Easington District History

History of Easington District

There are signs of ancient times all around us in and around Easington District. At Warden Law, alongside the Seaton to Houghton road, there are two tumuli or prehistoric burial mounds, each surmounted with a crown of trees, an eerie sight in the moonlight. Between them runs Salter’s Lane, an ancient highway, the A19 of its day, which carries on to Haswell, Wingate and Teesside. There are other tumuli in Easington district and the Castle Eden Vase and other prehistoric artefacts confirm that man has been here for many thousands of years. Fertile soil and the ready availability of fish and shellfish must have made this land an attractive proposition to early humans.

Much later Easington district was incorporated in the Roman Empire along with the rest of England but there are no visible signs in the district of this long lost civilisation. As the Romans departed in the 5th. Century AD new invaders took their place and the whole of the county of Durham eventually became part of the Saxon kingdom of Northumbria, whose capital was York. Many of the place names in Easington District are of Saxon origin – Seaton (‘township-by-the-sea’), Seaham (‘hamlet-by-the-sea’), Murton (‘moor-town’), Cold Hesledon and Hesleden (‘hazel-dene’), Easington (Essyngtana, place of Essa’s people) and Haswell (‘hazel-well’).

Eventually the monarch of the southern Saxon kingdom of Wessex, Athelstan (grandson of Alfred the Great), established himself as the King of All England in the early part of the 10th. Century. By then there was a new and extremely dangerous external enemy with a habit of turning up in some numbers anywhere along the coast to cause mischief and destruction. These were the Northmen and Easington district was in the frontline of the defence against them. The oldest structure in Easington District today is St. Mary the Virgin church at Old Seaham, which may date back to as early as AD 800. If this date is even more or less correct then the church and village were sited in a very dangerous and vulnerable position for those troubled times. The later siting of Easington parish church high on a hill overlooking the German Ocean may well have been a precaution against a surprise attack by Vikings.

Sheer distance from London meant that the far north of England, frontline against the Scandinavians and later the Scots, was usually remote and detatched from the affairs, personalities and events which shaped the nation’s history. Few of our sovereigns came this way or knew much about the North, preferring to delegate authority to the Prince-Bishops of Durham. One definite exception was the Conqueror himself, who rampaged through the county in his infamous ‘Northern Expedition’ to avenge a Saxon rebellion against him. He laid waste the northern shires to such an extent that there was no point in including them in his later Domesday Book. The population of County Durham took generations to recover from this genocide. The Conqueror’s grandson King Stephen (1135-54) was a usurper who dragged the country into a dynastic civil war over the throne. The Scots took advantage of the 20 year anarchy in England to seize the whole of the north of the country. They were soon driven off by Stephen’s energetic and undisputed successor Henry II (1154-89).

A hundred years and more passed before the next royal visitor to the county, King Edward I, a man with a mission to unite all of the island of Great Britain. He simply passed through on his way to massacring the population of Berwick and temporarily imposing his will on the south of Scotland. His inept son Edward II was defeated by the Bruce at Bannockburn in 1314 and obliged to flee south for his life. For the next decade Scots armies terrorised the northern counties. On at least two occasions they penetrated as far south as Hartlepool, ruining the village of Dalton-le-Dale and many others in their passage. The son of the Bruce, David II, took advantage of Edward III’s war with France to try to repeat the performance. Once more East Durham was ruined but the King of Scots was eventually brought to book in the battle of Neville’s Cross and became a prisoner of the English Crown. There was to be no further serious trouble from rampaging Scots for 300 years and East Durham once more reverted to the role of backwater in the affairs of the nation.

Salter’s Lane and the Great North Road at Durham were the slender threads which connected Easington district with the commerce, ideas and technology of the outside world but the highways also regularly brought pestilence to counterbalance those advantages. At the end of the 1340s Britain was decimated by an epidemic of bubonic plague which originated in the Far East. Perhaps as many as a third of the population of Europe may have died in this and later outbreaks of what was called ‘The Black Death’. Easington district was particularly badly affected and the survivors had to trek west to buy food from the dalesfolk whose isolation from other humans had saved them. Food and money were left on special ‘Plague Stones’, some of which still survive in Weardale and elsewhere.

