History of Spennymoor
Spennymoor, and the surrounding settlements, have a long and varied history. Below you will find a brief description of key features of our history, from the earliest days to modern times. Then click on the link at the end of the text for notable dates in or history.
The land on which Spennymoor now stands was once a vast expanse of moorland covered with thorn and whin bushes (Spenny Moor). The origin of the name remains somewhat uncertain - some believe it to be derived from the Latin "Spina" which means a thorn (possibly from the Roman influence at Binchester) and Mor which was the Anglo-Saxon word for a moor. C.E. Jackson, in his "Place Names of Durham, 1916", suggests a Scandinavian "Spaan" meaning shingle-hut and Anglo-Saxon combination involving "mar" - Spennymoor being the moor called after the shingle-hut erected thereon. Neither Britons nor Romans cultivated the moor, but on the site of Binchester, a village five miles to the south-west, the Romans built a camp around which grew up the settlement of Vinovium. The name Binchester is the usual Saxon corruption or adaptation of the Roman site name.
This fortress must have been of great strength, for it stood on a height above the River Wear; many coins, urns, altars and pieces of Roman pottery have been found, as well as the remains of a hypocaust of the heating system. Later, Binchester became one of the "vills" of the Earl of Northumberland who held it until 1420 when it passed to the Nevilles who finally forfeited it with other lands in 1569.
As is to be expected, the moor itself offers little of historical interest but it is linked with the records of Kirk Merrington, Whitworth Old Park, Binchester, Byers Green and Tudhoe, all of which form a part of the early days of Spennymoor. All these villages had common rights on the moor but, as it became denuded by increasing flocks, some of the local people were induced to relinquish their rights and so, gradually, the common became the property of just one owner - Merrington Priory. The Manor of Merrington belonged successively to the priors, monks and dean and chapter of Durham Cathedral.
Today, Merrington church is one of the most prominent local landmarks. It was originally built by the Normans and its splendid strategic position led to it being fortified in 1143 by the Scots intruder, William Cumyn. When he was finally attacked and overcome, the church roof was destroyed but the building remained as one of most interesting Norman churches in the county until 1850 when it was almost wholly rebuilt - although retaining the form of its predecessor. Inside, the most interesting feature is the screen, a typical example of late-17th century work.
The Norman Conquest meant little to the border folk initially, for they had lived with the constant threat of massacre by raiding Picts and Danes, but then William's soldiers "laid waite" the county and distributed the Saxon nobles' estates among themselves. however, William allowed some of the previous owners to retain their lands, and one of these was Whittleworth - now Whitworth - whose first known proprietor was Thomas de Acle who held it in 1183.
Nevertheless, the whole of this countryside was made desolate by William's soldiers, and for many years it was the haunt of outlaws and wild animals.
On 16 October 1346 David of Scotland was encamped with a great army on the hills near Durham, and raiding bands under a Douglas had been terrorising the neighbourhood. Edward lll was otherwise engaged at Crecy in France at the time, but his Queen, Phillipa, with the Archbishop of York, the Bishops of Durham, Lincoln and Carlisle, and the Lords Neville and Percy and others marched North, and with an array of 16,000 men, moved along the ridge from Auckland to Merrington. Her advance guards clashed with some of Douglas' men near Ferryhill and chased them back to the bridge at Croxdale (Sunderland Bridge). Butchers Race, one of the Five Lanes which meet at Tudhoe Crossroads, was so named after this foray. The next day the main bodies of the two armies met at Neville's Cross, near Durham, and the Scots were slaughtered. During the battle, the prior from Durham and his monks knelt on a little hillock in the Shaw Wood and prayed for an English victory while holding aloft, impaled on a spear, the Holy Corporax Cloth from the Cathedral.
In 1420 the Manor of Whitworth and much of the other land in the vicinity, from Raby to Brancepeth, and including Old Park, Byers Green, Newfield and Tudhoe, became Neville property, and the Earl of Westmorland (a Neville) was granted a licence from Bishop Langley to impark 40 acres at Whitworth, and so began the Whitworth park of today.
