The Story Of Our Village ( As written by the W.I. in 1960 )
The village of Witton Gilbert ( pronounced
Jilbert ) is situated 3 1/4 miles North West of Durham City. It nestles in the
valley of the Browney, a river which winds it's way through the southern
outskirts of the parish to join the River Wear a mile or so further east.
A main road linking Durham, Lanchester and Consett passes through the older
part of the village, forming the main street. About midway along, a road turns
off at right angles to Sacriston. The newer part or the village lies on either
side of this road, and consists of two housing estates built during this
Although many of the men living here earn
their living by coal-mining, they have to travel to work in the mines of the
neighbouring villages. No pit-heaps scar the rural character of this place,
chosen fourteen centuries ago by our early ancestors as a pleasant spot in
which to build their homes.
In early times circa A.D 547, the village
was known as "WITUN" so that it is obviously of Saxon origin. The Saxon word
"TUN" means a fortified place, and "WIT" was the shortened form of White,
hence "WHITE-TOWN" became "witun" . the spelling varied until finally it was
The first settlement would consist of a
large house, around which would be a collection of cottages. These would be
surrounded by a wall or moat for protection. The most likely site would be in
the center of our village, built around what we call "The Trough". If these
original buildings were of a whitewash stone, or had been daubed white in some
fashion, then we can readily understand how it was christened White-Town,
In those earliest days our ancestors were
heathens, but after Penda, the enemy of Christianity in the north had been
slain in 665, the villagers would be converted to Christianity in the 7th
century. Pathways would link the village with Lanchester and Chester-Le-Street
where churches were built at an early date.
There is no record of the Danes having
invaded Witton, possibly because the more fertile land south of the Humber
was their main objective.
The newly erected shrine to St. Cuthbert
at Dunholme *(Durham) would be of interest to the village people living so
close to the Saint's final resting-place.
In 1069 William the Conqueror laid waste
the country between York and the Tees and probably many fugitives would pass
through Witton. Many Saxon lords perished in the struggle,and William
distributed their lands among his Norman friends. So, between 1066 and 1070 a
new over-lord would take possession of Witton.
The Story of Gilbert de la Ley.
The first record of a Norman-overlord was
of one Gilbert de la Ley, who lived here from 1120 to 1180. Charters and deeds
executed by this man are still preserved in the library of the Dean and
Chapter at Durham.
The second name Gilbert may have been
added to Witton to perpetuate the memory of this generous benefactor. However
the more popular belief is that Gilbert came from a later Gilbert - Gilbert de
During Gilbert de la Ley's lifetime many
famous men were living in the area, the most celebrated being Goderic the
Hermit, who had established himself in a cell at Finchale and lived there for
60 years. Finchale had by the 12th century become a well-known ecclesiastical
center, and in the years 792, 798, and 810 Church Synods had been held there.
In 1110 the fame of St. Goderic, who was supposed to have performed many
miracles, attracted pilgrims from far and wide. The path taken by pilgrims
from Witton would be by Strait Stirrups (Findon Hill) and Pity Me to Finchale.
It is recorded that Goderic performed miracles on two Witton persons; one
Robert, son of Uctred, and the other a child, whose name is not given.
It is believed that Gilbert de la Ley was
prompted in his charitable work by St. Goderic's good example. His generosity
was not confined to Witton alone. Kepier Hospital about four miles distant,
had been sacked and burned to the ground. When it was to be re-built a record
reads, "Gilbert, the Chamberlain, gave leave to the house of Kepier to fix
their mill dam and millpool in his land at their pleasure, which donation he
makes for the good estate of his master Hugh Pudsey, Bishop of Durham, his
brother, Himself, and his wife Papedy".
Also, about the year 1170, this God-fearing
Lord of Witton, gave to the Prior and Monastery of Durham, Lands near a dairy
farm on the other side of the Brune (Browney). On this site were laid the
foundations of the rural retreat of the great churchmen of Durham, which was
to be known as Beau Repaire (Bearpark).
It is probable that Gilbert de la Ley's
name headed the list of subscribers; when the new chapel to St. Michael the
Archangel was to be built about 1170.
It is in connection with the Leper Hospital
that this Norman lord is best remembered, for it was to his generosity that it
owed it's existence.
History of Witton Church
While Hugh Pudsey was Bishop of Durham it
was felt that there was the need of a church in Witton, as St. Oswald's was so
far distant. So, under the Bishop's direction about the year 1170 a chapel
dedicated to St. Michael the Archangel, was built.History of Witton Gilbert
Witton church still retains more of it's
old features than either of her sister churches, St. Giles and St. Margaret's.
Besides the Chancel Arch, believed to have been designed by the architect,
who designed the Galilee chapel in Durham Cathedral, are two Norman windows in
the south wall.
The original building was narrow, with
chancel and nave without an aisle. It had a tower at the west end, where the
bell turret is now. This would be used, as many church towers in those days,
as look-out for the enemy, and slits in th battlements of the tower by archers.
The sentry posted in the tower would sound the alarm of enemy approaching by
ringing of the bells. Hurriedly the villages would seize their valuables, and
take refuge in the church. The church would be in the middle of thickly wooded
land and that, together with its natural position would help to strengthen its
The daughter chapel of St. Michael's was
served for almost 250 years, between 1175 and 1423 from Durham. Priests
travelled either from St. Oswald's or from the Cathedral to preach a sermon
monthly or quarterly. Old documents show that the two churchwardens, William
Butmansen, and John Shepedson presented a petition on behalf of the inhabitants
of Witton Gilbert asking for independence for their church, and for it to be
served by its own incumbent.
A separate parochial existence was granted
about 1423, and in the text of old deed, "the parishioners were to fynde all
manner of chardges whatsoever touching the chapel and the curat, after the
manner of a person was to gather and have for his maytenance all manner of
tythes in kind belonging to Witton Gilbert".
Some authorities claim that independence
had been granted earlier, only twenty years after the church had been built,
but as no records of Witton Gilbert is to be found in the records of the
church events in Durham between 1198 and 1423 it is more likely that 1423, the
date given in the "Surtees' History of Durham", is the correct one.