The ‘Rising of the North’ in 1569 was intended to remove the Protestant Elizabeth Tudor from the throne and replace her with her imprisoned heir the Catholic Mary Stewart, former Queen of Scots. It was crushed and its principals fled into permanent exile, leaving the commoners to their fate. Elizabeth demanded a quota of executions from each participating district and for this reason two Easington men were selected and publicly hanged on the village green. At some later point in the reign of Elizabeth all of the churches and clergymen of Easington district became Protestant. Eventually most of the population, wanting only a quiet life, also saw sense and transferred their religious allegiance from Rome to London.

The childless Elizabeth was succeeded by her distant Protestant cousin James VI of Scotland (only child of the Queen of Scots) in 1603 and the two countries were united in a personal union. This seemed to have brought a sensible end to the perpetual Scottish threat to the northern counties of England but it was to prove an illusion. James’s successor Charles I soon involved himself in a conflict with both Parliament and Presbyterian Scots which led to a three-way civil war. As so many times had happened before the Scots took advantage of English disunity to occupy Northumberland and Durham. Royalist, Scottish and Parliamentary armies chased each other round the northeast of England for several years and Easington district was ruined once more. Even in the 1650s, long after the execution of Charles I and the establishment of the Commonwealth, Dalton-le-Dale was without a parish priest and there is a huge gap in the parish registers. He had either died and not been replaced in the turmoil or he had simply fled. Charles II was restored in 1660 and normality soon resumed at Dalton-le-Dale and elsewhere. The northeast was not directly involved either in the Glorious Revolution of 1688-89 or the Jacobite Rebellion of 1745 for Charles Edward Stuart chose to invade England from Scotland via the north-west route through Carlisle and Lancaster. He retreated the same way to meet disaster at Culloden in 1746.

Down the centuries after the Conquest the various manors, estates and labouring serfs within Easington district changed hands many times, sometimes by outright purchase, other times by inheritance or marriage. As the countless generations of labourers tended the fields they cannot have guessed that the greatest harvest of all lay far beneath their feet. Other than the churches none of the mediaeval structures in the district have survived to the present day, though there are ruins at Dalden Towers (near Dalton-le-Dale) and at Ludworth which lies just outside the modern boundaries of the district. Ancient churches stand at Old Seaham (c. AD 800 ?), Dalton-le-Dale (c. AD 1150 ?) and Easington (c. AD 1100 ?). Another (c. AD 1300 ??) stood at Monk Hesleden but was mysteriously and inexplicably demolished by the Council one day in 1968. At Castle Eden there is an 18th. Century church constructed by the local landowners the Burdon family. No new churches or chapels were erected until the first coalminers arrived to transform and populate the empty district in the early 1830s.

In 1801 the total population of County Durham was just 150,000. Over a third of these people lived in the ancient towns of Hartlepool (1,047), Barnard Castle (2,966), Stockton (4,009), Darlington (4,670), Durham (about 7,500), Gateshead (8,597), South Shields (with Westoe about 11,000) and Sunderland (about 18,000). Even that great metropolis of the far North, Newcastle, just across the Tyne in Northumberland, had only 30,000 inhabitants at the beginning of the 19th. Century, little more than Seaham has today.

The rest of the county of Durham, not just the high ground as now, was as empty as some parts of western Ireland are today. The tiny communities which together made up what we now call Easington District had just 2,310 souls in the year 1801, about the same as modern-day Wingate. Almost the smallest of these minute and ancient agricultural communities was the scattered ‘constabulary’ of Dawdon (22 people in two farmhouses) in Dalton-le-Dale parish, destined to become the collosus of the district (as Seaham Harbour) until being itself eclipsed by the new town of Peterlee in the 1960s.

The eastern half of the Durham coalfield, upon which Easington District is situated, is concealed by many hundreds of feet of Permian magnesian limestone. The powerful steam engines required to drain deep mines did not exist until the early 1820s. As the third decade of the nineteenth century dawned technological advances had been made which made it possible at last to investigate just what lay under the rolling limestone hills of East Durham. At Rainton, four miles west of Seaham, coal is just below the ground. A few hundred yards away to the east at Hetton, at the start of the limestone escarpment, the coal is several hundred feet below the surface. It was there on December 19 1820 that the new machinery was put to the test.

