Penshaw Monument and Worm Hill

Penshaw Monument

Penshaw Monument lies across the River Wear to the south of Washington and is within the City of Sunderland. It is an imposing reminder of the Lambton family (see also Lambton Castle and Lambton Park). The monument is a Victorian copy of the ancient temple of Theseum in Athens, it is in fact half its size and can be seen clearly from parts of west Durham, Tynemouth, North Tyneside and as far south as the Stang Forest in Teesdale.

The Penshaw Monument
The Penshaw Monument : Photo © John A Simpson

The monument was erected in 1848 to honour John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham (1792 -1840). Lambton was known to Durham pitmen as ‘Radical Jack’, because of his forward thinking democratic views. A noted coal-owner, Lambton was also a politician and drafted the 1832 Reform Bill for his father-in-law, the Prime Minister, Earl Grey. This bill abolished the so-called ‘Rotten Boroughs’, an undemocratic feature of British politics. Such boroughs included Old Sarum in Wiltshire, where two MPs were elected by the owner of a ‘green mound and a well’.

The Reform Bill also gave MPs to large towns like Manchester, Birmingham and Leeds, which previously had none at all. Other government reforms of the 1830s brought about the abolishment of the County Palatine of Durham, terminating the last remaining vestiges of power held by the ‘Prince Bishops’.

Fatfield Bridge and Penshaw monument
Fatfield Bridge and Penshaw monument © David Simpson

Lambton was a member of the Whig government of Earl Grey, a Northumbrian who was Prime Minister at the time of the 1832 reforms. The Reform Bill is often referred to as Earl Grey’s Reform Bill. Grey was the father to Lambton’s wife Lady Louisa Grey and is of course commemorated by a famous brand of tea. Grey who was born in Fallodon in North Northumberland is also remembered by Grey’s Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne which, like Penshaw Monument, was designed by Benjamin Green.

For a coal-owner Lambton was an unusually popular figure in the Durham coalfield. He was considered to have care and respect for the safety and conditions of the miners who worked for him. In the miners’ strike of 1831 Lambton’s men refused to participate.

There was personal tragedy in Lambton’s life and for Grey too. It was in 1831 that Lambton’s thirteen year old eldest son Charles died. A lasting memory of the boy remained in the form of the portrait painted by the artist Sir Thomas Lawrence in 1826. The famous painting, known as The Red Boy was considered a good likeness and received Lambton’s approval. “Most beautiful, most beautiful” the stunned Lambton uttered on first seeing the portrait of his son. For many years this portrait was displayed at the Lambton-owned Witton Castle in lower Weardale,

The Red Boy
The Red Boy

Lambton was a major figure on the international political stage. For a time he was appointed a special envoy to Russia and with his family became a guest of the Russian court in St. Petersburg. It was on his return from Russia that Grey persuaded King William IV to bestow the title ‘Earl of Durham’ upon Lambton. The Lambtons had been a family of huge influence in Durham and especially around Wearside and Chester-le-Street for many centuries but John George Lambton was the first of the family to hold a landed title.

View of Penshaw monument from Durham Cathedral Tower
View of Penshaw monument from Durham Cathedral Tower © David Simpson

It was in 1837, under a new Prime Minister, Viscount Melbourne, that Lambton took on a significant role in the history of the British Commonwealth and Empire. This was at a time when there was a serious threat of rebellion against British rule in Canada. Lambton was appointed General and Governor in Chief of the Canadian provinces and set sail for Canada with his family. It was a month-long journey just to reach Canada.

Lambton endeared himself to the Canadians and gained an understanding of their needs. On his return to Britain in November he set to work on what came to be known as The ‘Durham Report’ which was the blueprint for Canadian independence that set out a structure of Canadian government based on the British model. It was the first stage in the development of what would come to be known as the Commonwealth of Nations.

Lambton died in 1840 in retirement on the Isle of Wight only days after the Canada Bill, the result of his work, brought independence to Canada. His coffin was shipped north to Sunderland and from there taken to the parish church of Chester-le-Street for burial. It is estimated that around 50,000 people turned out in the North East for his funeral procession.

