Washington Old Hall : American connections
The new town of Washington is divided into eighteen districts or ‘villages’ that were once labelled by numbers on the signposts of this modern town. Thankfully real names are now favoured. Eight of the districts in the town are built on the sites of existing villages, of which the most historic is Washington village itself.
Washington village is the home to the wonderful Washington Old Hall that is looked after by the National Trust. It is a place of great significance because it was once the home to the ancestors of George Washington, the first president of the United States.
William became the first member of the family that ultimately gave its name to the capital city of the USA. So Washington, District of Columbia (DC) acquired its name from Washington in County Durham (CD), though today Washington is now part of the City of Sunderland. It is amusing to speculate – by a very big stretch of imagination – that if history had taken a different course, the seat of the American president could have been called Hartburn.
Descendants of the Durham Washingtons held land in Washington until the 1600s but it was from a member of the family that departed from Durham in the thirteenth century that the famous Washingtons of the United States are descended. This branch of the family were associated with Warton in Lancashire for many years before they moved on to Sulgrave in Northamptonshire.
An example of the Washington coat of arms or shield can be seen in the cloisters of Durham Cathedral. This was once the monastery of Durham Priory where one of the Washingtons, John De Washington was Prior from 1416-1446. The priory of Durham Cathedral was immensely powerful being one of the largest landowners in the region, so as Prior, Washington was a man of some considerable importance.
Washington Old Hall, the Washington family’s ancestral home is an often-overlooked gem of the region. It is an H-shaped manor house in the heart of Washington village and parts date back to the 1100s. Its importance was not recognised for some time and in the nineteenth century it formed a dilapidated tenement inhabited by miners, farmers and paupers.
In the 1930s a preservation committee was established and today it is one of the smallest properties in the possession of the National Trust. The hall, which received a visit from US President Jimmy Carter in May 1977, holds a special ceremony on American Independence Day each year.
Washington coal mines
Washington village, once located in open country, is now surrounded by Washington New Town but retains some of its older rural features and is quite picturesque. In times past the boundaries of the village were marked by neighbouring lakes called Birtley Lough and Washington Lough. The word ‘Lough’, pronounced ‘Loff’ show that the Northumbrian term for a lake was also used in County Durham, quite different from the English word ‘lake’ or Scottish ‘loch’.
The Washington village church of 1831 was built by Benjamin Green who also built the famous Penshaw Monument nearby. His church replaced an earlier church of 1279 that had strong links to the Washington family.
There had been mining in the Washington area from at least the 1600s, initially focused upon the riverside area around Harraton, Fatfield, Biddick and Chartershaugh in what is now the southern part of the town of Washington. Harraton Colliery seems to have become a mine of some significance during the Tyne-Wear rivalry of the Civil War in the 1640s when the coal trade of Sunderland thrived and the Tyne trade was brought to a standstill. For a time during that war the Harraton mines came under the control of Scottish soldiers who sympathised with the Parliamentarians. These mines were significant because of their importance in continuing to supply coal to London through the port of Sunderland.
Slightly away from the river, a Washington Colliery just to the west of the old village of Washington was operated by William Russell of Brancepeth in the 1780s. By the early 1800s there was considerable coal mining activity in the Washington area with many pits and collieries situated a short distance from the old village. These were linked by horse-drawn wagonways to riverside areas on the banks of the Wear like Chartershaugh, Biddick and Fatfield with further coal mines south of the river stretching out towards Rainton near the outskirts of Durham City.
There were at least 27 pits within the area now covered by the present day town of Washington and a number of industrial or mining villages developed in the neighbourhood such as Washington Staithes. Such settlements, along with various pit rows were later demolished or swallowed up along with Great Usworth (Washington’s old neighbour to the north) as the new town of Washington was developed.
Several mining disasters were associated with collieries in the Washington area. These included deaths at Washington Colliery where 14 and 34 miners died in respective disasters in 1828 and 1851.