The Church is a perpetual curacy. The first
curate of whom any record is made is John Browne, 1561. He was off the record
however, having been accused and convicted of heresy. He was followed by John
Pilkington in whose time some of the church plate now in use was purchased.
As St. Michaels was built about 1170 it is
probable that it has glass in its windows instead of the customary splayed
slits, which were in the tower.
Three windows in the south wall are worthy
of notice. Starting from the east end, the first double window with stained
glass represents scenes from Christ's life, and is a typical 14th century
window. The second, a round topped window is one of the original church
windows. The stained glass put into it in 1890, replaced the original glass.
This new stained glass is a representation of St. Oswald 642, and is in memory
of the wife of the Rev. Arthur Watts, a well-known rector of Witton Gilbert.
The third window is a rounded topped double light of plain glass.
Between the second and third windows is a
round-headed doorway, having the lower portion built up, and the upper portion
filled with plain glass. This used to be the south door entrance in the
At the west end, over the doorway is a
large circular light filled with stained glass, the center representing the
Lamb of God.
The nave now has a center aisle, and a north
aisle which was added in 1858 to accommodate 70 more people. This newer part
is separated from the older by three pointed arches springing from two round
pillars. Built into the wall over the west window of the north aisle is a much
weathered carving of a hand raised in blessing. This is said to have been one
of the arms of the churchyard cross.
The pulpit is of oak with a stone base of
Jacobean design about 1603, and was originally in Durham Cathedral. The
lectern is of oak, the memorial gift of two well known Witton Gilbert
The font is a plain octagonal sandstone
bowl on a circular shaft with a round limestone base. The base appears to be
of original date, but the bowl of a much later period.
The seats are closed, and made of pine.
There are evidences that garlands of flowers used to be hung in the church.
This ancient custom of hanging up garlands of flowers fastened to loops in
which were slips of paper bearing the names of the deceased, was a common
practice in olden times at funerals, and was retained here until 1873.
The chancel, one step higher than the
nave, is separated from it by a high broad pointed arch, fitted at the base
with an open oaken screen. The arc is largely original, but a few stones of
more recent date had to be used when restoration took place in 1859.
The sanctuary, two steps above the chancel
level contains on the south wall a trefoil headed piscina, a remnant of
Pre-Reformation days, with a bowl which once protruded, but which has now been
cut off plumb with the wall.
The communion table is of oak, and the
communion rails also, with its oaken stanchions.
The chancel is lighted from the east by
three stained glass windows. On the left is one dedicated to St. Michael in
memory of Mr. T. R. Holmes and his wife. The central one depicts The Good
Shepherd and was erected in memory of Revd. Arthur Watts and his wife by the
family. On the right of this the window is dedicated to St. Gabriel, in memory
of Mary Allen, who left a legacy for the benefit of the parish of Witton
There are two mural memorials, and one
other on the floor of the chancel. On the south wall is a marble tablet in
memory of Dr. Richard Richardson a famous rector from 1780 to 1839.
The second mural tablet is in memory of
Mary Ann Watts wife of a former Rector, and on a flag on the chancel floor is
the inscription " Henry Clark, buried 3 Septem 1776, aged 70 Bainbridge ---mber,
23, 1776, aged 78 years".
The entrance to the vestry is on the north
wall beside the organ.
The communion Plate consists of six
pieces, a silver cup and cover made in London in 1570, a silver flagon made in
London in 1773 and inscribed in script letters----------
"The gift of the Rev. Dr. Richardson to
his church of Witton Gilbert". A brass abusdist inscribed----"The gift of Mrs.
Margaret Shadforth to the church of Witton Gilbert, April 23rd, 1736", and two
We leave the church through a porch at the
west end. This is light by a small round-headed window on either side, and a
stone seat on either side.
Above the porch is a bell-cote, in which
are hung two bells, and the inscriotion on them, when translated reads---"Christopher
Hodgson made me A.D. 1693".
In 1948 these bells were re-cast, the
expense entailed being defrayed by a legacy bequeathed by Mr. Samuel Holmes,
of New Close Farm.
As we leave the porch we enter a churchyard filled
with tombstones, the oldest of which is dated 1673. In the church Register for
1797 is recorded the burial of a French Priest, who had fled from France
during the Revolution. It is believed he was making his way to Ushaw, only two
miles away from Witton Gilbert on the opposite bank of the Browney, but was
taken ill, and laid to rest here.
An attractive lych - gate serves to link the churchyard with the coach road leading uo to the village main street.
The Leper Hospital (Now Holmes' Farm)
Along this lane known as the Coach Road,
on the left, only a short distance from the churchyard, stands the only other
historic building now remaining in Witton Gilbert.
Witton Hall, now in use as a farmhouse, is
on the site of the old leper hospital of St. Mary Magdalene, which had owed
its existence to the generosity of Gilbert de la Ley, the Norman who had
become Lord of Witton in the year 1120. The lands he owned extended beyond
Witton to Beau Repaire (Bearpark) . Beamish, and Tanfield, the latter still
bears his name in "Tanfield Lea".
It is probable that Gilbert de la Ley's
name headed the list of subscribers, when the new chapel to St. Michael the
Archangel was to be built. This famous man was a Baron of the Bishopric and
Chamberlain to the great Bishop of Durham, Hugh Pudsey.
Many Christian people of those days were
deeply concerned with the sufferings of lepers, for this disease was then a
dreadful scourge. Those who were wealthy, made a practice of erecting hospitals
for these unfortunate people and so it is not surprising that Gilbert de la
Ley, about the year 1180, arranged for the building of such a hospital. He
granted to the almoner of St Cuthbert's Abbey "60 acres of arable land in
Witton field, a rent charge of 30/-, free multure (grinding of corn) and
common pasture for the maintenance of the hospital he had founded. Later his
son Philip, as generously as his father had done, confirmed the charter, and
it was further ratified by his successors and descendants.
The oldest parts of Holmes' Farm are the
portions that remain of the leper hospital.The doorway into the hospital is
visible inside the house, but it has been bricked up, and made into a
On the gable end facing the lane, in an
uppermost storey can be seen the head of a two light window, which had
consisted of two pointed lights within one arch, the moulding of which
contains the ball ornament. In the spandrel is a sunk quatrefoil.
