Peterlee and Peter Lee
Peterlee is one of the North East’s new towns along with Newton Aycliffe, Washington and unofficial ‘new towns’ like Cramlington and Killingworth. The town of Peterlee was conceived as early as 1943 and was officially designated in 1948.
Peterlee is named after the one time miner and trade union leader Peter Lee (1864-1935) who was head of England’s first all Labour County Council that assembled at Durham in 1909.
Lee was born at Trimdon Grange and worked in coal mines from the age of ten, beginning at Littletown Colliery near Pittington (close to Durham City) where he was a pony driver – a common occupation for boys in the Durham mines. By the age of sixteen he had progressed to the status of coal hewer.
Lee emigrated to the United States in 1886 where he worked in mines in Pennsylvania, Kentucky and Ohio before returning to Durham in 1887 and became a prominent figure in the county’s Labour movement. He died in 1935 at the age of seventy so would know nothing of the new town that would come to bear his name.
The former engineer and surveyor of Easington Rural District Council, Mr C.W. Clarke was the key figure behind the proposal to build a new town in East Durham and was also the man who suggested it should be named after Peter Lee.
Clarke put forward his ideas for the new town in his book ‘Farewell to Squalor’. He wanted to create living conditions that were an improvement upon the decaying terraced colliery villages of the area and create employment that could be focused in one centre, bringing together miners from those neighbouring villages into a single town.
The town was mostly developed from 1950 to 1970 and occupies land to the immediate west of the large neighbouring mining village of Horden and to the north of the beautiful Castle Eden Dene.
This was all previously undeveloped countryside except for a few farms and scattered houses such as Acre Rigg, Shotton Hall, Howletch, Oakerside, Little Eden, West Horden and Eden Hall. The area also included the site of an abandoned medieval village called Yoden that now lies within the Eden Lane playing fields area of Peterlee today.
Initially it was planned that Castle Eden Dene would be at the heart of Peterlee’s town centre. The town centre was to be placed on either side of the valley with a prominent bridge across. This idea was part of the vision of the British Russian émigré architect Berthold Lubetkin who had been appointed as Peterlee’s town planner and architect.
Lubetkin also proposed that the centre should be dominated by three high-rise buildings. These aspects of Lubetkin’s designs were rejected by the National Coal Board and by the local miners.
Lubetkin was unwilling to compromise on his plans and resigned from the project in 1950. He was succeeded by the planning consultants Grenfell Baines & Hargreaves with a local man, C.J. Scott as their architect. Scott himself was succeeded by another architect, Roy Gazzard, in 1960.
Victor Pasmore, a Professor of Fine Art at Newcastle University acted as a consultant and was the man behind the large concrete public art sculpture called the Apollo Pavilion (locally called ‘Pasmore’s Folly’) in the Sunny Blunts area of the town.
Built in the summer of 1969, at the time of the Apollo 11 first moon landings the Apollo Pavilion is an abstract artwork in brutalist style envisaged as “An architecture and sculpture of purely abstract form through which to walk, in which to linger and on which to play, a free and anonymous monument which, because of its independence, can lift the activity and psychology of an urban housing community on to a universal plane.”
The sculpture underwent a significant refurbishment funded by a Heritage Lottery grant in 2009 and was subsequently awarded Grade II listed status. It is situated at the head of a valley formed by the Sunny Blunts Beck which from here forms one of the wooded spurs or offshoots of Castle Eden Dene.
Peterlee has developed a strong sense of community and civic pride since its inception. To the untrained eye and perhaps also to the trained one, Peterlee might seem like a large collection of housing estates and the town centre is quite plain. However the wealth of green spaces surrounding the housing is certainly striking.
The three industrial estates which provide significant employment in the town are the South West and North West Industrial Estates to the west of the A19 and the North East Industrial Estate in the Eden Hall area. The real gem of Peterlee is, however, a natural one – the beautiful Castle Eden Dene National Nature Reserve which marks the southern limits of the town and undoubtedly one of the most beautiful natural sites in County Durham.
Horden to the south of Easington and west of Peterlee has an Anglo-Saxon name that comes from an old word ‘horu’ meaning ‘dirty’ with the ‘den’ part of the name referring to the dene or valley. In what way this dene was considered a ‘dirty dene’ in those distant days is not known – it was perhaps a little muddy. Horden is first mentioned in the eleventh century as ‘Horeden’, when there is also mention of a ‘Horetun’ (dirty farm) in the vicinty, but the location of this farm is unknown.