Washington New Hall and Gertrude Bell
In addition to coal mining, other industries in the Washington area included the Washington chemical (alkali) works established by Hugh Pattinson in 1837 which utilised local Magnesian Limestone. In the 1850s a Tyneside industrialist called Isaac Lowthian Bell took charge of these works. He had previously worked at Walker Iron works on Tyneside where his father was partner.
Isaac moved into the newly built Washington New Hall of 1857 and his family resided there until the 1870s. Bell moved on to become involved in bigger industrial concerns on Teesside establishing the firm of Bell Brothers and the Port Clarence Iron Works. The company also owned several collieries, particularly in the Durham City area.
Isaac’s son, the ironmaster Sir Thomas Bell, seems to have resided at Washington New Hall at some point and his famous daughter, Gertrude Bell, was born at the hall in 1868. She would become a famed archaeologist, mountain climber, politician and traveller and developed such an extraordinary knowledge of the tribes of the Middle East that she was appointed Administrator of Arabia.
Gertrude lived most of her life in the Middle East and travelled extensively across the desert landscape becoming a familiar and respected figure amongst the Arab tribesmen, being fluent in both Arabic and Persian. Bell’s most notable legacy was drawing up, along with T.E Lawrence (Lawrence of Arabia), the boundaries of Iraq often with very straight lines passing through the desert. Bell was sometimes known as the ‘uncrowned Queen of Iraq’ or ‘the most powerful woman in the British Empire’.
Nineteenth century Britain, like Arabia, was very much a man’s world so this formidable lady with fuzzy ginger hair must have seemed a rather remarkable and extraordinary character. She died in 1926, after committing suicide a few days before her 58th birthday.
In the late nineteenth century Washington New Hall, Gertrude’s birthplace, stood empty for some time before serving as a convalescent home called Dame Margaret’s Home (named from Isaac Bell’s wife, Gertrude’s grandmother). It was used as an evacuation home during the Second World War and was for a time, from 1948, a property of the National Coal Board. It is now apartments.
The New Town of Washington
New town status was designated for the Washington area in 1964 and the town was one of several planned in the post war era. It was intended to provide new housing for existing communities in the area as well as for overspill populations in neighbouring Tyneside and Wearside. One of its primary aims was to create new jobs.
It was to cover 5,300 acres much of which had been open countryside dominated by scattered pit villages, pit rows and collieries such as Glebe, Harraton, Usworth, Washington, and Fatfield. The master plan for the town was drawn up by Llewelyn Davies who had also designed the new town of Milton Keynes in Northamptonshire.
The development of the new town of Washington began in the 1970s and by 1981 there were sixteen districts or ‘villages’ with a further two – Lambton and Ayton – developed later. The eighteen districts are either named from existing local features or, as in the case of Albany, Columbia, Concord and Sulgrave are named from an American or Washington family themes.
The districts named from local features include Donwell named from the source of the River Don which begins near here and eventually enters the Tyne at Jarrow. Then there is Usworth named from two existing villages with medieval roots called Great and Little Usworth that were once the enclosure of an Anglo-Saxon called Osa.
Also in this group of local names are Black Fell from the name of the high hill near the motorway to the west. Close to Birtley and Gateshead, this fell was where miners often rallied during the 19th century in their campaigns for better rights and conditions.
Other districts like Oxclose, Ayton and Glebe were the names of local collieries. Glebe was named from a farm on church-owned land. Lambton is named from the local family and place-name. Washington, Rickleton, Fatfield, Mount Pleasant, Harraton, Biddick and Barmston are all named from earlier places or villages, some of which had collieries with which they shared their names.
Sulgrave and Barmston make up the eastern edge of the town of Washington. Barmston is named from some farms close to the north side of the river. It belonged to someone called Beornmund (Beornmund’s ton) in Anglo-Saxon times.
