A MAJOR exhibition celebrating the life of a County Durham astronomer and surveyor is being planned.

Cockfield-born Jeremiah Dixon worked with Charles Mason to establish the border between Maryland and Pennsylvania – the Mason-Dixon line – which was seen as the dividing point between America’s free and slave states.

Mason and Dixon began their work 250 years ago and, to coincide with the anniversary, an exhibition is being organised at The Bowes Museum, in Barnard Castle, to run between April and October.

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Hamsterley-based amateur historian Jonathan Peacock has spent the past 18 months researching Dixon’s life and work for the exhibition – work which has turned up a treasure trove of fascinating artefacts, documents and maps.

The National Maritime Museum is lending a model of the ship on which Mason and Dixon sailed to the Cape of Good Hope in 1761 to observe the transit of Venus in the hope data collected could be used to calculate the earth’s distance from the sun.

Mr Peacock said: “It will be quite an exhibition – I have found some amazing things. I identified a journal compiled by Mason in 1761.

“I found it in Philadelphia and they are lending us the original journal.”

The exhibition will also feature a slave whip which Dixon kept as a trophy.

“Dixon saw the owner thrashing a slave with the whip. Dixon, being a good Quaker, took it from him and thrashed the owner with it, keeping the whip,” said Mr Peacock.

Artefacts from the native Americans who worked alongside Dixon will also be on show.

Closer to home, maps from Raby Castle will be on public view for the first time.

“All his maps are beautifully decorated works of art,”

said Mr Peacock, a member of the Friends of the Bowes Museum committee.

The exhibition has been made possible thanks to financial support from local organisations.

Durham University’s International Boundary Research Unit has donated £5,000, while a further £10,000 is under consideration by Teesdale Action Partnership’s (Tap) board.

Dixon was born in Cockfield in August 1733, the son of a local coal owner. He was schooled in Barnard Castle, although he always said that he learnt many of his scientific skills from messing about in his father’s pit cabin with his brother, George.

They lived in Garden House, which still stands in Cockfield, and they made it one of the first properties in the North-East to be lit by coal gas.

He was helped in his early years by the Bishop Auckland astronomer John Bird, whose instruments he used for measuring Venus’ path across the sun.

After completing his work in America in 1769, he returned to Cockfield. His biggest project in his later years was laying out the parkland of Auckland Castle for the Bishop of Durham. He also surveyed Lanchester Common.

He died, unmarried, on January 22, 1779, aged 46, and was buried in the Quaker cemetery in Staindrop.