At first the lepers numbered five, but
later this number was increased to eight. The brethren's names were John
Steele, John Binchester, John Marshall, and John Shortt, and those of the
sisters were Jane Partrike, Jane Wharram, Alice Waynfleet, and Margaret
For their sustenance the brethren receive
a bushel of wheat every three weeks, four shillings at Christmas, and 8I8 for
soul silver, and two chaldrons of coal. The sisters were given 200 red
herrings, four oxen, 1/- egg silver, and two loaves besides wheat and
In the "Accounts of Witton Hospital",
dated 1530, we find an annual allowance of 200 red herrings for each of the
inmates then resident, Margaret Brewell, Widow Shelle, Master John Clark and
When an inmate died the almoner was
authorised to appoint another sufferer in his or her place.
There used to be a leper's chapel on the
slope south of the church, near the Browney. This place is now known as St.
The chapel had been later used as a cottage
but now only a heap of stones marks the original site.
Behind the alter in St. Michael's Church
was a small window through which the Lepers wishing to partake of the Holy
Sacrament could receive the bread and wine.
The leper hospital continued its useful
function until the dissolution of the monasteries, colleges, and hospitals in
Henry VIII's reign.
During the third suppression in Witton,
the hospital was lost, and the inmates were cast adrift on the world, to seek
food and shelter with the many thousands already homeless and destitute.
Witton in the 13th and 14th Centuries The Story of Beau Repaire
The story of our village is so closely
linked with that of Beau Repaire during the latter half of the 13th century
and throughout the 14th and 15th centuries that it will be worthwhile to know
some facts about this rural retreat of the Priors of Durham. On lands granted
by Gilbert de la ley, Prior Bartram II had built a stately mansion. It was on
the opposite bank of the Brune (Browney) from Witton, commanding a pleasant
view of rural charm with river meandering eastwards.
No wonder it was given the French name
"Beau Repaire" meaning Beautiful Retraet. Later Beau Repaire was corrupted to
Bearpark. The prior of Durham intended it to be a country residence for
himself, and succeeding Priors, who at times desired a change from life in
monastery or city.
In 1258, Hugh of Derlygton made additions
to the building, enhancing its beauty, and also enclosed the Park, and
preserved the game for the sport of the Prior, his friends, and
However, when Anthony Bec was Bishop of
Durham, between 1283 and 1311 disaster befell Beau Repaire. The Bishop
quarrelled with the Prior and the monks, so he had the fences pulled down,
and the game scattered or destroyed. Bishop Kellow who succeeded Anthony Bec
granted permission to prior Tanfield to enlarge the Park, and re-enclose it.
Portions of the wall then built are to be seen at Wall Nook, Witton Hall Farm,
and other places in its circuit. The wall had evidently been substantial,
fashioned of large stones. The base measured between two and a half and three
feet across; the width having been ascertained by measurement of those parts
that remain, but the actual height can only be guessed at as none of the upper
portion is standing. If its purpose was to fence in deer then it would not have
been less than seven feet in height. Records show that the builder was paid at
a rate of 3s. per rod (5.1/3 yds.) and girls employed to carry stones, clay
and sand received a daily wage of 1 1/2d each.
So for a while, Beau Repaire regained much
of its former splendor, but alas! not for long.
For many years, war raged between the
English and the Scots, having started in the reign of Edward I . As our
village lay right in the path of the marauding Scots when they marched from
the North-west via Ebchester and Lanchester towards Durham it is hardly
possible that Witton escaped the ravages of war. There are no actual records
to substantiate this, but when we read of destruction and havoc the Scots left
behind them at Beau Repaire, we can scarcely hope that our village did not
Beau Repaire had of course, a greater
attraction for the enemy, since it was very wealthy. The whole district was
sacked and burned by Robert Bruce's followers in 1315, after the disastrous
defeat of English at Bannockburn. All the stock and game were destroyed. When
Beau Repaire was attacked the Prior was in residence there, and it was only
with the greatest difficulty that he escaped to Durham, but many of his
retainers were captured by the Scots.
The Scots took possession of the Prior's
long wagon with its horses, and harness, sacked the chapel, carrying off the
silver vessels, table linen, beds and bedding, and furnishings of the mansion.
From the Park itself they took 60 horses and 180 cows, as well as all the
young cattle under 3 years.
Beau Repaire was again devastated by the
same dreaded Bruce, when the captured Durham on his way to Northallerton.
In 1328 a truce was made with Scotland. In
this Edward III renounced all claims to the Scottish throne. It is not
recorded what state Beau Repaire was in, when Edward III spent the night there
in 1327. In that year the young King, after chasing the Scots to no avail,
returned homeward down the wear valley and "came to an abbey within 2 miles of
Durham" where he rested with his army. There, Edward III and his men were
given refreshments, and forage for the horses. The King next day left the bulk
of his army at Beau Repaire while he visited Durham to lay an offering at the
shrine of St. Cuthbert.
War broke out again, and in 1346 a battle
was fought in and around Witton Gilbert. The Scots followed their usual path
through Ebchester and Lanchester to Beau Repaire, and during the nigh before
the battle much damage was done. Just before the battle Queen Philipa rallied
her troops to good effect, for in the ensuing Battle at Neville's Cross 15,000
Scots were slain, their final stand being taken on Findon Hill, before they
broke ranks and scattered in all directions. Many of the fugitives would pass
through our village as they fled northwards. After that battle Beau Repaire
was a ruin, all the deer slain, and the lands laid waste, but under Prior
Fossour it rose again.
After a hundred years had passed, the
monks owned 115 oxen and cows worth £36.6.8d.
In the account books of the Bursar of the
Church of Durham; (1531) there are payments to the carpenter for work on the
hall, for works of the Prior in the Park, at the mill, at the byre, the
buttery, and the kitchen. Some of the villages also found work at Finchale
Priory at this time. A record in Finchale Abby Accounts Rolls for 1395 reads,
"Roberto Witton Carpentario". It is probable that men from Witton Gilbert
fought at Crecy and Agincourt as well as Falkirk, Bannockburn and Neville's
Cross. Kings and Queens, Dukes and Earls, Bishops and Priors all paid visits
to Witton Gilbert. Besides the visits of Royalty already mentioned, there were
visits from Edward III (4 times) and one of Queen Phillipa. Edward I came just
before the Battle of Hallidon Hill. And yet, amid all the turmoil of this
century, our village was thriving, and in the re-building at Beau Repaire,
Finchale, Durham, Witton men found employment. A jar of money belonging to
this period was unearthed in Baxter Woods in 1889, and this proves that money
was not scarce.