Ducks, Cars, Planes
Much of the riverside area at Barmston is now occupied by Washington Wildfowl Park, created in the 1970s. It was established at the suggestion of the famed naturalist Sir Peter Scott, son of the Antarcic explorer Robert Falcon Scott. All of the lakes in the wildfowl centre were purpose built. In medieval times the Barmston area belonged to the Hilton family who lived at nearby Hylton Castle now in northern Sunderland just across the A19 to the east.
The A19 hereabouts marks the eastern edge of Washington’s best-known industrial concern – the Nissan car manufacturing plant. The plant which occupies much of the land between Washington and Sunderland opened in September 1986. Its very first car, a Nissan Bluebird, was produced shortly after, and can be seen on display at Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. The car plant, which employs around 6,000 people is linked to the Port of Tyne, five miles to the north, where it has a major international distribution centre at Jarrow Slake and North Shields.
The Nissan plant at Washington occupies the site of the RAF Usworth air base which dated back to 1916 when it was established as an air base for the Royal Flying Corps. It operated as a military air base until its closure in 1958 and reopened as Sunderland Airport in 1962. The airport closed in 1984. Close to the northern edge of the Nissan car plant is the North East Aircraft Museum which houses a collection of 30 aircraft along with a number of aero engines. It is a reminder that this area was once an airfield.
Fatfield and the Washington riverside
The Washington riverside on the southern edge of the new town is a surprisingly appealing spot even though it was once a thriving centre of industrial activity. Fatfield is noted for its riverside pubs and restaurants overlooking the attractive Fatfield Bridge (or Penshaw Bridge), an iron bridge of 1890.
This was one of a number of riverside communities in the neighbourhood that were at their busiest from the early 1700s until the middle of the 19th century. The communities included North Biddick, Fatfield and Chartershaugh on the north side of the river with Penshaw Staithes and South Biddick on the opposite bank. Their fortunes as riverside settlements were closely tied to the development of the coal port of Sunderland further down the river to which they once supplied coal for shipment.
Here, around Fatfield, the river is tidal and so it was swiftly navigable in the age of coal shipment when the tide was right. Unlike at Sunderland where the river gorge is steep, the land here is relatively flat. The seams of coal in this riverside area were near the river bank and conveniently close to the surface. Other collieries, further afield, could be linked to this riverside by the wagonways which were, along with those around the Tyne, the early railways of the world.
In the 1640s Wearside mining was focused on the Harraton area within the grounds of Lambton Park just west towards Chester-le-Street but later the focus shifted to nearby Chartershaugh, Fatfield and South Biddick a little to the east.
Dozens of colliery railroads coming in from collieries as far away as Beamish in the west and Rainton to the south focused their wagonways on this short stretch of river for at least a century and a half. There were also collieries very close to the river itself. We know a colliery existed at Fatfield from at least the beginning of the 18th century because in 1708 there was a colliery explosion here that killed 69 men. It was the first major colliery disaster to be recorded in the North East coalfield. Others would follow, with 39 killed at the same colliery in 1763 and a further 39 killed, again at Fatfield, in 1767.
Communities of keelmen worked in the Fatfield district from the earliest days of its industrial development, transporting the coal down the river in their keel boats to waiting ships in Sunderland. Today there are no traces of the communities of Chartershaugh and South Biddick that once faced each other on the opposite banks of the River Wear. The modern concrete bridge called Chartershaugh Bridge which carries the Washington Highway (A182) across the river marks the approximate site of the two places.
Chartershaugh or ‘Chatershaugh’ was originally called Chaytor’s Haugh. A ‘haugh’ is flat riverside land while Chaytor was the name of a local family with coal mining interests. Chartershaugh was a focus for its colliery innovations in the 1700s and sometime before 1753 a Michael Menzies developed a machine that drew up coal from the Chartershaugh coal mine in buckets.
