This following description of Etherley Parish was written in the short historical book by Brigadier-General Conyers Surtees in 1923. ‘Etherley Parish is an ecclesiastical parish some three miles west from Bishop Auckland, which includes the scattered village of Etherley and the agricultural Hamlet of Morley’. ‘Etherley Parish is a hamlet of scattered houses, having a colliery, school, three public houses and a few tradesmen……’
The book further describes the area as being ‘rich in coals, freestone and other minerals, with coalfields chiefly worked by drifts from Escomb and Witton Park and is sparsely populated……’. Further confirmation of this broad picture of our parish can also to be found in the ‘History of Durham’ by Mackenzie and Ross published in 1834 where it states: ‘Etherley Parish is a hamlet of scattered houses, having a colliery, school, three public houses and a few tradesmen……’ Early statistics taken from the 1851 census list the population as comprising of 482 males and 479 females inhabiting 214 dwellings. At that time, surprisingly, there were a total of 30 uninhabited dwellings within the Parish.
Etherley Parish today has around 2500 inhabitants with all dwellings having piped water, bathrooms and inside toilets. Not so very along ago, fifty years in fact, the picture was very different with a parish population of 1835 - over 40 dwellings without piped water, 365 dwellings using outside toilets and a staggering 405 dwellings with no bathroom.
Etherley in the 1800's
At the time of the 1851 census the majority of the working population was employed locally, primarily in coal mining and agricultural work. Before this time few traces of coal mining activity were evident and the scattered farms were characteristic of the predominant occupation in the area. Early in the 19th century there were three local pits in operation, owned by the Stobart family, these being the Mary Ann Pit, the Jane Pit and the George Pit. The Mary Ann is said to be the oldest of the three collieries. At that time transportation of coal was expensive and inefficient and in 1821 an act of parliament was authorised to begin construction of what was to become the World’s First Passenger Railway: The Darlington/Stockton Railway. In 1825 the Jane Pit was used as the terminus for the line which started at Witton Park Colliery, followed the inclines at Etherley and Brusstleton, continued via Shildon and Darlington and ended on the banks of the River Tees at Stockton.
Today English Heritage has categorised Etherley Incline as an ancient monument and as such is protected. The Incline is designated as a public footpath and from Low Etherley to Greenfields makes a pleasant area for walking. It is, however, fascinating to remember that Etherley was linked to a momentous and historical event in the development of rail travel in the country.
The Mining Years
With the birth of the railway came cheap and efficient transport and as a result coal mining in the area expanded rapidly. New collieries were sunk at Etherley and in the surrounding areas and as a consequence there was a marked change from agriculture to coal mining as the principal employment. This inevitably led to an influx of newcomers requiring homes – some new properties were built by private enterprise, but more often houses were built by the colliery companies in a style that typified the mining village of the time. However, despite Etherley and Toft Hill being in a mining area the style and characteristics of the properties being built certainly did not suggest this. A reason given for the distinct difference between Etherley and other colliery villages was that Henry Stobart, owner and head of the local mining company, made his home in the village of Etherley and the majority of the houses in the village were reserved for officials, clerical staff and others working at the residence of Mr. Stobart and were distinctively better in design and quality. Mr. Stobart eventually became known as the squire of the neighbourhood.
Coal mining continued to dominate the area for the next 100 years and mines were sunk and operated until the early part of the twentieth century. The George Pit, latterly known as Old Etherley Colliery, closed in 1917 and the closure of Jane Pit in April 1925 caused the loss of 255 jobs and was one of many economic disasters to befall the area.
Since the closure of local pits the only link with the coal industry has been a succession of surface mines. Southfield surface mine located at Brusstleton is the only operational mine within the Parish and nearing completion.
Around the mid nineteenth century several important developments took place within the Parish. Due to the development of the railways and the continued expansion of coal mining there was a steady increase in the population and as a consequence provision of additional housing and places of worship was made.
The growth of Methodism in the area resulted in the Toft Hill Wesleyan Methodist Chapel being built at Quarry Heads. This opened in 1829 costing £240 and seated 150 people. The building was eventually replaced by Methodist Chapel located on South Road which opened in 1861.
In 1832 St. Cuthbert’s Anglican church was built costing a meagre £700 and was later restored in 1867 and 1901. Evidence of the importance of the Stobart family, the principal landowners and colliery owners at the time, can be found in the church in the form of a stained glass window placed in memory of John Henry Stobart and the church clock presented in memory of William Culley Stobart.
A further place of worship – the Primitive Methodist Church – also existed at Toft Hill. This building was recently demolished and two dwellings now stand in its place. In 1864 The Etherley Literacy Institute was built costing £500 – this building consisted of a large lecture room, reading room, recreation rooms, library and bathroom. The library held 400 volumes of high class literature and for a small membership cost of one shilling per quarter, residents had access to these books – quite a privilege in those days.
Education in Etherley
A little earlier the National School was built in 1833 and 187 pupils attended from the villages of Toft Hill and Etherley. In 1915 the new Council School at Toft Hill opened with the capacity to accommodate 300 junior and secondary school children. The school was described in a local newspaper as being ‘the latest and most up to date elementary school in the County of Durham making Etherley, for the moment, the proudest village in the county’.
The opening of the school was a great occasion attended by three generations of villagers. The infant school, which was located at Low Etherley, closed in April 1965. After this date infant and junior children were educated at Toft Hill School and secondary aged children traveled to schools in Bishop Auckland. The Diocese took over Cuthbert’s Church hall for many years until it was recently sold and converted into a private dwelling house and private day nursery.
Educational establishments were well out numbered in those days by public houses in the villages of Toft Hill and Etherley – five in total – The Sportman’s Arms, The Three Tuns, The Dog and Gun, The Crossed Keys and the Black Bull as well as a Workmens Club situated at Toft Hill. Only three public houses remain, The Three Tuns and Sportsman at Toft Hill and the Blocksmith's Arms at Spring Gardens.
Toft Hill Community Centre
In October 1936 residents were proud to see the opening of the Community Centre at Toft Hill by Sir. Henry Pelham. In those days centres were known as service clubs providing opportunities for craft, woodwork, upholstery etc. With the onset of the Second World War the centre became a source of recreation and profit. Women’s groups met to provide activities which were helpful and practical and calculated to make a better home life. In 1939 the local newspaper was so impressed with the work of the Women’s Group that it ‘strongly advised husbands in Toft Hill and Etherley to urge their wives to join up’ Since those early days the centre and its land (Quarry Field) has continued to offer a central location for a variety of clubs, events and activities and remains an important part of the community.