Witton in the 13th and 14th Centuries
Just as the family of Gilbert de la Ley
dominated the story of the village in the 12th century, so the de Latons held
sway after Philip de la Ley had disposed of village property to Gilbert de la
Laton. As Gilbert was added to the name of the village about a century after
this change of ownership, it is believed that the second name of the village
was taken from Gilbert de la Laton. William the son of Gilbert de la Laton in
1275 wrote himself "Lord of Witton".
Life became prosperous in these centuries
largely due to the fact that wealthy burgesses of Durham, following the
example of the Prior, had residences built in Witton or Witton Gilbert, as it
was beginning to be known. Many stately processions of the Bishop and Prior,
Lord and Lady, and Knights, would wend their way through the village to cross
the Brune in order to visit Beau Repaire
The woods in and about the village rang
with the baying of hounds, while falcons and hawks soared overhead. The
prancing of horses, and the excitement of the chase would stir the hearts of
huntsmen and villagers alike.
Now and again Royal visitors came to
Witton Gilbert, among them King John, Henry II, and Edward I. We may be sure
they were greeted with loyal demonstrations.
In these centuries the names of the De La
Leys and De Latons died out, but the estates passed by marriage into other
great families. One afterwards mentioned in Witton affairs was the Earl of
Witton in the 15th and 16th Centuries
During the 15th century our village entered
a more peaceful state. The intermitted struggles with the Scots had ended. In
the first half of the century there were the French wars , and in the second
half of the Wars of the Roses. These may have tempted some of the bolder
yeomen of Witton to leave their quiet homes in search of adventure especially
as the pay offered by Henry V was 6d per day, a good wage in those days.
Since the great Earls of Salisbury and
their decedents the Earls of Warwick had close connections with Bear Park
estate it is very probable that some of the loyal retainers of the Great
Warwick, known as the Kingmaker, had been recruited from Witton.
At the beginning of the 16th century ours
was a pretty little village, which depended largely on Bear Park mansion and
Witton Hospital for employment.
In the records of this period we have the
names of 27 Witton families employed by the Bishop and the Prior. Some of
these families were probably tenants of the land with the right to feed pigs
in the park, and as there is evidence that 42 pigs were kept, there was no
shortage of pork. The Prior must have owned 2113 sheep for the record reads
that after selling 308 lambs and 828 sheep and losing 18 by death he still had
959 left. Some of the names on the list of tenant-farmers are familiar to us,
e.g. Robert Wermuth, and Newton. In other lists of carpenters, glaziers,
plumbers, woodmen, tanners, masons, miners, farm servants and labourers we
find names common in Witton such as Peyrson, Commynge, Lawson, Robyngson,
Bayley, Dixon, Hunter and Martynge.
Other people who worked here then were
Thomas Layfield, builder, Clement Hall, farmer, John Cuk, pewter worker,
Gilbert Walker, Candle maker, and Thomas Martynge, brewer. The wages ranged
from 4d to 6d per day for skilled workmen, and 2d to 4d per day for labourers.
Servants and regular workmen oftern got a suit of cloths given to them, or a
sum of money as gratuity under the name of Soulsylver. For example, the
forester Tempest got 19/6 annually, the brewer Martynage 5/9 in addition to
The Purchasing power of money was much
greater then than it is to day. Mr Wermuth was glad to sell his chickens for
1d each, and his pidgeons at 3 or 4 a penny. Kid cost 2d, a lamb 10d, and a
mare 5s. Sheep varied in price from 1/8 to 2s. Fish was cheap at 8d per score
for Codling, 6d or 1s. for Salmon. Bread and meat cost very little.
The poor were not badly off for the
necessities of life, but could not afford luxuries such as sugar, which cost
8d per lb. Tabacco was still unknown. Oxen were still used for ploughing, or
for drawing carts, for an old record reads that a certain man was paid "4d to
shoe the oxen for 2 days". An important officer in the village was the Pinder
or Pounder, who always had plenty of work to do, since fences, and enclosures
often needeth repairing, and animals were continally straying. This man's
special task was to impound the stray animals in an enclosure until they were
claimed. It was in a field opposite Park View.
Wages were good, but evidently misused by
a certain of the villages, for one Court of Justice alone at Durham records
the names of 12 Witton people between 1425 and 1455.
But in the reign of Henry VIII, when the
King served connections with the High Church at Rome, because the Pope refused
him a devorce, Henry cast envious eyes on the wealth and estates owned by the
Roman Church in England.
After Parliament had been persuaded by the
King to pass a law ordering the confiscation of the property and goods held by
the Monks, the monasteries and hospitals were deprived of the greater part of
their possessions. These acts of spoliation were carried out in districts by
Commissioners, and the two men to whom the North of England were entrusted for
this dreadful task were Dr. Layton and Dr. Lee.
These men in one fell swoop destroyed the
heritage of generations. The abbeys, priories and hospitals meant even more to
people in those days than now for, besides being the poor-house, hospital,
dispensaries and infirmaries they provided education for the people. The
hospital at Witton was closed and the inmates turned adrift. Clergy and monks
also were homeless and found work of any menial kind to eke out a living, as
for example, to serve in an alehouse.
The numbers of vagabonds and destitute
reached alarming figures. There were many insurrections, the most formidable
in the North being known as "The pilgrimage of Grace". The rebels were
persuaded to disperse, only to rise again in the following 1537, on a summons
posted on every Church door in the county, so ours would be included. The
rebellion was suppressed in a brutal fashion by hanging, and the whole North
was a scene of horror. Finchale Priory fell. Durham Abby became a Cathedral,
and St. Magdalene's Hospital at Witton a farmhouse. The glory of Durham was
passing, and the sovereign power of our early Bishops was on the wane. Sorrow
and morning, neglect of the parishes, unrelieved poverty, terror and
discontent prevailed for the rest of Henry VIII's reign.
