Washington Old Hall
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 interesting 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. Interestingly, the arms of the Washington family have their beginnings in Durham and feature three stars (called mullets) and two red stripes (bars) on a white background.
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. ‘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 Covenanter soldiers who sympathised with the Parliamentarians. Other owners in this period included the Lilburnes of Sunderland and Parliamentarian general, Sir Arthur Haselrigg. These mines were significant because of their importance in continuing to supply coal to London through the port of Sunderland.
Spout Lane, in Washington village may be a reminder of Washington’s importance at the centre of a coal mining area. It is named from either a water spout or a coal spout that is thought to have stood at the end of the lane.
It leads south from the former mining village of ‘New Washington’ which is now the Victoria Road area in the Concord district of Washington. Perhaps the explanation is that its continuation south from old Washington village follows the Avenue and the Biddick Lane to the riverside at Fatfield where there would have been coal spouts or chutes. These were used to fill keel boats with coal that was then delivered the coal to ships at 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
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 now forms apartments called Dame Margaret’s Hall.
Washington New Town
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.
Much of the development of the new town of Washington began in the 1970s on land that had formed part of the estate of Lambton Park purchased from the Lambton family. 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 nineteenth 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.
Cars, Planes and Waterfowl
Much of the riverside area at Barmston is occupied by Washington Wildfowl Park, created in the 1970s. It was established at the suggestion of 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 belonged to the Hilton family of nearby Hylton Castle across the A19 to the east.
The A19 marks the eastern edge of Washington’s best-known industrial concern – Nissan car manufacturing plant. The plant between Washington and Sunderland opened in September 1986. Its first car, a Nissan Bluebird, was produced shortly after, and is on display at Sunderland Museum. The plant employs around 6,000 people and is linked to the Port of Tyne, five miles to the north, with international distribution centres at Jarrow Slake and North Shields.
Nissan occupies the site of RAF Usworth air base which dated to 1916, established as an air base for the Royal Flying Corps. It operated as a military air base until closure in 1958 and reopened as Sunderland Airport in 1962. The airport closed in 1984. Close to the north edge of Nissan is the North East Aircraft Museum housing a collection of 30 aircraft.
Fatfield and Washington riverside
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.
Fatfield 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 nineteenth century. The communities included North Biddick 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 supplied coal for shipment.
Here, around Fatfield, the river is tidal 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, land here is relatively low-lying. Seams of coal along the riverside were near the river bank and conveniently close to the surface. Other collieries, further afield, could be linked to this riverside by wagonways which were, along with those around the Tyne, the earliest railways of the world.
In the 1640s Wearside mining was focused on the Harraton area partly 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 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 close to the river itself.
We know a colliery existed at Fatfield from at least the beginning of the eighteenth century because in 1708 a colliery explosion here that killed 69 men. It was the first major colliery disaster recorded in the North East coalfield. Others would follow, with 39 killed at the same colliery in 1763 and a further 39 again at Fatfield, in 1767.
Communities of keelmen worked in the Fatfield district from the earliest days of its industrial development, transporting coal down the river in keel boats to waiting ships in Sunderland. Today there are no traces of Chartershaugh or South Biddick villages that once faced each other on the opposite banks of the Wear. The modern concrete Chartershaugh Bridge carries the Washington Highway (A182) over the river at the approximate site of the two places.
Chartershaugh or ‘Chatershaugh’ was originally Chaytor’s Haugh. A ‘haugh’ is flat riverside land. Chaytor was the name of a local family with mining interests. Chartershaugh was a focus for colliery innovations in the 1700s and before 1753 Michael Menzies developed a machine that drew up coal from Chartershaugh coal mine in buckets.
The colliery suffered a natural disaster in 1771 when river flooding that year destroyed the mine along with several other neighbouring collieries. Thirty horses 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 riverside pub called the Biddick Inn lie close to Fatfield-Penshaw Bridge. This particular area used to be called North Biddick and was 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 uncertain. 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. The more southerly Biddick, to the south of the Wear is recalled in the name of Biddick Hall, an eighteenth century house that forms part of the Lambton Park country estate.
