Keys to the Past


Thematic Overview - Industrial

The North-east of England has a long industrial history. It is perhaps most famous for its coalfields and railways, but there is much more to the industrial past of this region. Of course, the borders of County Durham and Northumberland ran to the banks of the River Tyne until the later 20th century and many examples of our industrial past lie in what is now Tyne and Wear. This is especially true of developments in coal mining, railways, and shipbuilding. For our purposes, we have used examples from modern day Northumberland and Durham, which is our project area.

Industry is a term that describes many economic activities. Although we might first think of modern processes, such as open cast coal mining, power stations, chemical or high-tech electronics manufacturing, industry was also present in the past. One of the earliest industries that archaeologists have recognised is the making of prehistoric axes, at places such as Langdale in Cumbria. Other activities that might be called industrial include prehistoric metalworking, medieval pottery manufacture, and post-medieval lead mining as well as weaving, farming and fishing.

The geology of the region is an important factor in understanding how and why certain industries sprang up where they did. From sandstone and coal to lead and iron, many different materials of industrial importance are present beneath our feet together with ample supplies of water and navigable rivers.

Mesolithic and Neolithic

One of the earliest industries is probably the manufacture of flint and stone tools. In the Mesolithic period people made microliths to hunt wild animals and birds, as well as axes and hammers to fell trees and build shelters. Although these items were not traded, there is evidence from other parts of the country that the raw materials, such as flint, were exchanged.

As people began to settle and clear land for growing crops in the Neolithic period, a new type of axe was made specifically for cutting wood. One of the most important sources of these axes was Langdale in Cumbria and some have been found in Northumberland, for example at Chevington and Gunnerton Fell. It is possible that not all these axes had a practical use; many were deposited in mint condition, possibly as part of some ancient ritual.

Bronze Age and Iron Age

Metalworking first developed in the Bronze Age alongside farming and other crafts and industries such as pottery, leatherworking, weaving and carpentry. The use of bronze has given this period its name, as the use of iron has lent its name to the Iron Age. These new materials meant that metalworkers could make new weapons and tools as well as vessels such as cauldrons and buckets. They also made small items such as pins and brooches. The raw materials for making bronze came from Cornwall, Wales, Ireland and northern Britain, but old and broken tools were also melted down and reused. We know something of the trade in bronze tools and weapons from hoards buried for safekeeping some 3000 years ago at Wallington and Gilmonby by metalworkers and merchants. Iron ore was more readily available from the Coal Measures of the region.


In the Roman period people continued to exploit the natural resources of the north-east of England. There is evidence of coal mining near Grindon in the Tyne Valley, lead workings at Settlingstones and iron bloomeries at Birtley. Stone quarries were operated near Haltwhistle Burn for example, to build Hadrian's Wall, and others would have been opened to get stone for building forts such as Chesters, High Rochester, Ebchester and Binchester. There is less evidence for other large scale manufacturing- though recently the remains of pottery kilns have been discovered.

Early Medieval

Stone quarries were also necessary for stone to build early medieval churches, such as {Escomb D1775} and Bywell, St Andrew's. Likewise, an Anglo-Saxon watermill at Corbridge must have been equipped with millstones but it is not known where they came from. There is also evidence of lead smelting at this time on Bollihope Common in Durham. At Green Shiel, on Holy Island, there are also hints of other 'industries' such as rearing and slaughtering of calves for their skins which were made into vellum, the raw material for illuminated manuscripts. The production of these manuscripts may also be described as an industry practised at Lindisfarne.


By the medieval period an even wider range of crafts and industries were being practised. Excavations in Durham show that its people practiced many different occupations, ranging from shoemaking and wood turner to potter and butcher. The demand for building stone at this time must have been very great, with such structures as Durham Cathedral and numerous castles and towers being built across the region.

All this building would have needed lime for burning into quicklime, the active ingredient of mortar. A small lime kiln on Beadnell Point may have been used to build the nearby St Ebba's Chapel. Lime was also used in the tanning of leather and kilns are known to have stood in Kiln Garth and Skinnergate in Darlington.

Quarries, such as Corbridge Fell, also supplied millstones. There are many documentary references to mills at this time. In Durham alone there were six corn mills at one time or another. Later mills, such as South Street mill, still stand on the site of a medieval mill. The remains of a mill at Brinkburn Priory were partly excavated in the 1990s.

The lead industry of the North Pennines in Durham and Northumberland is known from medieval documents and was an important source of silver. The rare remains of early silver extraction have been found at Blanchland Abbey. After lead ore was extracted, it was smelted in a bail hill, or primitive hilltop open fire, as found at Canada in Durham. Lead would also have been used in windows, roofing and pottery glazes.

Coal has probably been gathered from the coast of north-east England for centuries, but it was not until the medieval period that people began to mine seriously for it. At first, coal was probably used for activities like lime burning and iron working rather than as a domestic fuel, though it may have been used in this way on Holy Island from as early as the 13th century. References to coalmining exist from the mid-13th century when coal was probably exported from Plessey in Northumberland to London. Extensive records by the Bishops of Durham mean that there is a great deal of written evidence about coal mining in Durham from the 13th and 14th centuries onwards. The Vavasours coalmine on Cockfield Fell is mentioned in 1375 and may be the first inland colliery on record; there are also accounts of coal pits before 1350 at Hett and Ferryhill, and a coal mine at Cornforth in the 15th century.