The splendor of Bear Park had also departed
in the dissolution of the Monasteries. Though the ruined building was
occasionally used by the Deans of Durham gradually it fell into decay, and the
game allowed to scatter or perish.
At Kimblesworth, the sister parish of
Witton, the church, was left in ruins, and the people desolated. A record of
1593 shows that the people of Kimblesworth were to be allowed to attend Witton
Church, their own having become a ruin. Findon Hill was at this time a
tenement in the Parish of Kimblesworth. It was given by Sir George Bowes to
William Harbottle or Harbent in 1560. In 1575 William Harbent granted the
estate to a Witton man, John Hildyard of Fulforth but it changed hands many
times. We can assume from this constant changing of tenure that the estate was
not very suitable for arable or pasture that the gorse, which used to thrive
in that area, rendered the land of little use for farming.
The vast problem of beggars and vagabonds
was not adequately delt with until Elizabeths I's reign. Special licenses to
sick and impotent people giving them permission to beg and collections and
parochial assessments had proved useless.
At last Elizabeth in 1562 passed those
Poor Laws, which are the foundation of our present system of relieving the
destitute poor. With the passing of time the horrors of Henry VIII's
persecution of the monks, and Mary Tudor's reign of the first Elizabeth
village life became normal once more.
Some of the events, which led to the
Queen's cousin, Mary Queen of Scots, being sentenced to imprisonment, had
slight repercussions in the area. Bolton Castle, one of the earliest prisons
to house the unhappy Queen Mary, was owned by the man who also held Langley
Old Hall, which is situated about a mile and a half from our village.
The brothers Robert and Michael Tempest,
who owned Kimbleworth and Potterhouse Estate, took part in a local rising made
on behalf of Mary Queen of Scots. In Durham Cathedral the rebels tore up the
Bibles, and broke up the communion table in support of this Queen who was a
staunch Roman Catholic, whereas Elizabeth I was a Protestant.
All these disturbances died out on the
death of Elizabeth I in 1603, for as she had no heir, James VI of Scotland,
son of Mary, Queen of Scots, became King of England also. On his way to London
to receive the crown he stayed overnight in Durham City.
Witton in the 17th and 18th Centuries
In the 17th century the poorer people were
beginning to enjoy the freedom, which we in our day and age take for granted.
The old feudal system had gone for ever. No longer were men content to work
for the same master all their lives, but some sought work in other districts.
Commerce and manufactures were expanding, and higher wages offered in these
spheres of work attracted some villages to towns.
Houses in the village that were owned by
the wealthy were of stone or brick, those owned by the farmers usually of
wood, and those of the labourers of clay and wattle. Eating utensils were
fashioned of wood, and a dish made of pewter considered valuable. As wages of
workers increased so did the prices of food, and very soon the number of very
poor people in Witton Gilbert was considerable. It is recorded that six
almshouses were built for the benefit of some of them.
At the close of the centery the estate of
Witton Gilbert was split up, and much of it was bought by the tenants
themselves. An extract from the agreement drawn up by Sir Edward Musgrove
reads : "John Sheppedson, Robert Wrangham, Ralph Malone, Ellen Gibson, and
John Reed, 10 mess 5 tofts, 5 gard, 200 acres arable land, 100 acres pasture
land, 40 acres wood, 500 acres furze and 200 acres of moor in Witton
There are two charities in the village,
the first dates from 1642 A.D. and an extract reads, "Cuthbert Watson in his
lifetime did give unto the poor of Wittongilbert after his death 6s. yearly
out of the dwelling-house of Cuthbert Watson aforenamed to be payed at two
several payments viz; at the Nativitie of Christ thre shillings, and at Easter
thre shillings, and so to continue for ever".
The second charity is known as Finney's
Charity. In her will dated Nov.14th, 1728, window of Dr. Finney, Rector of
Ryton gave to trustees 1 1/4 acres of meadow land for the endowment of a
school, the master of which should instruct four poor children.
Latterly the income from Cuthbert Watson's
Charity (sometimes called Poor's Land) and from Jane Finney's charity,
amounting to about £20 a year, has been used for the assistance of children of
the parish, who won places in Secondary Schools.
A distinguished cleric, Dr. Richard
Richardson, held the living of St. Michael's from 1780 --1839. In addition to
this he Precentor of St. David's Wales, Chancellor of St. Paul's London, and
incumbent of Brancepeth, but he preferred the quiet charm of the old rectory
he preached a sermon every Sunday from the pulpit of our village church. A
tablet to his memory is to be seen on the south wall of the chancel there. It
was in the year 1797 that a French Priest, fleeing from France, and hoping to
reach Ushaw, sought lodging at Findon Cottage, where he died, and was buried
in our churchyard.
Manners, speech and customs were coarse in
those days, and the popular sports were bear-baiting, bull-baiting, and
cock-fighting. Executions which took place at Dryburn, about three miles from
Witton Gilbert, often served as an excuse for a public holiday.
As the 17th and 18th centuries were ending
our village was still very rural, most of the inhabitants being engaged in
agricultural pursuits. Another source of income was the trading done in
markets in the village. Apparently, Witton Gilbert was of some importance, as
it was a convenient meeting place for traders from the West to meet traders
from the East of the county. Farmers from the dales brought wool and livestock
to trade for coal brought by the men from the East. Two markets were used for
this exchange, one in the field opposite Park View, and the other behind the
main street on the slope leading to the church. In order to reach these
markets the traders had to pay dues at the toll-gates, one of which stood at
the western approach near Park View, and the other at the eastern approach at
the foot of Newton Street. The toll-house known as the gate-house was occupied
until recently, when it had to be pulled down to make way for improvement to
the main road. The name Fad of Fold still persists to describe the parts of the
village where these markets were held.
There used to be a Quakers' burial ground,
on the land at the east end of Park View, which is now used as
The lands on the outskirts of the village
more thickly wooded in those days were the home of badges, foxes and ravens,
and rewards were offered to any person getting rid of these pests. The reward
paid for killing a Fox was 1s., a handsome sum, for a penny in those days was
the equivalent of 2/6 of our money.