Formed by the Horden Burn near the industrial estates of Peterlee, the dene is joined at Thorpe Wood by the Thorpe Burn from Little Thorpe close to the seventeenth century Horden Hall, a private house.
Once the manor house for Horden it is rare to find such a substantial house of the 1600s, so this is a building of much architectural interest. Other rare houses of this period in the region include the Jacobean Gainford Hall near Darlington and of course Washington Old Hall.
In the 1100s Horden belonged to Richard, the nephew of the powerful Bishop Flambard of Durham. Richard’s descendants, the Fitzmarmadukes, also owned Horden and it was later home to the Hollands and Claxtons. It was in the 1600s that it came into the hands of the Conyers family associated with Sockburn near Darlington, where they were principally famed for their part in the slaying of the Sockburn Worm, the inspiration for Lewis Carroll’s Jabberwock.
Horden Hall was thought to have been built by Sir Christopher Conyers during the reign of either Elizabeth I or James I in the early 1600s but the architectural evidence points to it being Sir John Conyers in the 1660s. Sir John’s son, another Christopher Conyers, who died in 1693, was the last Conyers to reside at Horden.
Horden Dene skirts the southern outskirts of Easington Colliery village before entering the sea near a point called Fox Holes. Rocks at Horden Point and Moorstack Rock protrude onto the beach hereabouts and from here southward down to the mouth of the Castle Eden Dene much of the coastline belongs to the National Trust.
Horden Colliery, established by the Horden Colliery Company in the year 1900 stood half between the two denes on the west side of the east coast railway and as at Easington Colliery, an aerial ropeway once dumped the colliery waste into the sea.
No great disasters ever occurred at Horden Colliery as they did at Seaham and Easington and yet this entirely twentieth century colliery still managed to claim the lives of 167 men who died from various accidents while working here during its 86 year history. Horden Colliery closed in February 1986.
Horden Colliery village which sprung up to serve the mine was built from 1900 to the west of the colliery and stretches as far south as Castle Eden Dene. The village now virtually merges with the new town of Peterlee on the opposite side of Shotton Road to the west.
Old Shotton and Shotton Hall
The village of Shotton or ‘Old Shotton’ in a richly wooded setting near the A19 is situated in the south west corner of Peterlee to the north of Castle Eden Dene. Though now part of Peterlee it is the only developed part of Peterlee to predate the new town.
Shotton consists of white-painted houses around a village green and its name is thought to mean ‘steep-slope settlement’ deriving from an Old English word ‘Sceota’. The village name was first recorded as ‘Sceottun’ before the Norman Conquest and it has also been suggested that it could mean ‘village of the Scots’.
In 1857 Shotton was described as having four farmhouses, a blacksmith’s shop, two public houses, a school and a few cottages. Some cottages and two public houses – the Black Bull and Royal George (once the Black Horse) can still be seen.
Nearby is the beautiful Shotton Hall on the edge of the village that was also mentioned in 1857. Dating from around 1760 it was once home to the Brandling family, notable coal owners also associated with Gosforth near Newcastle upon Tyne. Mines owned by the Brandlings included that at Felling near Gateshead where a disaster that claimed the lives of 91 people in 1812 would lead to the development of the miners’ safety lamp.
From 1850 Shotton Hall belonged to Shotton Coal Company and then the Burdon family from 1880. The hall was then used by the War Office during World War Two. After the war the hall was purchased by the Horden Colliery Company and passed to the National Coal Board following nationalisation of the coal industry. The attractive hall which has lovely ornate gardens covering more than 17 acres belongs to Peterlee Town Council and is a venue for weddings, events, conferences and seminars.
Shotton Lane, an historic lane that predates the modern development of Peterlee leads west from Old Shotton beneath the busy A19 and on through Peterlee’s industrial estate to the former mining village of Shotton Colliery, a mile to the north west. The colliery was founded here by the Haswell, Shotton and Easington Coal and Coke Company in 1840 and was later operated by Horden Collieries Ltd until nationalisation in 1947.
The colliery closed in 1972 and although there were no major disasters at this mine during its lifetime, it is known to have claimed the lives of 162 men in various incidents and accidents during its 132 year history. When the colliery closed, the village that was built to serve it retained the name Shotton Colliery.
Shotton Colliery Industrial Estate on the north side of Shotton Colliery’s front street occupies part of the colliery site and in a field alongside the main road nearby is a pulley wheel from the colliery that serves as a memorial to the mine and those who worked there.
To the north of the colliery site is a small airfield used for parachute drops.