The colliery sufffered from a natural disaster in 1771 when the river flood of that year destroyed the mine along with several other neighbouring collieries. Thirty horses that were kept underground were drowned. Another disaster of the more usual kind struck the mine in 1778 when 24 miners were killed. It did not reopen until 1845.
Fatfield’s Worm Hill and a riverside pub called the Biddick Inn lie close to Fatfield-Penshaw Bridge. This particular area used to be called North Biddick and was yet another once thriving riverside community.
The two Biddicks on either side of the river were originally called ‘Bedyck’ but the meaning of the name is ucnertain. It could mean ‘Bede’s ditch’, ‘by the ditch’ or ‘beyond the ditch’ though which ditch it referred to is unknown. It was possibly something connected with the river. Streams on either sider of the river may have formed the respective ‘dykes’ or ditches.
In much later times, North Biddick was the site of a coal mine that opened in 1710 and like that at Chartershaugh suffered in the flood of 1771. It reopened in 1841 and later a new North Biddick Colliery opened in 1894 that operated until 1935. As we have noted one of its employers included Bobby Thompson ‘The Little Waster’, who was later a comedian and much-loved in the region for his scruffy jumper, cloth cap, cigarette and pitmatic dialect.
In the mid 19th century there were extensive staithes just across the river from here on the Penshaw riverside close to where Thompson was born but the days of these staithes were already numbered in the 1850s as the loading of coal increasingly shifted to the river gorge at Sunderland to the east, where larger, more sophisticated staithes and steam railways enabled coal to be brought directly to waiting ships.
There were two further riverside communities in the Washington area to the north east, beyond the Victoria Bridge viaduct. These were Cox Green on the south side of the river and Washington Staithes on the opposite bank. Both places had shipyards in the 1850s and there was quarrying on the Cox Green side. A Washington Chemical Works lay just to the north of Washington Staithes as did an iron works.
South Biddick – Smuggler and ‘Banditti’
On the southern bank of the River Wear to the east of the Chartershaugh Bridge was situated a once notorious riverside settlement called South Biddick of which there are no traces today. In medieval times it was known as Biddick Waterville to distinguish it from North Biddick on the other side of the river near Fatfield. Waterville suggests it was a riverside community of importance but Waterville might actually refer to a twelfth century Abbot of Peterborough of that name who owned land at Newton (now Newton Hall) near Durham and who perhaps held mining or fishing interests here.
South Biddick was a place of notoriety during the eighteenth and early nineteenth century. In the 1700s and early 1800s it was noted for smuggling and for so-called ‘banditti’ who resided here and was seemingly a much-feared place.
Inhabited by keelmen and miners South Biddick may have started to develop as a thriving riverside community from the mid 1600s as the coal trade in the Sunderland area began to grow. It is possible that former Border Reiving families from the Anglo-Scottish border were associated with this place as they often became keelmen during this period or at least that seems to have been the case in Newcastle. Reiver surnames were often numerous amongst the miners too.
This may explain South Biddick’s reputation for being a close-knit community that often operated outside the law. The trade in contraband goods at South Biddick was a big problem for the authorities and the excise men are thought to have feared the place. The excise men sometimes paid local miners to accompany them on inspections of public houses at South Biddick for fear of their own safety.
South Biddick was only a small community but there were around 10 shops and outlets dealing in contraband goods. When customs raids were made in attempts to bring suspected perpetrators under the law the local community would form a bridge of boats across the river allowing the wanted men to quickly escape. On one occasion the feared press gangs, who could be quite brutal in impresing men into naval service were given a violent welcome at South Biddick and beaten off as they attempted to capture the skilled boatmen of this district.
South Biddick and the Earl of Perth
South Biddick seems to have played a small part in the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745. This was a Scottish plot to place Bonnie Prince Charlie on the throne of Great Britain. It wasn’t the first Jacobite rebellion, the earlier rebellion of 1715 had attempted to place Prince Charlie’s father, James Stuart, on the throne but it had failed despite strong support accross Northumberland where only Newcastle closed its gates to the rebels and declared for King ‘Geordie’ – George I.