Witton in the 19th and 20th Centuries
Rapid development took place in our
village during the first half of the 19th century. The reason for this was the
growing importance of the coal trade, which resulted in a colliery being
opened at the neighbouring village of Sacriston. Many men found employment
there, and settled in this village, so that very quickly the population rose
to over one thousand.
Education, which in previous centuries had
often been confined to the wealthy, who could afford to pay for it, was now
being brought within reach of all classes of people.
The first school in Witton Gilbert
consisted of one room over a stable at the bottom of Newton Street. In 1861 a
stone building on the right slop of the Dene Bank, replaced this, and was
known as the church school or National school. In 1894 at a public meeting
called by the Rector the Rev. Arthur Watts, a proposal "that fees for the
places in the Church Schools should no longer be paid was carried. It was also
proposed that if parents wished to give subscriptions towards the cost of the
upkeep of the School, they could do so. In 1896, the owners of Charlaw and
Sacriston Collieries gave £90 Pounds towards the building of "A new Infants School".
The University of Durham gave £30 Pounds, and by Church efforts, and, help a new
red-brick building higher up the slop quite near the older school was opened
for younger children. This building is now used by Boy Scouts, and the older
building is in use as a church hall.
About forty years ago when the National
School was found to be unsafe because of mining operations, it was closed.
Children were expected to go to Sacriston or Langley Park, but in fact many
did not attend school for about two years. Then a corrugated iron building on
a site adjoining the Coach Road was opened as a temporary school. As this was
inadequate to accommodate all the children the old Wesleyan Chapel besides
Hopper's House was also used.
Both the last mentioned buildings have
been demolished in recent years. A new Infants, School built near the Coach
Road was opened in 1922, and the younger children were transferred to it,
thereby relieving the overcrowding in the temporary schools.
Then in 1931 on a site opposite North
Terrace, the new Elementary now Junior Mixed, School was opened, and the rest
of the children transferred there. When children pass the 11 plus examination
they travel to Secondary Modern Schools in Durham, and Chester-le-Street and
others attend Modern Schools in Sacriston, and Langley Park.
After school hours children are catered for
by the flourishing Boy Scout and Girl Guide troops, and two Youth Clubs.
There are Sunday Schools attached to the
Church, and also to the Wesleyan Chapel. The Wesleyan community about 125
years ago took over a chapel that had been used by the United Methodists. The
chapel is on the left of the corner where the road branches up to Sacriston,
near what is known as the "Trough".
In 1895 the Parish Councils came into
existence, and the Rev. Arthur Watts in the Church Magazine wrote. "Witton
will share a council with Sacriston, and we hope that neither will attempt to
take advantage of the other, but will follow strict lines of justice".
On January 4th, 1896 the lighten of our
streets by electricity was introduced, and then was a source of wonder to the
inhabitants, but now one of the amenities we scarcely notice unless a defect
in the current causes the village to be enveloped in darkness.
It is recorded in the Church Magazine that
on the 10th October, 1892, Mrs. Chas. E. Hunter of Selaby laid the foundations
of a new church at Kimblesworth, our sister parish. In 1893 the parish of
Kimblesworth were proud to witness the consecration of their church. Thus the
long association of the untied churches was severed.
Since the turn of the present century much
old property has been demolished. The Dene Bank football field is on the site,
where at one time four streets, consisting of 78 houses stood. These houses had
been built at the end of the 19th century, and came to be known as "The
Clink". The reason for this, peculiar name is that gypsies used to camp on a
field quite near, and used to go from door to door peddling their tin goods,
which no doubt very often made a tinkling or clincking noise, as they were
being carried. After the first World War the houses were pulled down and as
they had belonged to the Bearpark Colliery Company many of the residents found
new houses in Bearpark, and others on a new housing estate that was taking
shape in our village.
Farming land had been acquired on the left
side of the road, which winds up to Sacriston. On this site between 1918, and
1939, 150 houses had been completed, and are in long rows, mostly
semi-detached, known as Fair View, Chester Garden, and Hillside. On the
opposite side of the road, the second housing estate has been steadily growing
between 1945 and present day. In all, 218 dwellings have been completed, and
some of these are bungalows especially designed for elderly people.
Near these newly erected bungalows
adjoining Fair View are four houses with a curious name. They are known as
"The tile sheds". the reason being that years ago a flourishing Brick and Tile
works stood just behind them. The only building that remains of the Brick
Works is a large brick kiln that is now used as a piggery.
At the foot of this new estate, known as
"Rose Lea", a new workmen's Club and Institute is being built, and will
certainly be opened this year. It is to replace3 the old building of the same
name in the main street. The new club is much larger than the existing one,
with rooms for various games, e.g. billiards, and a hall suitable for dancing,
concerts, or similar purpose. Until now functions such as these have taken
place in the Labour Hall, a wooden building in the main street, opened by Mr.
Gascoigne, then Headmaster of the Elementary School, on October 17th,
The Witton Gilbert Hotel, a building
several storeys high, used to stand almost opposite the Labour Hall, but it has
been pulled down. The public houses, all in the main thoroughfare are, "The
Travellers Rest", "The Three Tuns", and The Glendenning Arms". In connection
with the last named a curious incident occurred in 1893. Previous to this in
1797, an "Association for the Prosecution of Felons", had been formed, and it
was customary for the members of this society to hold their annual meeting in
January, near enough to Christmas to be an excuse for a banquet to following
the business proceedings.
On January 7th, 1893 a day memorable in
local history as "windy Monday", the members assembled in an ancient thatched
cottage kept by Mrs. Betty Glendenning. The windstorm, which arose at
daybreak, increased in violence as the day progressed, but did not prevent the
members from attending their annual meeting. Plum puddings were an essential
feature of banquets held around Yuletide, so the landlady had the puddings
boiling merrily, when a furious blast of wind, tore off the chimneys, and a
liberal dose of soot found its way into the huge pan. Nothing daunted, Mrs.