 Radical Jack
John George Lambton, First Earl of Durham

Penshaw Village and Herrington Country Park

The name of Penshaw comes from the hill on which the monument stands and is thought to derive from the Ancient British ‘Pen-Cerr’ meaning ‘head of the rocks’. It has been suggested that chair-like terraces on its slopes resulted in a later name ‘Pencher’ that still reflects the pronunciation of the name today.

There was coal mining in the Penshaw area from at least the 1700s near the river area. In 1737, a wooden colliery wagonway opened herabouts and was by the 1790s linked to a mine at Bournmoor (near Chester-le-Street) where a wooden railway of this early era was discovered in 1996. It was considered a significant archaeological find.

A mine opened in Penshaw in 1792 and around the year 1823 a 9 year old boy came to work at the mine called George Elliot. As a young man he studied mine engineering and unusually progressed from this humble start to make an extraordinary career progression, becoming Chief Viewer of the Marquess of Londonderry’s Durham collieries.

Penshaw Hill
Penshaw Monument. Photo © David Simpson

Through shrewd investment he eventually owned collieries of his own and established a company making telegraph cables. In his later years he was an associate of the Prime Minister, Disraeli and was appointed as a financial adviser to the Khedive of Egypt. A stone tablet from Cheops was given to Elliot during his time in Egypt and it was incorporated into the church at Penshaw. Another similar stone, from the pyramid of Ghizeh was used at West Rainton church.

A riverside settlement called Penshaw Staithes once existed at Penshaw and was one of a number that were thriving centres of the riverside coal trade in the Washington area. The famed North East comedian Bobby Thompson (1911-1988) was born at Penshaw Staithes but grew up just across the other side of the river in Fatfield. He worked as a miner at North Biddick Colliery before turning his attention to entertainment.

Penshaw Monument
Penshaw Monument. Photo © John Simpson

In addition to the Penshaw Monument another remarkable feature of the Penshaw and Washington neighbourhood is the Victoria Bridge viaduct of 1838. Currently disused, it once carried the Durham Junction Railway (more lately known as the Leamside line) across the gorge of the Wear. Its design is based on a Roman bridge – the Emperor Trajan’s bridge at Alcantra in Spain. This prompted the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner to ask:

“Is there any other place where one can stand beneath a ‘Roman’ viaduct and see a ‘Greek’ temple nearby?”

Designed by the railway architect T.E.Harrison, the viaduct is named the Victoria Bridge because the last stone was laid on the date of Queen Victoria’s coronation.

The Victoria Bridge
The Victoria Bridge. Photo © David Simpson

South of Penshaw are the former mining villages of Newbottle , Shiney Row, Philadephia, Newbottle and New Herrington. The last of these was the site of Herrington Colliery from 1874 to 1985. The fabulous Herrington Country Park with its superb views of the nearby Penshaw Monument were landscaped from the site of the colliery.

Nearby is the village of West Herrington separated from East Herrington and Middle Herrington which lie just across the A19 in Sunderland. North of here on the Sunderland side of the A19 is a magnesian limestone hill called Hastings Hill that was inhabited in prehistoric times.

Penshaw monument viewed from Hastings Hill
Penshaw monument viewed from Hastings Hill © David Simpson 2021

Back on the west side of the A19 but further north towards Pennywell and South Hylton is Offerton, the site of a skirmish during the English Civil War. It was originally called Ufferton meaning ‘settlement of the upper ford’, from a ford or river crossing that once existed here upstream from Hylton. The busy A19 crosses the River Wear close by using a bridge of course – the only fords you’ll find today are vehicles passing overhead at speed.

The Lambton Worm : Worm Hill

Penshaw Hill and Worm Hill across the Wear at Fatfield are closely associated with one of the North East’s best known folk tales – The Legend of the Lambton Worm. Worm Hill is a rather peculiar hump-shaped feature at the top of the bank close to the river and in earlier centuries it was considered something of a mysterious curiosity.

Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs,
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

The medieval hero of the Worm Hill legend was a certain young man called John Lambton (said to be John Lambton, a knight of Rhodes in the 1400s) who on a particularly chilly Sunday morning decided to go fishing in the River Wear rather than attend the local church. His truancy was rather a waste of time, as he did not have a very successful morning’s sport.

Worm Hill near Fatfield
Worm Hill near Fatfield, Washington : Photo © David Simpson

The only thing he succeeded in catching, other than perhaps a cold, was a tiny worm-like creature which he despondently threw into a nearby well, before returning home for lunch. In later life John Lambton became a knight and crusader and left England to fight in the Middle East, where he soon forgot about the strange little worm caught on that otherwise uneventful Sunday morning.

Unbeknown to John, while he was away abroad, the tiny creature had grown into an enormous hideous serpent that began to terrorise the local neighbourhood from its lair at Worm Hill near the banks of the Wear. It is said that the worm would feed off the udders of cows and swallow little children alive. After feasting it would fall asleep and lazily lap its tail around Worm Hill.

Naturally, many attempts were made to slaughter the beast, but even when it was cut into pieces the parts rejoined and the worm remained alive. John Lambton, perhaps feeling responsible for the activities of the worm, decided to return home to England, where he consulted the advice of a wise old witch. He asked her how he should go about killing such a creature.

The old lady explained that the only way to kill the beast was by standing in the middle of the River Wear, wearing a suit of armour coated with blades of steel and wait patiently for the worm to arrive. However, a warning was given to Lambton, that upon defeating the worm, he must then kill the first living thing he set eyes upon. If he failed to follow the wise woman’s instructions he was warned that a curse would be placed upon nine generations of the Lambtons so that none would die in their bed.

River Wear at low tide, Fatfield
River Wear at low tide, Fatfield with Penshaw Hill in the distance : Photo © David Simpson

Lambton, obeying the words of the old lady put on the appropriate armour and reluctantly instructed his father to send out one of the family hounds, so he could complete the deed in accordance with her wishes. Making his way to the banks of the Wear he stood in the centre of the river, where he didn’t have to wait for long.

The worm came darting towards its adversary of long ago and proceeded to viciously wrap itself around the armoured knight. After a short struggle the creature was gradually sliced up into many tiny pieces by the steel blades of Lambton’s armour. Bit by bit each piece of the worm was carried away by the current of the river before they had time to rejoin.

At last the worm was dead. The victorious but exhausted Lambton, made his way back to the bank of the river, remembering that he must now kill the first living thing he set eyes upon. As he emerged from the river he looked up with shock and horror to see his excited father, who had evidently forgotten the hound. Lambton could not kill his own Dad!

There is good reason to believe that the story of the appearance of the excited father that followed Lambton’s worm-slaying victory may have inspired this particular verse of Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock poem:

“And hast thou slain
the Jabberwock
Come to me my beamish boy !
O’ frabjuous day
Callooh ! Callay !”
He chortled in his joy.

So would the Lambton curse prove true ? Well history seems to suggest it did. Several Lambtons met violent deaths and indeed one General Lambton, confined to his bed by a terrible illness, pleaded and pleaded with his servants “please, please release me, let me go”. When they finally lifted him from his bed – he died. A shocking and surprising twist, but one of many twists in the tale of the Lambton Worm.

Worm Hill, Fatfield
Worm Hill, Fatfield © David Simpson

The origins of the Lambton Worm story are something of a mystery. Although it is set at the time of Crusades, it is known that worms (wyverns, dragons, serpents) are an important part of Anglo-Saxon and Norse mythology. One theory has suggested that the Lambton Worm legend is an allusion to some long-forgotten invasion by an army or party of roving Viking warriors who sailed down the Wear to Fatfield reaching close to the point where the river is no longer tidal. The slicing of the worm into pieces could refer to the Anglo-Saxon defenders splitting and isolating various sections of the raiding swarm of Vikings.