Deep mining was an entirely new, dangerous and expensive business, far beyond the financial means of most coal owners, and necessitated the creation of a large company for the purpose, the Hetton Colliery Company. Whilst digging proceeded the famous engineer and pioneer of steam engines, George Stephenson, began construction of a railway from the pithead at Hetton to Sunderland in March 1821. The new line, the first in the world to be designed to use locomotives, was some 8 miles in length and ran to the Hetton Company’s own staiths on the river Wear, where coal could be loaded directly on to large vessels, thus missing out a number of middlemen at Penshaw and on the river. The excellent publicity received launched the Stephensons on to even greater things, as the world knows. More importantly for the history of County Durham, coal was
found at the Hetton Lyons Blossom Pit sinking, at 650 and 900 feet, in seams six and a half feet thick! By 1832 Hetton Lyons and its two sister pits Eppleton and Elemore were annually producing 318,000 tons of coal worth £174,000, and the combine was the largest mine in England. Hetton Colliery and its railway proved that 900 feet of limestone, water and quicksand and a large hill (Warden Law) blocking the way to Sunderland were not insurmountable obstacles to the exploitation of the rich reserves of coal and that achievement did not go unnoticed. Before long others, such as Lord Londonderry, Lord Lambton (1st. Earl of Durham), Lord Howden and Colonel Thomas Braddyll of Haswell, would enter the arena and the tapping of the deeply concealed Durham coalfield began in earnest. Their target was the tranquil iddyll of Easington District.

Below you will find the population figures for Easington District in the first four censuses of the 19th. century. The large and sudden increase in the population of Dawdon in 1831 was due to the foundation of the town and port of Seaham Harbour three years before. The rise of the population at South Hetton and Haswell in the same census was caused by the sinking of the first two collieries in Easington District. Once these had begun production (1833 & 1835 respectively) and proved they were viable the stampede into East Durham was on. By 1841 Thornley and Wingate collieries were also in production and four other pits were being sunk (Murton, Shotton, Castle Eden and South Wingate). By the time of the 1851 census Seaton and Seaham collieries (later amalgamated as ‘Seaham’ in 1864) were being sunk. All of the then existing 8 collieries in Easington were on the western edge of the district for the technology did not yet exist to contemplate even deeper mines on the coast.

No new collieries were sunk in the decade 1851-61. In fact the district experienced its first pit closure with the collapse of South Wingate Colliery in 1857. In 1869 the sinking of Wheatley Hill commenced and this was followed a year later by two other new ventures at nearby Deaf Hill and Hutton Henry. Wheatley Hill was severely handicapped by under-capitalisation and went bankrupt at least twice before the turn of the century but eventually proved itself. Shotton Colliery closed in 1877 and became a ghost village for the next 23 years until it was reopened by the new Horden Coal Company in 1900. Castle Eden Colliery folded in 1893, Haswell in 1896 and Hutton Henry in 1897. The 20th. Century saw the opening of the coastal super-pits at Dawdon, Easington, Horden, Blackhall and Vane Tempest and the creation of new mining communities in East Durham.

Sub-District/Census 1801 1811 1821 1831
Dalton-le-Dale 40 52 49 73
Dawdon (Seah. Harb.) 22 27 35 1022
Seaham (Old & New) 115 121 103 130
Seaton-with-Slingley 96 126 95 134
Cold Hesledon 48 31 55 112
Hawthorn 114 118 140 162
East Morton (Murton) 75 71 72 98
Easington 487 542 593 693
Haswell & Sth Hetton 93 114 115 263
Shotton 250 286 264 272
Castle Eden 362 257 281 260
Monk Hesleden 150 148 164 176
Nesbitt 5 5 9 10
Sheraton 99 97 116 110
Hulam 7 11 16 15
Hutton Henry 156 155 174 162
Wingate 135 151 131 115
Thornley 56 58 60 50
Total 2310 2370 2472 3857

Apart from these fixed habitations there is evidence of transients living on the East Durham beaches and sometimes occupying the numerous caves along the rugged coastline. The Portsmouth Telegraph of October 14 1799 reported thus:

