forms part of the front street. Called ‘Pelton Lonnin’ in times past, it links Pelton to the centre of Chester-le-Street. Historically Pelton Lane was commemorated in a North Country folk song called ‘Pelton Lonnin’. The words which were traditionally sung to children of the Pelton district were as follows with most of the lines repeated several times:

The swine come Jingling down Pelton Lonnin
There’s five black swine and never an odd ‘un
Three i’ the dyke and two in the lonnin
There’s five black swine and never an odd ‘un

Back in 1320 Pelton had belonged to the Burdon family and passed to the Redhughs, Whelpingtons and the Nevilles whose lands were forfeited in 1569. Collieries at Pelton Fell brought a growth in population in the nineteenth century but there was already a substantial mining population in the area in the eighteenth century.

In the late 1600s Pelton was divided into several freeholds. Proprietors included Lambton, the Earl of Durham and a Charles Joliffe. By the late nineteenth century principal owners of land, mostly through coal mining interests were were the Joliffes; Calverley Bewickes; Lambtons and Fenwicks.

The Fenwicks of Pelton House laid the foundation of Pelton’s church of Holy Trinity in 1841. The establishment of this Anglican church came before that of any Non-Conformist Wesleyan or Methodist chapels which was unusual in a burgeoning Durham mining community where such chapels were often the first religious institutions to appear. It was perhaps all the more surprising given that Pelton was a place that had been visited by John Wesley.

John Wesley
John Wesley

John Wesley, the founder of Methodism preached in the village of Pelton in 1743 and 1780. In 1743 he remarked:

“As I was preaching at Pelton, one of the old colliers, not much accustomed to things of this kind, in the middle of the sermon, began shouting ‘amain’, for mere satisfaction and joy of heart. But their usual token of approbation (which somewhat surprised me at first) was clapping me on the back.”

Thomas Hepburn

Pelton’s most famous son was Thomas Hepburn, a miners’ leader born here in 1796. As a young boy he lost his father in a mine accident at Pelton but by the age of eight Hepburn was working in a coalmine at Fatfield on the banks of the Wear, later working at mines at Jarrow and Hetton. He founded the Northern Union of Pitmen in 1831, an alliance of the Northumberland and Durham pitmen known to the miners as Hepburn’s Union.

Thomas Hepburn
Thomas Hepburn

In that year miners came out on strike and a gathering of 20,000 miners assembled at Black Fell near Washington to protest against low pay, long hours and the bond system by which they were contracted to coal masters with severe restrictions. Here the Marquess of Londonderry, one of the most powerful coal owners, met them. He agreed to hold a meeting with their delegates providing that the men dispersed. However, although a subsequent meeting took place nothing was achieved.

In the meantime there were outbreaks of violence at various collieries including Blyth, Bedlington, Jesmond Dene, Hebburn and Waldridge instigated by a minority of lawless troublemakers who travelled from place to place. Hepburn, himself, a deeply religious man, did not condone violence.

In June 1831 the colliery owners made a concession in the establishment of a working day of 12 hours for boys, instead of 18, but the miners’ victory was short-lived. A second strike in 1832 was not so successful, even though it brought out almost all of the miners of Northumberland and Durham in support. The coal owners broke the strike by bringing in ‘blacklegs’ from other parts of the country and the eviction of many miners from their homes began under the supervision of soldiers and policemen.

The union was weakened. Hepburn and other union leaders were subsequently banned from working in the coalfield. Hepburn was reduced to selling tea around the colliery villages, although even this proved difficult as many miners feared reprisals from the coal owners for buying Hepburn’s produce. He was eventually taken on by the colliery at Felling after begging for a job and agreeing not be involved in any further union activity. Nevertheless Hepburn still supported the concept of unions for the rest of his life.

Hepburn was described by the nineteenth century mining historian Richard Fynes as “a man of intelligence, tact, perseverance and honesty of purpose and one who was calculated to do as he did a great amount of good work during the time he laboured amongst the miners”.

Hepburn died on December 9th, 1864 and was buried in the churchyard at Heworth near Gateshead. Another five years would pass before a union would re-emerge with the formation of the Durham Miners Union in 1869. Hepburn may not have seen its formation but one of his favourite sayings was: “to know how to wait is the secret of success”. Black Fell, where the union meeting of 1831 took place stands on the heights between Birtley and Washington New Town on a spot now dominated by the massive motorway junction of the A1(M) and A194(M) motorway.

Pelton Fell and Newfield

Pelton Fell lies south of Pelton in a lofty location with good views, as at neighbouring Waldridge Fell to the south. By 1894 Pelton Fell was described ‘as a populous colliery village’. To the immediate south was Pelton Fell Colliery (1835-1965) and to the west the Newfield Pit (1841-1920s).

Pelton Fell (or simply Pelton) Colliery of 1835 was situated near a wooded valley formed by the Twizel Burn, an offshoot of the Cong Burn. A mining disaster here in October 1866 claimed the lives of 24 men and boys. Coal from Pelton was once favoured by the London Gas companies in the capital where it was well-known, giving rise to the name of the Pelton Arms and Pelton Road in the Greenwich area of that city.

Another colliery of the Pelton area was Pelaw Colliery which stood alongside Stella Farm (long gone) in the Stella Gill and South Pelaw area of Chester-le-Street. The name ‘stella’ comes from an old dialect word meaning a ditch and probably refers to a tiny stream that branches off from the Cong Burn near here.