Thirty years later after the 1715 rising, the region’s support for the 1745 rebellion seems to have been less openly supportive, though there were certainly Jacobite sympathisers throughout the North East of England at that time even in Newcastle. Unfortunately for the Jacobites this rebellion also failed with brutal repercussions at the Battle of Culloden in 1746.
Many of the leading Jacobites were put to the sword at the hands of the British army led by the brutal ‘butcher’ Duke of Cumberland who was the brother of King George. Some prominent Jacobites are known to have escaped, including one James Drummond, the 6th Earl of Perth who had commanded the left flank of the Jacobite army at the battle. Though he wasn’t captured, Drummond was stripped of his lands.
Following the battle, the Earl hid for a time in a secret location close to Drummond Castle, his now confiscated home, before fleeing south on a ship from which he disembarked at South Shields. From there he headed south and resided for a short time at a place called Girdle Cake Cottage in the Hylton area of Sunderland.
He was then smuggled up river to South Biddick, which as we have seen was a tight-lipped community where fugitives were probably welcomed without question. Here he could be protected. The large number of coal mines in the neighbourhood are thought to have been another factor in his choice of refuge as they provided potential hiding places. Drummond moved in with a mining family at South Biddick called Armstrong (a Scottish Border Reiver surname) but the family were not aware of his true identity.
Drummond found work selling shoes at South Biddick but kept a low profile. He was in regular correspondence with his brother, Lord John Drummond who had had escaped to France on board a ship called La Belone after Culloden. The authorities believed that Earl Drummond had been on board and a rumour was spread that he had drowned.
Drummond’s first letter from his brother arrived in April 1747 and read:
“I think you had better come to France and you would be better out of danger as I find you are living in obscurity in Houghton-le-Spring.”
The parish of Houghton-le-Spring then included South Biddick.
Drummond had taken a shine to the Armstrong’s beautiful daughter, Elizabeth and with Drummond being an educated man Mr. Armstrong requested that he taught Elizabeth to read and write. Drummond soon won Elizabeth’s affections and they were married at Houghton-le-Spring church in 1749. The Armstrongs were still unaware of Drummond’s true identity and it was only when their first son started work in a coal mine as a young boy, that Drummond, who hoped for better things for his family, revealed his true identity.
A number of local people were by this time aware of Drummond’s presence including two prominent members of the Lambton family. A General Lambton of Lambton Hall encountered Drummond on one occasion and remarked “ah, you are the rebel Drummond I’ll have you beheaded” but the comments were seemingly made in jest and no action was taken.
It may just be possible that the Lambtons played a part in bringing him to Biddick as it lay close their estates. Certainly, one of Lambton’s kinsmen, Nicholas Lambton of Biddick Hall took interest in Drummond’s welfare and found him work as a ferryman on the river providing Drummond with a boathouse in which he could reside with his wife and six children. It is thought that by this time the authorities had forgotten all about Drummond believing him to have drowned or escaped to France.
Drummond still had hopes of retaining his land and title some day and on at least one occasion is said to have headed back to visit his old castle in Scotland in disguise. On one visit he persuaded a servant to give him a tour. The servant is thought to have recognised him and whistled The Duke of Perth’s Lament throughout the tour. He is said to have become very emotional when seeing his old bed chamber.
Drummond kept papers that proved his true identity in the boathouse at South Biddick. They were kept inside a tanned leather bag safely locked away within a chest but unfortunately the great flood of 1771 which caused much devastation on the Wear, Tyne and Tees took with it many of Drummond’s possessions including the precious papers.
He would spend much of the remaining part of life searching for the papers. Sadly, he died in June 1782, leaving behind six children and was buried at Penshaw church. Two days later, an act of attainder restored confiscated Jacobite lands throughout Scotland.
