History of North Teesdale Project

The ‘History of North Teesdale’ project will work with volunteers to produce three VCH ‘short histories’ of Gainford, Barnard Castle and Middleton-in-Teesdale. These will be encyclopedic books on the economic, social, political, religious and military history of the three Teesdale parishes. The project, which is jointly-sponsored by Teesside University, will also engage with schools in the area to promote local history at all levels of the national curriculum, focusing upon the distinctiveness of the Teesdale region.

For further information or to volunteer, please contact the Project Director: Dr Diana Newton (d.newton@tees.ac.uk) or the Project Coordinator: Dr Alex Brown (alexander.brown@tees.ac.uk).

A selection of early material from the project can be found here and, as research is undertaken, draft research will be made available on these pages.

Murder in Gainford and Barnard Castle

EXECUTION OF A WOMAN AND TWO MEN AT DURHAM, AUGUST 2, 1875
As reported in the Hull Packet, Friday, August 6, 1875, Issue 4693.

On Monday morning, at eight o’clock, three persons—a woman and two men—suffered the extreme penalty of the law within the walls of Durham prison, making in all twelve persons who have been hanged in the city of Durham since public executions were abolished. The three criminals who suffered on Monday morning were: Elizabeth Pearson (28), married woman, who, having made every preparation for the accomplishment of her purpose, poisoned her uncle, James Watson, at Gainford, near Darlington, who died on the 28th March last, by means of strychnine contained in Battle’s vermin killer; Michael Gilligan (22), found guilty of the wilful murder, at Darlington, on the 28th March last, of John Kilcran, who was late on a Saturday night searched for by a party of seven Irishmen in the streets, and when found attacked and cruelly murdered, the condemned man being sworn to as the one who struck the fatal blow with some heavy instrument he drew from his pocket; and William McHugh (36), a hawker, who was convicted of the wilful murder of Thomas Mooney, at Barnard Castle, on the 11th April last, having, whilst Mooney was in a state of unconsciousness, thrown him into the river Tees, whilst others, the whole party being Irishmen, looked on and forebore to raise their hands in his defence.

In this case McHugh alleged his innocence at the trial, and the guilt of Brennan and Keenan, the two chief witnesses against him, and has continued to protest against the justness of his conviction. Gilligan, the other male convicted, has from the first emphatically denied that he committed the crime for which he suffered. The woman Pearson during her trial and ever after evinced a firmness and self-possession that is most unusual in such cases; and although at times she manifested nervousness, her appreciation of the dreadful position in which she was placed never beclouded her features. She did not deny the crime, but withheld any confession.

On Saturday, all three malefactors had final interviews with their relatives. As on the last occasion of an execution at Durham, representatives of the press were not admitted to the prison; and the officials, probably acting under instructions, would give no information whatever. A very large crowd assembled in the open space in front of the gaol. At a quarter to eight o’clock the bell began to toll, announcing that the preliminaries had begun, and at three minutes past eight the black flag was run up, all being then over.

The procession was formed in the schoolroom, and proceeded from thence to the place of execution in the gaol yard. The woman walked first, attended by the chaplain; McHugh came next, accompanied by Cannon Consitt, Roman Catholic priest; and Gilligan last of all, attended by Father Rooney, also a clergyman of the Roman Catholic faith. All three quietly allowed themselves to be conducted to the scaffold, and died without a struggle. At the coroner’s inquest, held two hours afterwards, the gaol officials, when interrogated by jurymen as to whether the deceased had made any statements before suffering, persistently refused to give any information on that head.

Lead mining in Upper Teesdale

It has often been assumed that little or no mining occurred in the region until the London Lead Company began its operations in Teesdale in the early nineteenth century. Recent research, however, paints an entirely different picture; it can now be demonstrated that the mines within the Forest of Teesdale were continuously leased from the Crown by various ‘adventurers’ from the early sixteenth century until the early eighteenth century, after which these mines became part of the Raby estate under the control of Lord Barnard who continues to hold the mineral rights today.
Sixteenth-century records do not name individual mines but using seventeenth-century court documents concerning tithe disputes many of the mines leased in the sixteenth century can be identified, eg. Grassgroves and Pike Law.

Barnard Castle and the Rising of the North, 1569

In 1569, Charles Neville, 6th Earl of Westmorland, and Thomas Percy, 7th Earl of Northumberland, led what has often been interpreted as the last feudal rebellion. Like previous rebels, they professed to act not against Queen Elizabeth but against her evil counsellors, and portrayed their action as one of justifiable self-defence. They also sought to restore the religion of their ancestors, and after occupying Durham the rebels celebrated a Catholic mass in the cathedral.
Having gathered around 6,000 men, the rebels took the port of Hartlepool on their way south in the hope of potential reinforcements coming from Spain. None were forthcoming. Abandoning plans to besiege York in the face of large royalist forces, the rebels turned their attention to Barnard Castle, where Sir George Bowes had gathered around 800 men to defend the castle. The rebels feared leaving such a strong position to their rear if they marched farther south.
The Earl of Sussex was confident Barnard Castle would hold: the rebels lacked significant siege equipment, and with three wards and a strong complement of men, the castle should have been able to hold out until loyalist reinforcements arrived. It did not! Within days the outer ward was breached, and Bowes’ men began to desert. Rebels shouted to their neighbours within the castle to abandon it, and the following night some eighty men fled to the rebels. A further 150 did so the next night. Bowes could take some consolation from the injuries sustained by the deserters: some 35 suffered broken necks, legs or arms jumping over the walls!
On their way out, however, several of the garrison betrayed the castle’s water supply, whilst another group opened a gate and a skirmish began. Shortly afterwards, Bowes was offered an honourable retreat by the rebels and he left the castle, later complaining that he would have held it if his men had remained true. The rebellion itself collapsed soon after this success, and in the aftermath Sir George Bowes presided over the executions of around 600 of the rebels. Although the Percy family were later restored to the earldom of Northumberland, the Nevilles permanently forfeited all of their lands in Durham, including Raby and Brancepeth castles.

Migration in Gainford

The 1901 census reveals the place of birth of Gainford residents. Although some three-fifths were born in the village or elsewhere in Durham, the number born in Yorkshire reveal that the Tees was not a hard border. The census also shows the international nature of the village, especially amongst certain households.

Gainford Census Migration

VCH Teesside