Virtually all these industries could not have existed without iron. This was the material that they all depended on for their tools. Northumberland and Durham were two of the most important sources of iron in the Middle Ages. In the 13th century there was an ironworks in Weardale, making shovels, picks, horseshoes, nails, anchors and armaments that were traded across the country. The iron ore was processed at a bloomery, such as have been found at Clovencrag Sike and Birtley in Northumberland and High Bishopley and Harthope Mill (or Kyrkeknott) in Durham, where detailed accounts are known from 1408-9. Hand-pumped bellows were the original source of power at a bloomery, later replaced by water-powered ones and later still by blast furnaces in the early 16th century. Each advance meant that more iron could be processed; yet in the north of England the change over to blast furnaces was slow. By the end of the Middle Ages iron working had been developed to the limits of available technology. But the use of a blast furnace would see the industry move into a new era by increasing production and the range of products.

The evidence for pottery making in Durham and Northumberland is quite sparse and only a few medieval kilns have ever been found here. At Aldin Grange in Durham, a 14th century kiln was discovered when a water pipeline cut through its remains and, similarly, a gas pipeline near Eshott in Northumberland found evidence of a 12th to 14th century kiln. More kilns are known in Newcastle and in the Scottish borders but others may yet remain to be discovered.


By the 16th and 17th centuries the border counties of England and Scotland were becoming a more peaceful place to live and work. The 18th century brought improvements in farming and great changes to the landscapes of Durham and Northumberland. Much land was enclosed by hedges and stone walls and lime was used to make the soil more fertile.

To make lime limestone had to be heated in a kiln and there are hundreds known across the region. Most kilns produced lime for use on a farm or estate, such as Intakehead and Great Tosson in Northumberland and {Middle Whitestones Farm D3947} in Durham. Some kilns made lime commercially, such as Littlemill and West Crindledikes in Northumberland and Bantling Castle in Durham. In the North Pennines, lime burning was practiced alongside their other occupations by miners and farmers. Here, land was made cultivable for the first time and must have changed visually more than it had ever done before.

The North Pennines was also the centre of the region's lead industry. It was of major importance from the 17th to 19th centuries, when it was used for roofing, lead piping, shot, and in the chemical industry to make white lead and red lead. Between the mid-18th and late 19th centuries Britain was the world's largest lead producer. Mining in the North Pennines was dominated by the London Lead Company and the Blackett/Beaumont Company. The London Lead Company had its headquarters at Middleton-in-Teesdale and here many of its buildings survive, such as the {company office and workshop D5303} and housing at Masterman Place. The Beaumont family owned Allenheadstown and Dirt Pot in Northumberland, which has been described as the most important mine in England. Because the industry collapsed in the 19th century most of the remains date from this time. Some of the complex mining landscapes that survive today include Derwent Lead Mines where there was an innovative use of water power, Coldberry which has the largest hush, Mohope which has the best preserved set of bouse teams and Carrshield which has the largest lodging house in the North Pennines.

Improvements to mining techniques and methods of processing and smelting took place throughout this period. Horizontal flue systems were built to reduce the waste of lead and reduce pollution, some of these stretch for several miles, such as at Allen Smelt Mill and Langley and Blaghill smelt mill. The Allen Smelt Mill still has a building where the Pattinson Process was carried out to extract silver from lead and it is the only known survival in England. By the late 19th century much of the lead orefields were nearly worked out leading to the closure of many mines.

Iron and Steel
The raw material of the iron and steel industry, iron ore, was quarried from a number of places in Durham and Northumberland, for example Grove Heads and Chesterhope Common. In the post-medieval period, the ore was processed in a new piece of technology called a blast furnace. The earliest blast furnaces in Northumberland were at Wheelbirks and Allensford in the 16th and 17th centuries. It is possible they supplied iron to the sword factory at Shotley Bridge, established there in the late 17th century. A different type of furnace was built where the fuel was coke. With wide hearths and taller stacks they first appear in the 18th century. In the 19th century there are diagrams in the Northumberland County Record Office of some furnaces showing how they were built and at Brinkburn a circular platform shown on a contemporary drawing can still be seen on the ground.

Changing technology at the end of the 18th century meant that coal and ironstone were important factors in the siting of ironworks and a number of short-lived ventures were started at Hareshaw and Ridsdale in Northumberland, for example. Both in remote locations, they couldn't compete with the expansion of iron working in Durham and Teesside, such as at Consett.

Steel production didn't start in the north-east of England until the 17th century. One of the earliest places to produce steel was Derwentcote, formerly in County Durham, but now in Tyne and Wear and presently in the care of English Heritage.