Unfortunately with the papers that proved Drummond’s identity now lost, the South Biddick family’s claim to the estate would not be easy. Drummond’s eldest son, also called James, had no finances and was described as a timid sort of individual who had no inclination to pursue the claim to the Scottish lands. He died in 1823 leaving behind an eldest son, Thomas, (born 1792) who seemed more determined.
Thomas Drummond enlisted the support of John George Lambton in his attempts to claim the Drummond lands and on June 21, 1831 the Scottish court in Edinburgh declared in his favour. However, the final decision rested with the House of Lords.
The day before the inquest was to be held in London, Drummond who had been provided with a brand new suit by Lambton went out on the town in his new attire and got very drunk. He was apparently led astray by locals who were amused by this northern miner in a swanky suit claiming to be an earl, they severely despoiled his new suit.
The day before the hearing Drummond was presented to Lambton in a drunken state – it has been said that he was plied with drink by Lambton’s butler. Lambton was extremely disappointed and withdrew his support for Drummond who appeared before the Lords as a rather ragged-looking pitman.
The Lords overturned the Scottish court’s decision and Thomas Drummond returned to Biddick, still a pitman. Eventually in 1853, the Drummond estate was awarded to a Count Melforth who was a more distantly related heir than Drummond had been. Today there are still many members of the Drummond family living throughout Wearside and the North East who are descendants of the 6th Earl of Perth.
Elsie Marley of Picktree
Rickleton and Picktree are former villages that lie in the south west corner of the modern town of Washington, close to the edge of the motorway near Chester-le-Street. Picktree is the more southerly of the two. It was once the home to two quite different characters from local folklore. One of these was a mysterious little goblin called the ‘Picktree Brag’ which used to get up to all kinds of mischief in the area.
A brag was a kind of ‘boggle’, as such mysterious creatures were known in the North East. It was one of three brags found in the Chester-le-Street neighbourhood. The other two were the Portobello Brag near Birtley and Pelton Brag that lived further to the west. The brags were variously described as taking the form of a calf, a pit pony or a coach horse.
The other figure of folklore associated with Picktree was a local public house landlady called Elsie Marley, who was known to children and adults alike as the subject of a well-known folk song:
Di’ yer ken Elsie Marley Hinny ?
The wife that sells the barley hinny
She’s lost her pocket and all of her money
A’ back o’ the bush in the garden hinny.
Elsie Marley’s grown so fine
She cannot get up to serve the swine
But lays in bed till eight or nine
and surely she does take her time
Elsie Marley wore a straw hat
Noo shes gettin’ a velvet cap
Lambton lads must pay for that
Di’ yer ken Elsie Marley Hinny ?
The pitmen and the keelmen trim
They drink bumbo made of gin
An’ when te’ dance they de begin
The tune is Elsie Marley Hinny.
This particular Elsie was Alice Marley, formerly Elsie Harrison, the buxom wife of the innkeeper at Picktree and was by all accounts very popular with her customers. In her later years the unfortunate lady was confined to bed with a terrible illness and became completely delirious.
After escaping unnoticed from her sick bed one night, poor ‘Elsie’ went running across a field nearby and haplessly fell into a disused coalpit and drowned. Sadly, the inn where Elsie worked has long since gone. Later, the Elsie Marley song was incorporated into a work by Sir Walter Scott entitled The Fortunes of Nigel though he set it in an earlier period to that in which Elsie lived.
Rickleton was once a tiny farming village noted for a bone mill and smithy, but two very early railways once ran close to the outskirts. One was the Beamish Wagonway of 1780 that linked coal mines in the Beamish area to the river near Fatfield. The other was Thomas Allan’s Way that was also called Flatts Colliery Wagonway. It was significant for being the first colliery wagonway in the region that was destined for the River Wear rather than the River Tyne. It served a mine in the South Pelaw area of Chester-le-Street but was extended in 1746 to Pelton Fell and then further west still to Twizell near Beamish in 1787.