Glendenning extracted the puddings, washed them carefully, and put them back
to boil. Mr. Bragnall, who later, carved and distributed portions to the
members declared they all retained an aroma of soot, but was careful to choose
an interior portion for himself. Meanwhile, the gale increased in fury, and
the thatched roof was lifted piecemeal into the air. Undismayed, the feast
continued with members singing, and exchanging anecdotes. The hour of midnight
passed unheeded, with the company still unbroken, even through the house was
without a roof.
During this windstorm all that had been
standing of the ruined mansion, "Beau Repaire", was swept away.
A ruin that is still to be used lies about
a mile and a half north-west of the village. It is known as Langley Hall, and
rarely catches the eye of the passers-by because it is almost completely
submerged in a thickly wooded plantation. What a different scene it must have
been presented 400 years ago when newly built by Lord Scrope of
Bolton-in-Wensley dale. Here he had erected a less pretentious home than his
huge Bolton Castle.
It was situated on a slope, and from its
easterly windows a fine view of the majestic Cathedral, and Castle could be
seen, and on all sides were fields and woods. The hall was built around a
square courtyard. The growth of vegetation, and heaps of fallen masonry make
it difficult to visualise what it was like in far-off Tudor days. Evidently
there was a great hall in the east wing, with a magnificent fireplace which
has since disappeared. The remains of several good Tudor doorways, headed by
small square windows, are to be seen in the ruined walls. A considerable
portion of the south-west wing is still standing, and the kitchen is
discernible at the west end. The most striking feature is the trio of great
corbels with projecting shields on the east gable. A two-light window has
unique hood terminations in the shape of jousting shields carrying the arms of
Scrope and their family alliances.
The Lady Scorpe, who attended Elizabeth I
was involved in a well-known historical incident. The Queen had given a ring
to her favorite Earl of Essex, with the promise that if ever he needed help he
should send the ring to her, and she would come to his assistance. When
awaiting execution in the Tower of London, the Earl of Essex remembered the
Queen's promise, and sent the ring to Lady Scrope, asking her to give it to
her Royal mistress. Unfortunately, the ring fell into the hands of the
Countess of Nottingham, and she withheld it, until after the Earl of Essex had
Just below Langley Hall is a plantation of
fir trees, and in the middle of it is a tree, which towers above the rest. It
is a Canadian pine which has reached a height of 98 feet. It was planted 100
The head Forester's house, only a short
distance from the ruined Hall, is also falling into decay. The occupants were
obliged to leave it eight years ago, because mining subsidence had rendered it
unsafe. In the early part of the century shooting parties frequently had lunch
in the dining room of this house, and it is known the George V was one of its
A walk of rather less than a mile and a
half brings us to the place where once the western tollgate existed, and we
pass Park View on our left. Between Park View and Cockburn's Farm is a space
used by the allotment holders which in olden days was a Quakers' Burial
Across the way behind the "Traveller'
Rest", is a street of houses known as Bottlers' Yard, so called because a
Bottling Plant was sited here, but which was closed many years ago.
Now we have reached the older part of the
village, and continue along this main road passing houses, and shops, and the
old Workmen's Club on the left, further, along there are shops and public
houses, the Co-operative Store, and the Labour Hall on the right. Streets of
houses leads up from the left of this thoroughfare, one of which Newton Street
I have mentioned several times in this narrative. After passing Newton Street
on the left, the Coach Road branches right to the Infants' School, and the
Church. A traffic warden is posted to see the young children safely across
the busy road, for much heavy freight passes to and from Consett Iron Works
through Witton Gilbert's main street. At the foot of the Dene Bank, or (Clink)
we see a coal drift which provides employment for about 30 men. This was
started by the present Mr. Pescod's farther.
It has been operating since 1919, and is
still under private ownership. As we climb this hill we notice above us on the
right the Scouts' Den, once the Infants School, and the entrance to the
Rectory. This new Rectory was first occupied by Rev. A. Asher in 1929, and
replaces the old Rectory, which stood near Holmes' Farm.
Having reached the top of the hill we pass
the football field on the left, about a quarter of a mile further on Slights
House Farm on the right. Still in the Parish and on the left side of the road
set back with a playing field in front of it, is a building familiar to most
travellers, who pass this way to Durham. It is known as "Earl's House", and
was built by the County Finance in 1885 as an Industrial School for boys. It
is really a collection of red-brick buildings with its own little school, and
was built to accommodate 150 children. Earl's House served its original
function for many years, and then was used as a Sanatorium for Tubercular
Children. When Hospital re-adjustment took place under the National Health
service, the Tubercular patients were removed to other hospitals, and now
Earl's House is occupied by mentally handicapped children. The building
received this name because it is erected on part of the Earl's House Estate,
which in 1885 belonged to Captin Ellis, but in the 15th century had been one
of the estates of the Earls of Angus.
In 1942 a bomb was dropped on a field
between Earl's House, and Sleights House, but fortunately did no harm to man
or beast. Many windows in these buildings were shattered and articles of
furniture dislodged from their usual positions.
As we wend our way back to the village
through the pleasant countryside we glimpse Bearpark across the river to our
left, and further along on the top of the hill can see the roofs of Ushaw
Collage among the trees.
If we pause for a while on the crest of
Dene Bank and look down on Witton Gilbert, the older part nestling in the
hollow, we reflect that it is, after all, a typical English village. Nothing
of great moment happens here; life goes peacefully on, and men and women go
about their labours, if not in the village itself, then in some factory, mine,
shop, office or other sphere of work within reasonable travelling distance.
Then in their hour of leisure they enjoy the usual social activities of our
modern age. If young or old enjoy films or dancing then they must board a bus
to Durham or Chester-le-Street, for there are no cinemas or dance halls in the
village. Some are members of the L.E.A Drama Group which annually presents a
full length play before appreciative audiences. Others attend Evening Classes
of a different character, either in or outside the village to learn more of
the subjects, in which they are interested. A branch of the county library
opens weekly to supply books to those who are fond of reading. Many of the men
belong to "local Gardeners Association", and proudly display the fruits of
their labours at the annual show of flowers, and vegetables held in the Labour
Hall in September.