Another major extractive industry of the region was coal. At first it was taken from outcrops on or near the banks of some of the regions rivers and from cliff and surface outcrops. These were the easiest sources of coal to reach and it could then be transported by boat along the rivers. However, these outcrops were quickly worked out and new workings were opened further from rivers and mined to greater depths. Such changes demanded a better form of transport to carry coal to the rivers and better drainage and winding machinery in the mines. Some of the first waggonways were built in Northumberland in the early 1600s at Bebside, Cowpen and Bedlington. As the coalfields expanded in the 17th and 18th centuries so did the network of waggonways, some carrying coal for about eight miles. This meant coalmines that were some distance from navigable rivers could still operate economically. In the early 18th century, the invention of the Newcomen pumping engine and its use in North-east coalmines helped to stop mines being flooded out. The engines were housed in a building called an engine house and, although the engines have gone, some of the buildings remain. At Ford Colliery and Scremerston Colliery in Northumberland there are houses for later, 19th century pumping engines, and in Durham there is Bobgins Engine House.

One of the best identified 19th century survivals is Stublick Colliery in Northumberland, where there is a fine set of standing buildings. The development of a colliery into the 20th century can be seen at Woodhorn Colliery in Northumberland; this was a time when British coal was of international importance. As for individual features, until its demolition in 1994, the Koepe winder at Murton Colliery in Durham was a unique survival. The demise of deep coal mining in the later 20th century, has resulted in the closure of nearly all the region's pits.

Inextricably linked with the coal industry are the railways of the region. What is probably the oldest railway bridge in the world, Causey Arch, stands at Tanfield, and was built in 1727. In the early 18th century, the ironworks at Bedlington produced the first malleable iron rails for the railways and went on to build railway engines that found their way around the globe. Darlington was also a major locomotive engineering town due in no small part to the presence of the first public steam railway built between Stockton and Darlington in 1825 by George Stephenson. Some of its remains are still standing, for example at Shildon. More can be found in the post-medieval theme.

Water and Sewage
Clean water was not provided to the communities of the north-east until the 19th century. Following a series of parliamentary reports into living conditions in the region's towns, a number of reservoirs were built, such as Blackton Reservoir in Durham and Catcleugh Reservoir in Northumberland, where a restored workmen's hut can still be visited. The water was distributed by pipelines and the Whittle Dean Reservoirs and Pipeline in Northumberland, of 1846-48, are an important example. Hawksley's Tees Cottage station of 1850 in Durham is an outstanding pumping station of high architectural quality and with important steam and gas plant. It had major additions in the later 19th century and is still a good example for the modern era. Most recently, Northumberland became home to Kielder Reservoir, the largest manmade lake in Europe when it was completed in 1981.

Other industries
There are many, many more industries that are too numerous to mention in detail here. They include the early generation of electricity at Cragside; the manufacture of mustard and organs in Durham; carpets at Barnard Castle; tanning, glove- and rope making in Hexham; glass making at Seaton Sluice; malting and brewing at Tweedmouth and Castle Eden; woollen mills operated at Otterburn and Ebchester; woollen and linen industries in Darlington; and a slate pencil mill at Cronkley Scar.

Mines and quarries worked to extract many different minerals and stone, such as fluorspar at Grove Rake near Stanhope; zinc at Upper and Lower Willyhole and Langley Barony; witherite at Fallowfield; and barytes at Snaisgill and {Dubbysyke D4388}. Quarries were worked for millstones at Glantlees Farm and Stanhope, roadstone at Stanhope Stanhope limestone quarry and Biddlestone, and a freestone quarry at Glantlees. Clay was extracted for making bricks and tiles, with kilns still standing at Ewart Park in Northumberland and Coundon in Durham.

Industry Today

Although the early 20th century was a highpoint for the coal mining and heavy industries of the north-east of England, there has been a massive decline since. Some industries were starting to fail even earlier - the lead mines of the North Pennines virtually all closed by the end of the 19th century. The first sign of real trouble was the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many workers were laid off, and people often had to move to seek new employment. Although World War II meant a temporary reprieve for these industries, the post-war years saw a massive decline. There is now only one working deep coal mine in the whole north-east, Ellington Colliery. The collapse of the coal mining industry affected other parts of the economy. Many of the industries that used local coal were also hit, and the coal-exporting ports of Blyth and Amble suffered.

Following the collapse of the coal industry there was a massive programme of land reclamation, clearing the old colliery buildings and removing the huge spoil heaps (the spoil heap at Ashington was the biggest Europe). In many areas, such as south-east Northumberland and eastern County Durham, the landscape was completely altered, and all signs of the coal mining past disappeared.

However, there has also been the rise of new industries. In south-east Northumberland there is now the greatest concentration of pharmaceutical industries in the North of England. More importantly, tourism is becoming a key industry. Museums such as Woodhorn Colliery and Beamish now show thousands of visitors the industrial heritage of the region, and many of the old colliery landscapes, such as at East Chevington and Druridge Bay Country Park are now popular sites used for recreation and nature conservation.

There have also been major changes in the upland and rural areas. The introduction of tractors and other machinery meant that there were far fewer jobs on the land. However, in some areas, such as Kielder, huge new forests have been planted. Kielder Forest is now the largest area of planted forest in Europe.