The moor itself comes into the record in 1615 as the result of "a general muster on the moor of all men able to bear arms within the bishopric, between the ages of 15 and 60; the gathering amounted to 8,320" (Fordyce). Some military training seems to have been given, doubtless with a view to the then unsettled state of the country due to the growing tension between Parliament and the King. Quite a few of these men must have been miners, as at that time "coale pits" were being worked at Whitworth, Byers Green and Fernhill. In 1677 the small freeholders and the local gentry divided 243 acres of the moor between themselves, an act which was confirmed by the Chancery Court. The only portion of the common that was left was a small plot reserved for the use of a spring of water.
The Rise of Industry
Up to 1800 the moor remained largely barren and the few roads across it were dangerous. The one good road was maintained by tolls collected at turnpike gates. Some of the largest horse-race meetings in the North took place on the moor, and miners and their families attended in all their holiday splendour. These men, early industrial workers, wore their hair long and on these gala days it flowed freely over their shoulders instead of, as usually was the case, being tied in curls. Floral waistcoats and ribboned hats were worn on these highly colourful occasions.
Modern Spennymoor was built on mining and has its origins with the sinking of the Wittered pit in 1839. Rough houses were built for the pit workers - houses with two rooms and a loft, more like "piggeries than human habitation" according to Dodd. The first coal from Merrington Colliery was brought up in 1841; a pit with a chequered career which only prospered under the partnership of L.M Reay and R.S. Johnson, who made a fortune out of it. The trade depression of the late 19th century, however, caused its closure in 1882.
The coal mining at Whitworth and a small foundry at Merrington Lane were the earliest industries, but in 1853 the Weardale Iron and Coal Company opened its great ironworks at Tudhoe. As a result, many hundreds of immigrant workers came here from the Midlands and more rows of dark little houses were erected. More workers came - from Wales and Lancashire - with the opening of the mine at Page Bank (ten lives were lost in a pit fire here in 1858), and with the sinking of a new pit at Tudhoe in the 1880s. The latter resulted in colliery workers' houses springing up on the main Durham road. Slightly before that, in the 1860s, a rather advanced area of working-class housing had been erected at Tudhoe Grange - built by Marmaduke Salvin to house local workers. These houses were, unusually, semi-detached and arranged in a chequerboard layout, very much in contrast to the dreary terraces that were then the standard.
Although these days of rapid industrialisation and rapid growth of population were days of ignorance and squalor, they also saw the 19th century drive for education and religion. A National School was built and opened in 1841; St.Paul's Church was built at Spennymoor in 1858 and all through these formative years the Non-conformist churches combined welfare work with prayer. An era of prosperity dawned in the 1860s and 1870s when the miners were earning £1 per day. Spennymoor was ringed with collieries, black furnaces and coke ovens and the new prosperity showed itself in the building of better houses and in the opening of Co-operative stores. The comparative isolation of its moorland situation ended too with the opening of a branch railway from the mainline at Ferryhill in 1876.
However, as always in industrial life, boom was followed by "bust" - or "near bust", and by 1879 miners' wages were down to 4s 9d a day and those of ironworkers to a mere 3s a day. On top of these economic misfortunes came the terrible explosion at Tudhoe Colliery in 1882 when 37 lives were lost. A strike, which lasted 13 weeks, paralysed the area in 1892, although out of the enforced idleness came foundations of new growth, for the machinery at the Tudhoe Iron works was then renovated and a new mill laid down. The works then possessed the largest mill in Europe, capable of rolling plates up to 13 feet in width.
Into the 20th Century
When, in 1894, Spennymoor and its adjacent villages achieved a measure of self government on the Spennymoor Urban District Council, the new authority found itself facing a legacy of poor housing. With few exceptions, the housing situation was little better than when Dodd had described the houses as "more like piggeries". In 1874 the then Local Government Board had reported:
"Nothing could well exceed the nuisance attendant on the disposal of excrement and refuse in Spennymoor. There are entire streets without any closet accommodation whatever and in its stead open wooden boxes are placed opposite nearly every doorway for the reception of the excrement, ashes and other refuse; an arrangement which, besides being revolting to every sense of decency, is stated to be offensive in the extreme, especially in hot weather. It is impossible to walk between the rows of cottages without being convinced that the surface of the ground is to a large extent composed of the overflowing contents of these midden boxes. The back streets stand deep in filth and mud."