Woman from the Seashore

‘On Thursday se(ven)’nnight a woman was brought to the Lunatic Hospital near Newcastle who has lived upwards of three years among the rocks on the sea-shore near Seaham. From whence, or in what manner she first came there is unknown, but she speaks in the Scottish dialect and talks of Loch Stewart and AberGordon in a rambling manner. She is about thirty-five years of age, inoffensive and cheerful, and during her residence among the rocks was fantastically dressed in the rags which chance or the wrecks threw in her way; she always kept a good fire of wood or coal, which the sea threw up, and it is supposed lived upon shellfish & c. What is remarkable, a beard has grown upon the lower part of her chin, nearly an inch long, and bushy like the whiskers of a man.’

Districts, Boundaries, and Population

Until the mid 1840s County Durham was divided into the following wards:

1. (NW and North), Chester (le-Street) Ward, (included Bedlingtonshire, now part of Northumberland)
2. (East), Easington Ward
3. (South East), Stockton Ward
4. (South West), Darlington Ward

Two settlements were considered large enough and important enough to run their own affairs – Durham City and Sunderland Town

In addition, for historical reasons, County Durham included three districts of what we now regard as the county of Northumberland:

1. ‘Islandshire’ (Holy Island) Ward.
2. Norhamshire Ward.
3. ‘Bedlingtonshire’ (administered as part of Chester (le-Street) Ward.

County Durham also included several other small enclaves in other neighbouring counties, such as Easingwold in Yorkshire.

Easington District was clearly much larger than it is now and included such far-apart places as Bishopwearmouth Panns, Penshaw, South Biddick, Lambton, West Rainton, Pittington, Sherburn, Coxhoe, Kelloe and Trimdon. Virtually a quarter of the county !

The population of the entire old district in 1841 was about 24,000.

October 1844 was the date the new Act of Reorganisation took effect (Act of 7 & 8 Victoria. C.61), rationalising the boundaries of the counties and removing many of the strange and ancient anomalies (such as Easingwold) that had existed.Thereafter the new district of Easington assumed more or less its present shape and size (Greater Seaham, Murton, Dalton-le-Dale, Cold Hesledon, Hawthorn, Easington Village, Castle Eden, Monk Hesleden, Nesbitt, Hutton Henry, Wingate, Deaf Hill, Wheatley Hill, Thornley, Shotton, Haswell and South Hetton). The population of the new district in the census of 1841 was only 15,491. In 1801 the same area had just 2,310 people.

Sub-District/Census 1801 1811 1821 1831 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901
Dalton-le-Dale 40 52 49 73 88 83 102 128 118 134 339
Dawdon (Seah. Harb.) 22 27 35 1022 2017 3538 6137 7132 7714 9044 10163
Seaham (Old & New) 115 121 103 130 153 729 2591 2802 2989 4798 5285
Seaton-with-Slingley 96 126 95 134 175 200 236 228 196 228 259
Cold Hesledon 48 31 55 112 83 117 89 99 108 682 899
Hawthorn 114 118 140 162 177 183 227 268 282 330 513
East Morton (Murton) 75 71 72 98 521 1387 2104 3017 4710 5052 6514
Easington 487 542 593 693 812 916 1073 1428 1260 1262 1731
Haswell & Sth Hetton 93 114 115 263 3981 4356 4165 5623 6156 6276 5512
Shotton 250 286 264 272 603 1607 1871 3130 2131 1975 1917
Castle Eden 362 257 281 260 558 491 535 693 880 1257 1354
Monk Hesleden 150 148 164 176 490 1495 1533 1636 2421 3819 1302
Nesbitt 5 5 9 10 12 11 12 7 10 11 13
Sheraton 99 97 116 110 147 128 139 149 176 173 158
Hulam 7 11 16 15 11 19 13 27 Merged with above
Hutton Henry 156 155 174 162 287 1067 392 539 1825 3151 2578
Wingate 135 151 131 115 2625 2456 2143 3104 5949 4463 8005
Thornley 56 58 60 50 2730 2740 3306 3059 3132 2070 2938
Total 2310 2370 2472 3857 15470 21523 26668 33069 40057 44725 49480
Greater Seaham Total 273 326 282 1359 2433 4550 9066 10290 11017 14204 16046
G.S. as a % of E. D. 12 14 11 35 16 21 34 31 27 32 32

