THE headline in The Northern Echo was snappy. “Terrible thunderstorm,” it said. “A Durham colliery owner killed.”
The first sentence of the story, though, was extremely convoluted. It said: “A deeply tragic character was given to the thunderstorm which, with a violence which has been without parallel in the locality for some time, burst over the Bishop Auckland district about noon last Saturday, when Mr HS Stobart, JP, of Witton Towers, Witton-le-Wear, a pleasantly situate village lying some three miles to the north-west of Bishop Auckland, fell a victim to the fury of the storm.”
Put more snappily, Mr Stobart was killed by lightning. Quite horribly.
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He was one of the largest mineowners in the county who owned one of the oldest stately homes, but the strike was so violent that it punctured his metal-framed felt hat, flashed through his body fusing together the links of his watchchain before it burst out of the toe of his boot.
His fishing companion “immediately ran to the unfortunate gentleman’s assistance but to his inexpressible horror found him quite dead”.
This is one of many stories which burst out of a new book which has been distributed to every house in that pleasantly-situated village as part of a Heritage Lottery-funded project. Local historian Anne Yuill has been researching the fate of the village’s First World War soldiers, and her project has concluded with her compiling A Witton Wander, which acts as a heritage trail through the village. About 400 copies have been distributed free, and there are still a few left for people interested in the village.
Witton Towers is one of the first properties as you turn off the A68 into the village, which is on a steep bank overlooking the Wear.
The Towers was originally called Witton Hall which was the home of the Eure family until the early 13th Century when they moved into the newly-built Witton Castle. During the 15th Century, it became a peel tower – a fortified building with a warning beacon on its uppermost roof – and by the mid 18th Century had fallen into the ownership of adventurer Charles Joseph Douglas.
He’d been born in the West Indies, but was a bad ’un. He booted his wife out of the hall, leaving her destitute, and she died of a broken heart. Her ghost is said to haunt Douglas Lane to the north of the village, although also on Douglas Lane is Hangman’s Cottage and nearby is Gibbet Hill – this prominent location is where executed bodies would have hanged in an iron cage to remind the living of the grim penalties for wrongdoing, so all manner of ghosts could be gathering on Douglas Lane.
By the end of the 18th Century, Witton Hall had been purchased by Newby Lowson who, in 1788, sold all the lands in north Darlington that his family had owned for centuries (Lowson Street in Harrowgate Hill commemorates their ownership). Newby became an art collector and, in 1802, toured Europe with his friend, JMW Turner, who, in 1817, stayed at Witton Hall and sketched and painted the area. Sir Walter Scott, another of Newby’s friends, also stayed at Witton Hall.
From 1818 to 1850, George and Eleanor Taylor lived in the hall. One of their sons was Henry, who’d been born at Bishop Middleham in 1800. He became a civil servant in charge of the Caribbean colonies, for which he was knighted. He was also friends with Wordsworth, Tennyson and Southey, and was a well regarded poet and dramatist in his day, as well as sporting a remarkably bushy beard – he never shaved again after a severe asthma attack.
In 1855, Witton Hall was bought by Henry Smith Stobart, the son of Colonel Henry Stobart of Etherley. The Stobarts had extensive collieries at Etherley, Newton Cap and Escomb.
It was Henry who changed the property’s name to Witton Towers, and it was Henry who was fishing on the Wear at McNeil Bottoms, near the Wear Valley Railway, on June 26, 1880, when the skies darkened so deeply that it seemed as if the world were about to end.
For poor Henry, it was.
A fork of lightning flashed into the fir trees, and when his fishing companion recovered from the “unusually heavy reverberation of the thunder”, he found Henry dead, with “clean puncture” holes in his hat and his boot showing the path of the bolt.
“Singular to say, little or no rain fell, while at Howden-le-Wear, the rain, accompanied by large hailstones, was extremely heavy,” said the Echo. At least this enabled his body to be taken back to the Towers in the dry.
“The terrible visitation has caused a profound sensation along the whole countryside, and large numbers of people have visited the fatal spot,” said the Echo. “The deceased was a gentleman of high personal character, an unimpeachable man of business and a genial neighbour, and by the inhabitants at large, he was looked up to with the greatest respect.”
According to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator, his estate of £12,000 would be worth £1.3m today.
The next resident of the Towers was William Randolph Innes Hopkins, who should really have been in disgrace. The former mayor of Middlesbrough had employed more than 1,000 men at his Teesside ironworks and he lived in the most gargantuan of mansions – Grey Towers at Nunthorpe. His ironworks, Hopkins, Gilkes and Co had provided the iron and then built the Tay Bridge at Dundee which opened to great acclaim on June 1, 1878, but which collapsed, drowning 75 train passengers, on December 28, 1878.
The cause of the collapse was really Hopkins, Gilkes and Co’s shoddy workmanship. The company was soon declared bankrupt and William was forced out of his mansion.
But his father’s company, the North Bitchburn Coal Company, was immune from the disaster – and still very profitable. In 1891, William was living in Witton Towers. In 1893, he sank the Randolph Colliery at Evenwood which, in 1900, was visited by the Duchess of York and William was hailed as “one of the most important colliers in the district”.
No one mentioned the Tay Bridge.
After William, Henry Gervais Stobart took over Witton Towers. He was the son of the man struck by lightning. His wife, Bessie, was Canadian and brought with her the concept of a female rural community organisation which had been founded in her homeland in 1897. Therefore, in 1916, Witton-le-Wear formed the first branch of the Women’s Institute in the county, and the 13th in the country.
During the Second World War, Witton Towers was occupied by Land Girls, and then there was talk of it becoming a hotel. However, now it is divided into eight properties, with another five or so in its outbuildings, and there have been a couple of small housing developments in its grounds.
Someone who has never lived in Witton Towers is the former chairman of Darlington FC, George Reynolds. When Henry Stobart changed Witton Hall’s name to Witton Towers in the late 1850s, a substantial Victorian farmhouse a few hundred yards along the High Street took on the name Witton Hall. It was this property that, about 25 years ago, Mr Reynolds replaced with his extravagant Witton Hall.
A Witton Wander – a heritage trail through Witton-le-Wear by Anne Yuill costs £3 plus post and packing. Call 01388-488376 for further details.