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 nineteenth 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 smugglers
On the south bank of the River Wear near Fatfield to the east of Chartershaugh Bridge was once situated a notorious riverside settlement called South Biddick of which there are no traces. In medieval times it was called Biddick Waterville to distinguish it from North Biddick across the river near Fatfield.
Waterville suggests it was a riverside community of importance but Waterville may be the name of a twelfth century Abbot of Peterborough who owned land at Newton (now Newton Hall) near Durham and 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 so-called ‘banditti’ who resided here. It was seemingly a much-feared place.
Inhabited by keelmen and miners it likely developed as a thriving riverside community from the mid 1600s as Sunderland’s coal trade grew. Scots and Border Reiving families are thought to have been prominent amongst the keelmen and this may explain South Biddick’s reputation for being a close-knit community that operated outside the law.
Trade in contraband goods was a problem for the authorities and excise men may have feared the place. Fearing for their safety, excise men sometimes paid local miners to accompany them on inspections of public houses at South Biddick.
It was only a small community but there were around 10 shops and outlets dealing in contraband goods at South Biddick. When customs raids were made the local community would form a bridge of boats across the river allowing wanted men to quickly escape. On one occasion the feared press gangs, who were often quite brutal in impressing 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.
Another interesting feature of South Biddick’s history is its curious connection to James Drummond, the Sixth Earl of Perth, a Jacobite rebel who reputedly went into hiding here. It is perhaps a legend but the story concerns Scottish Jacobite rebel, the sixth Earl of Perth who fled to Wearside and lived secretly under the pretence of being a ferryboatman on the River Wear.
Seemingly supported by the Lambton family in his concealment, he is said to have lost a precious leather bag in a River Wear flood that held the papers to his true identity. After leading Jacobites were pardoned, his family successors on Wearside were desperate to prove their identity and reclaim the right to their Scottish estates. We cover more about this story here.
Picktree : Elsie Marley
Rickleton and Picktree are former villages that now more or less form the south west corner of modern Washington, close to the motorway near Chester-le-Street. Picktree is the more southerly of the two and still effectively a separate village. It was home to two quite different characters from local legend and song.
The first of these, connected to a song, concerns a Picktree pub landlady called Elsie Marley 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.
Elsie or Alice Marley to give her proper name was formerly Elsie Harrison, buxom wife of the innkeeper at Picktree and was very popular with her customers. In later years she was confined to bed with a terrible illness and became completely delirious.
After escaping unnoticed from her sick bed one night Elsie went running across a nearby field. She fell into a disused coal pit and drowned. Sadly, the inn where Elsie worked has long gone. Later, the Elsie Marley folk 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.
The other legend of Picktree concerns a mysterious little goblin called the ‘Picktree Brag’ who used to get up to all kinds of mischief in the area. A brag was a kind of sprite or ‘boggle’ as they were known in the North East. It was one of three brags in the Chester-le-Street neighbourhood. The others were the Portobello Brag near Birtley and Pelton Brag to the west. Brags are variously described as taking the form of calves, pit ponies and coach horses.
The road heading south to join the nearby motorway interchange from Picktree is called Picktree Lane and is flanked on its west side by the A1(M) motorway and on its east side by a heavily wooded meander of the River Wear which creates a substantial meander here as the river makes a sudden diversion westward. The meander or peninsula, which is across the river from Picktree is part of the Lambton Park estate and in the 1820s was the site of a racecourse.
Rickleton to the north of Picktree was once a tiny farming village noted for a bone mill and a smithy, but two very early railways once ran close to its outskirts. One of these 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 known as Flatts Colliery Wagonway.
The second of these wagonways was significant for being the first known colliery wagonway in the region destined for the River Wear rather than the 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 to Twizell near Beamish in 1787.
Bonemill Lane at Rickleton, a road following a former country lane is named from the bonemill that once stood at Rickleton. The lane leads to the riverside at Fatfield Bridge. Much of the eastern part of this road forms a boundary between Washington to the north and Lambton Park country estate to the south. The long and extensive wall of Lambton Park runs along the lane’s southern edge.