Easington District Censuses 1841-1901

Notes

1. Total number of entries for Easington District 1841-91 = 181,692.
2. Total number of entries for Easington District 1841-1901 = 231,194.
3. The huge rise in the population of Dawdon in 1831 was due to the founding of the town and port of Seaham Harbour in 1828.
4. The large increase in the population of Seaham (Old & New) in 1851 was due to the sinking of Seaton Colliery in 1844 and the adjacent Seaham Colliery in 1849. The two collieries merged as ‘Seaham’ in 1864.
5. The rise in Cold Hesledon’s population in 1891 was due to the recent expansion of nearby Murton Colliery.
6. The fall in the population of Haswell & South Hetton in 1901 was due to the closure of Haswell Colliery in 1896.
7. The fall in Shotton’s population in 1881 was due to the closure of Shotton Colliery in 1877 (opened 1840). The colliery reopened in 1900.
8. The huge fall in Monk Hesleden’s population in 1901 was due to the closure of Castle Eden Colliery in 1893 and Hutton Henry Colliery in 1897.
9. The rise and fall in Hutton Henry’s population 1841-1901 was due to the opening and closing of South Wingate Colliery (1840 ? -57) and Hutton Henry Colliery (1869 ? -97).
10. Thornley Colliery was partially closed in 1891 which explains the population fall in the census of that year.
11. The fall in Wingate’s population in 1891 was due to the recent closure of Wheatley Hill Colliery (1884). The colliery reopened in 1890 but this was too late to greatly affect the 1891 census figures.

Collieries and Censuses

Sub-District 1841 1851 1861 1871 1881 1891 1901 Collieries
Dalton-le-Dale ‘Dormitory’ for Seaham & Murton collieries
Dawdon (Sea Hr) X Dawdon 1899-1991, Vane Tempest 1923-93
Seaham (Old & New) XX XX X X X X Seaton/Seaham 1844/49 – 1983 (merged 1864)
Seaton-with-Slingle y ‘Dormitory’ for Seaton/Seaham after 1850
East Morton (Murton) X X X X X X X Murton 1838-1991
Cold Hesledon ‘Dormitory’ for Murton Colliery after c.1885
Hawthorn Took overflow from Murton & Easington colls
Haswell & Sth Hetton XX XX XX XX XX XX X Haswell 1835-96; Sth. Hetton 1833-1982Hawthorn Shaft 1959-91
Shotton X X X X X Shotton 1840-77, 1900-72
Easington X Easington 1899-1993
Castle Eden Took overflow from Castle Eden Colliery
Monk Hesleden X X X X X X X Castle Eden 1840-93; Horden 1900-87, Blackhall 1913-81
Nesbitt No connection with coalmining
Sheraton No connection with coalmining
Hulam No connection with coalmining
Hutton Henry X X X X X South Wingate 1840 (?) -1857;Hutton Henry 1869 (?) -1897
Wingate X X X XXX XXX XXX XXX Wingate 1837/40-1962Wheatley Hill 1869-77, 1878-84, 1890-1968; Deaf Hill 1870 (?) -1967
Thornley X X X X X X X Thornley 1835-1970
Totals 8 10 9 11 10 10 11

NB: Castle Eden Colliery closed in 1893. The site was reopened in 1900 but only as a pumping station to assist the drainage of the new coastal super-pit at Horden and the reopened Shotton Colliery.

There is some doubt over the commencement date for South Wingate Colliery. Conventional wisdom has it as being 1840 but there was no sign of the colliery or any sinkers in the census of June 1841. A later date is more probable. The colliery was definitely operating by the time of the 1851 census.

There is also some doubt over the commencement date for Hutton Henry Colliery. Conventional wisdom has it as being 1869 but there was no sign of the colliery or any sinkers in the census of 1871. A later date is more probable. The colliery was definitely operating by the time of the 1881 census.

Likewise there is considerable doubt over the commencement date for Deaf Hill Colliery. Conventional wisdom has it as being 1870 but there was no sign of the colliery or any sinkers in the census of 1871. A later date therefore is more probable. The colliery was definitely operating by the time of the 1881 census.

— by Tony Whitehead