The association with Worm Hill on the banks of the River Wear in the Fatfield area may add further support to this theory as this glacial hill up at the top of the river bank could have provided a good site for a riverside encampment that may have been used by an invading Viking army. In fact in times past historians believed it was a man-made camp constructed by the Danes.

There is one other interesting link. The Lambton Worm has a cousin in the southern part of old County Durham. Here the Viking connection to the worm legends becomes even more compelling in the legend of the Sockburn Worm a creature that inhabited the Tees valley at Sockburn near Darlington. Sockburn seems to have beeen an important religious centre for the Vikings.

Lambton Worm legend
Lambton Worm legend

The Lambton Worm song

The Legend of the Lambton Worm is the subject of a famous local song that was once a great favourite in the Victorian music halls of Tyneside. The song was written by C.M. Leumane for a a pantomime at Newcastle’s Tyne Theatre in 1867. This song refers to Penshaw Hill but all earlier versions of the Lambton Worm story associate the worm with Worm Hill near Fatfield. The song is best heard when sung in a Geordie or Wearside dialect:

One Sunday Mornin’ Lambton went
A’ fishin’ in the Wear,
And cowt a fish upon his heuk
He thowt leukt varry queer
But whatn’t kind of fish it waas
Young Lambton couldn’t tell
He waddn’t fash te carry it hyem,
So he hoyed it doon a well


Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs,
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

Noo Lambton felt inclined te’ gan,
An’ fight in foreign wars
He joined a troop of knights
that cared For nowther wounds nor scars,
An’ of he went te’ Palestine
Where queer things him befel,
An’ varry seun forgat aboot
The queer worm i’ the well.

Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs, 
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs 
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

But the worm got fat and growed an growed
An’ growed an aaful size
He’d greet big teeth, a greet big gob,
An’ greet big goggly eyes.
An’ when at neet he craaled aboot
Te’ pick up bits o’ news
If he felt dry upon the road,
He milked a dozen coos.

Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs, 
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs 
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

This fearful worm wad often feed
On calves an’ lambs and sheep,
An’ swally little bairns alive
When they laid doon te’ sleep.
An’ when he’d eaten aal he could
An’ he had had his fill,
He craaled away an’ lapped his tail
Seven times roond Penshaw Hill.

Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs, 
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs 
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

The news of this myest aaful worm
An’ his queer gannins on
Seun crossed the seas, an gat te’ the ears
Of brave and bold Sir John.
So hyem he cam an’ catched the beast
An’ cut him in twe halves,
An’ that seun stopped his eatin’ bairns
An’ sheep an’ lambs and calves.

Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs, 
An’ aa’l tell yer aa’l an aaful story,
Whisht ! lads, haad yer gobbs 
An’ aa’ll tell yer boot the worm.

So noo ye knaa hoo aal the folks
On byeth sides o’ the Wear
Lost lots o sheep and lots o sleep
An’ lived in mortal fear.
So lets hev one te brave Sir John
That kept the bairns frae harm,
Saved coos an’ calves by myekin’ halves
O’ the famous Lambton worm.

Noo lads Aa’ll had me gob
That’s aal Aa knaa aboot the story
Of Sir John’s clivvor job
Wi’ the aaful Lambton worm.

The region’s worm legends provided inspiration for the writer Lewis Carroll. He grew up on a spot overlooking a bridge where a sword ceremony commemorating the slaying of the Sockburn Worm took place. He was also a regular visitor to Wearside, with close family members residing in Southwick and Whitburn. The poem ‘Jabberwock’ was partly written at Whitburn and at Croft-on-Tees near Darlington.

Penshaw Monument
Penshaw Monument. Photo © John Simpson

Lambton Castle, Lambton Park and Bournmoor

Washington Houghton-le-Spring Hetton-le-Hole

Monkwearmouth | Old Sunderland

Bishopwearmouth City Centre

Sunderland South | Sunderland North

Industry | ‘Mackems’ 

Whitburn and South Tyneside Villages 



A Map of the Worm Legends of North East England. Poster Print.


North East England History and Culture