King Coal near Pelton
King Coal near Pelton Photo © David Simpson

Beamish and Chester-le-Street Cycle Path

The course of the former Stanhope and Tyne Railway of 1834 through Pelton Fell, Stella Gill and South Pelaw which served local mines is now occupied by part of a long distance cycleway (the C2C coast to coast cyclepath) and footpath noted for unusual sculptures that adorn the route.

Near Stella Gill is an appropriately named sculpture called King Coal that was unveiled in 1992 at about the time the last mines were closing in County Durham. This impressive sculpture, designed by an artist called David Kemp features the enormous face of a bearded man who gazes outward in the direction of the distant Penshaw Monument. He is made from recycled bricks, mining shovels and a colliery fan impeller and we get the overall impression that the remnants of some old colliery building have strangely transformed by their own design into a king who now keeps watch over his lost kingdom.

King Coal at Pelton looking towards Penshaw
King Coal at Pelton looking towards Penshaw. Photo © David Simpson

Towards the South Pelaw area of the cycle route close to the edge of Chester-le-Street is a 300 yard long twisting and winding sculpture known locally as the Lambton Worm. It was the work of an artist called Andy Goldsworthy who knew nothing of the worm legend when he constructed the sculpture, but its wriggly serpent-like nature left locals in no doubt about what they believed it should represent.

South Pelaw and High Flatts

Nearby in the area between South Pelaw and Stella Gill is the Flatts comprised of High Flatts where we find the Plough Inn and Low Flatts near Low Flatts Road in between the main line railway and Drum Industrial Estate.

The Flatts near Chester-le-Street
The Flatts near Chester-le-Street Photo © David Simpson

In the 1820s High Flatts at Chester-le-Street was the seat of a branch of a family called the Allans of Blackwell Grange near Darlington. In 1693 Thomas Allan, the grandson of Thomas Allan of Yarm and son of Thomas Allan of Newcastle built a wagonway from nearby Low Flatts to coal staithes on the River Wear – the first colliery railway to be linked to the Wear. A flatt was incidentally a division of common land.

The name Pelaw and South Pelaw may be connected with that of Pelton. Pelaw is the area at the northern end of Chester-le-Street and derives its name ‘pel-heugh’ from the heugh or hill spur around which a palisade was built, presumably in Saxon times.

Early owners of Pelaw took the surname Pelaw from the place and the ‘De Pelawe’ family still held land here in the late 1300s. In 1381 Pelaw was sold to the Elmeden family and later passed from them to the Bulmers.

Tribley and the Tribley Shield

Along the B6313 road from Pelton Fell to Craghead are a small collection of houses called Tribley and Hett Hills. The word Hett in Hett Hills literally means hat-hill and is site of the Moorings Hotel. In the early twentieth century a small mine called Tribley Pit opened nearby. Tribley dates back to Anglo-Saxon times and means ‘Triba’s clearing’ for much of its history it was linked with Birtley.

Around 1814 an impressive ancient shield dating from the Bronze Age was found at Tribley. Dating from around 1500 BC and thought to have belonged to a high-ranking Celt, it was found buried in the peat moss by an agricultural worker.

The shield was found in one piece but its finder chopped it up into three pieces to give to his friends. Two of the pieces were later donated to the Society of Antiquaries at Newcastle but the third piece has not been found and has been replaced by a piece carved from fibreglass.

High Handenhold

West Pelton emerged as a mining settlement in the nineteenth century and served the Handenhold Pit of West Pelton colliery which dated from 1860. The colliery was owned by Sir James Joicey and Co in the nineteenth century and by the Lambton, Hetton and Joicey Collieries in the twentieth century before passing to the National Coal Board in 1947. It closed in 1968.

Handenhold comes from Handen ‘Howl’ meaning a hollow and is named from a nearby vale. The meaning of the first part of the name ‘Handen’ is not known but ‘den’ in place-names often refers to a dene or valley, though occasionally refers to a hill. The Handenhold Pit of West Pelton Colliery is now the home of the Roseberry Grange Municipal Golf Course.

Part of the hill occupied by the golf course is called Roseberry Topping though it’s not known if there is any connection with the prominent and much better-known hill called Roseberry Topping in the Cleveland Hills.

Cleveland’s Roseberry Topping has strong Viking connections deriving its name from the Old Danish word ‘Toppen’ meaning hill. The Roseberry element of Cleveland’s Roseberry Topping was originally Odins-Beorg meaning Odin’s Hill, Odin being the principal Viking God. Other spellings of the Cleveland hill name have down the years included Othensberg, Ohenseberg, Ounsberry and Ouesberry. Intriguingly the heavily wooded hill just north of High Handenhold is called Ousborough Hill.

The village of Grange Villa once served the Alma Pit (1858-1921) that was one of the two mines of West Pelton Colliery and was linked to the Stanhope and Tyne Railway. Named from the nearby Pelton Grange Farm, Grange Villa consisted of little more than a stone terrace in the nineteenth century which can still be seen.

Stanley, Pontop, Annfield Plain and Tanfield | Beamish

Lumley Castle, The Lumley family and Great Lumley 

Shotley Bridge and Ebchester | Consett


Team Valley | Whickham and Gibside



North East England History and Culture