The public houses also hold Leek Shows, to
which Gardeners bring their treasured exhibits. Other men are members of Darts
Clubs, and derive much pleasure by playing matches against teams of neighboring
A flourishing Over-60 Club brings together
older people and the members meet fortnightly, and have their own choir, and a
Drama Group. The aged people of the village are invited to a Dinner, and
Concert at Christmas time, and are taken on a coach tour during the summer.
These events are made possible by the funds raised through various efforts of
the Aged People's Welfare Committee.
The younger folk at the Wesleyan Chapel
spend many hours practicing for their Sunday School Anniversary. In connection
with the Church is St. Michael's Fellowship, whose members presented concerts
and nativity plays.
And now I come to an organisation, which
although fairly new, is dear to the hearts of many women in the village. It is
the Women's Institute, now in its 13th year.
On September 25th, 1947, women were
invited to a meeting in the Labour Hall to discuss the possibility of forming
a Women's Institute. Under the chairmanship of Mrs. Coulthard V.C.O. a
proposal that "A Women's Institute should be formed", and called "The Witton
Gilbert Women's Institute", was carried unanimously. The names of the 48
intending members were taken, and the date of the first meeting settled. So on
October 20th, 1947 forty eight women met for the there first Women's Institute
meeting. The important business of choosing a committee and President took
first place on the Agenda after 'Jerusalem' had been sung. The Officers then
chosen were Mrs Dobinson, President, Mrs. Skelton, Secretary, and Miss
Fairlamb, Treasurer. The remaining members of the committee were Mesdames
Buttler, Cooper, Dover, Hod, Kelsey, Martin, Ramsay, Stangroom and
So, our Women's Institute was launched,
and has been striving for the past twelve years to achieve the main purpose of
the Women's Institute movement, which is, to improve and develop conditions of
rural life. Also, we have time to time taken part in competitions, and
exhibitions arranged by the County Executive Teams of W.I. members, have twice
held the Cups for Folk Dancing, (One for Elementary, and one for Advanced) and
gained several certificates.
The Choir has entered for the Musical
Festivals, and once gained the Cup for Madrigal Singing, and at another time
was awarded the Cup for Choral Singing in the Inermediate Class. Members have
sent exhibits to Garden Produce, and Handicraft exhibitions on many occasions,
and one member was asked to bake bread and tea-cakes for display in the W.I.
tent at The Royal Show, when it was held at Newcastle in 1956. Apparently, the
advice and skill passed on from our Mothers and Grandmothers, have helped to
keep the handicrafts, and the ability for home baking alive.
Some amusing stories have been passed on
to me by W.I. members. One member told me her mother had an experience about
fifty years ago, which to us seems very entertaining but would not be to the
lady in question at the time. One morning to her dismay and horror, her mother
suddenly found her clean kitchen almost smothered in soot, and in the midst of
the soot, a dead hen. It seems that a chimney sweep used a long pole, to which
he fastened an old hen, as a means of clearing soot from the chimneys. He
pushed this improvised flue brush down the chimney from outside, but
unfortunately in this case he swept the wrong chimney, and our members mother
bore the brunt of his mistake.
Another queer character was described
as 'Old Irish Ann. This woman was never known by any other name, and was
employed at Witton Hall Farm. She worked like a man, all hours in all kinds of
weather. She smoked a clay pipe, and got drunk from time to time, and was
prepared to fight any man or woman in the village.
An old lady, the grandmother of one of our
members, told her this story. When she had been a maid at the old Rectory she
looked out of the window, and saw a huge fire blazing in the colliery farm
yard. An old tramp., who used to visit the village quite often, had gone to
sleep beside a stack, while he was smoking, and the embers from his pipe set
the hay on fire. The police and other men rushed to the scene, had great
difficulty in getting him away from the blaze, as he was quite determined to
burn with it.
Another odd character I heard about was an
old lady who was bedfast, but who would persist in putting up her umbrella
whenever she saw it raining.
Another old lady who lives in an old
cottage in the main street, says her grandmother used to keep a cow for the
requirements of her family in the garden adjoining her cottage.
Miners in years gone by, before 'bus
travelling became so easy, declared they used to see a ghost when walking from
Witton Gilbert to Langley Park Colliery on the stretch between the Gatehouse,
and Kaysburn. Later they discovered that they had imagined to be a ghost in
the dim light was in reality a white horse, which used to walk alongside and
behind the thick hedges, when it heard the men's voices, no doubt hoping for a
tasty morsel to be thrown its way.
The Parish Registers date back to .................... 1571
The number of baptisms recorded is .................... 2747
The number of marriages in the same period is ..... 473
And the number of deaths is ................................. 1686
It is known that three men from this
village served in the Boer War, and all returned safely, but strange to say,
all three met their death by accident.
The names of 43 men, who served in World
War I are engraved on an oak tablet on the east wall of the north aisle in St.
Michael's Church, and the names of 9 others who fought in World War II, have
The population, which at the end of the
last century was about 4,000 has been depleted, because the boundaries of
parishes have been revised, and much land has been incorporated into
neighboring parishes, and it is estimated that the present population is
around the 2,00 figure.
A polished stone Axe, and hammer found in
1913, when the old sewage works were constructed seems to link up with remains
of a pre-historic burial unearthed in 1889 at Sacriston. It is probable that
even before people settled here pre-historic travellers passed through the
Browney valley on their hunting expeditions.
But, in these pages I have tried to
describe our village through information gained from various sources, and
those clearly show that there has been a settlement here sinc early in the 6th
The generations who have made their homes
in this village during fourteen centuries, have entrusted to us a goodly
heritage. May we, who now live in Witton Gilbert in this year of our grace,
1960 A.D. be worthy of that trust.
The members of Witton Gilbert's Women's
Institue greatfully acknowledge information received from-----
Mr. Rain, Headmaster of Witton Gilbert Junior Mixed School.
Rev. Wm. Hall. Rector of Witton Gilbert.
Durham Rural District Council.
Mr. R. Pescod.
Other sources of information taken from-----
R. Surtees' "The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham".
The Parish Register.
Cuttings from Old Newspapers.
There is a lot more to
come, the above finished in 1960 and now it is up to me to amend and bring it
up to date, as you well know alot has changed so plesa bear with me, I would
like to got some more of the site up and running before I start up dating.(history added to on 18/03/03)
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