These appalling conditions continued into the 20th century and even by 1920 less than 10% of the town houses had water closets. In 1923 only four houses were built and there was still massive overcrowding in back to back properties. In the next few years only between one and four houses were built in any year and in 1929 the housing situation was still reported as acute which, from the recorded facts, seems self-evident.
These squalid conditions were paralleled by the ever-uncertain economic conditions in industry. Although coal-mining continued and the ironworks and engineering businesses were also providing employment, the start of the 20th century saw the start, too, of a long period of depression. The first blow was the closure in 1901 of the ironworks which had been rendered obsolete by the pace of change elsewhere.
The effect of the closure was relieved by the sinking of the Dean and Chapter colliery in 1904, but the reliance on this one basic industry was to persist until the 1960s. Even before the big coal strike of 1926 the collieries had begun to close. Three closed in 1924 and the strike saw another two fail. Spennymoor became part of the South West Durham depressed area. Although schemes were inaugurated to relieve the gloom nothing could make up for the lack of steady employment. In 1930 the coke ovens which remained on the ironworks site were only working intermittently. Even by 1938 the situation had improved little. The Cleveland iron trade, which used the coal and coke produced at Spennymoor, was depressed. The production of these raw materials at Coulson's engineering works, Kenmir's furniture factory and newly-opened brickworks at Todhills were the main, if limited, sources of employment.Unemployment was over 33%.
Despite the high levels of unemployment, the housing situation at last took an upturn in the 1930s when the Urban District Council began to use its wider powers to take action on unfit houses. By 1935 the first 66 Council houses had been built, and a year later the first 106 North Eastern Housing Association houses were erected on the Racecourse Estate site. Although these were the only houses built before the war, they did provide some hope and allowed the clearance of some of the worst of the squalid areas. Nevertheless, the situation remained bad and there were still far too many damp, badly lit and ventilated houses opening onto small paved yards or back streets.
World War II had diverse effects upon the town. On the one hand it brought housing efforts almost to a standstill, but on the industry front it saw the resurgence of Spennymoor as a major centre. The main factor was the opening in 1941 of a Royal Ordnance Factory at Merrington Lane and since then this estate has provided a constant source of alternative employment to the coal industry. The end of World War II, however, saw this industrial activity greatly curtailed and hard times returned, although without the severity of the earlier pre-war years. The run-down of the mining industry, however, was nevertheless a serious blow.
In 1963 changes were indicated and Durham County Council and then then Ministry of Housing and Local Government agreed that Spennymoor should be a new "growth point" and that town centre redevelopment should take place; that the Tudhoe ironworks site should be reclaimed; that a major highway scheme should be put into hand; that the Royal Ordnance Factory Industrial Estate should be extended and that the Green Lane Industrial Estate should be developed.
There were, of course, early problems, but the new industries became established and, in most cases, began to expand. The coal industry has been replaced by manufacturers of consumer goods, and factories of Electrolux, Thorn Lighting and Black and Decker were established. There is, however, space for expansion and land is available on the Green Lane Industrial Estate.
Housing, too, has made great strides since the end of the War. By the end of 1963 over 1,120 sub-standard houses had been cleared and as many new Council houses built for letting - whilst over 400 houses had been improved by grant aid. In 1963 too there came the first private building developments to take place since back in the days of the 19th century colliery owners. The 800 house estate at Greenways and the 300 house estate at Tudhoe Grange were started, although it was not until the industrial prosperity of the 1970s that private house building reached 100 a year.
The greatest project came with the development of the Tudhoe ironworks site - 70 acres that was turned into the Bessemer Park Housing Estate. In 1968 work commenced on the 1,009 houses here and this allowed the clearance of 500 unfit houses as well as the provision of housing work workers coming to the new factories.
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