Lizzie Anderson looks at a new exhibition celebrating the history of a unique County Durham town

“DO what you like but don’t do what we have done before.”

Such was the briefing given to the visionary artist Victor Pasmore when, in 1955, he took over the design of the emerging new town of Peterlee.

Pasmore’s innovative approach to designing the south west of Peterlee, including the creation of his iconic art installation, the Apollo Pavilion, is the subject of a new exhibition at Durham County Record Office.

The exhibition runs until March next year. Its opening coincides with the 50th anniversary of the pavilion’s completion, along with the Apollo 11 moon landing that inspired its name.

Using photographs, plans, newspaper cuttings and letters from the county’s archive, the exhibition tells the story of Peterlee, starting with the housing conditions that led to the publication of Farewell Squalor. This was a historic planning document responding to the passing of the New Towns Bill in 1946, which sets out why the area was a prime location for a housing development.

Exhibition curator Nicola Lyons, search room supervisor at Durham County Record Office, said: “Up until the 1830s and 1840s the east of County Durham was predominantly an agricultural area. However, the discovery of coal deposits in Hetton in 1822 led to a spate of new collieries, which rapidly transformed the area. By the 1930s, County Durham had the highest percentage of over-crowded families in the country. Many families lived in makeshift huts and there were even people living in caves in Castle Eden Dene.”

Named after the well-known miner and Labour councillor Peter Lee, the new town aimed to solve these problems. Architect Berthold Lubetkin was tasked with creating the “miners’ capital of the world” where the comradeship of the colliery could flourish in pleasant surroundings. His bold plans can be found within the exhibition, including a vision for a recreation area and sports complex featuring everything from football pitches and tennis courts, to a rock-climbing centre and zoo.

To the architect’s frustration, the National Coal Board (NCB) opposed his plan and, after numerous failed attempts to agree on the siting of housing, Lubetkin quit the project in 1950. He later gave up architecture altogether and took up pig farming.

Eventually, the NCB conceded the coal seams under the eastern half of the town could be sterilised and work on the initial houses began in 1952. The aim was to build 500 homes per year, resulting in a population of more than 21,000 by 1962.

Photographs from the town’s early days show the first residents living amidst the construction, with muddy surroundings and no shops or bus services for many years. A rent card belonging to Bailey Rise resident Jane Smith, who moved to Peterlee in 1952, revealed she paid 33 shillings and three pence per week for the privilege. This equates to £51.88 today.

After Lubetkin resigned, George Grenfell-Baines, who had been working on the designs for Newton Aycliffe, was appointed. He was under pressure to get the first houses up and this resulted in the construction of rows of “dreary” semi-detached homes that were typical of council houses of the day.

AV Williams, the general manager of Peterlee Development Corporation, was determined to retrieve the situation, describing Lubetkin’s departure as the “descent from the spectacular to the nondescript”.

Pasmore, already famous as a leading abstract painter and Newcastle University art lecturer, was just who he was looking for. He certainly met his brief when it came to delivering something new. Pasmore’s housing had a distinct cubist feel and a strong colour scheme of black, white and grey. His unusual geometry and flat roofs challenged the landscape, while his use of brick, timber and concrete was a world away from the initial red brick homes.

Nicola said: “We have tried to include photographs within the exhibition that show just how revolutionary Pasmore’s designs actually were. I think this is particularly apparent when you compare the image we have of the children in front of the kerbside coal deliveries in the north east of the town, to the photographs of residents in front of Pasmore’s homes in the south west. They look decades apart rather than years.”

Pasmore’s arrival did not spell the end of problems for the Peterlee Development Corporation. An article from The Northern Echo in January 1964 outlines the downfall of Milton Hindle, the builder tasked with bringing the architect’s vision to life.

In October 1960, having only completed 350 houses out of nearly 800, the firm went into liquidation. Hindle himself was sentenced to five years in prison for fraud.

“The fact the builders had been cutting corners when constructing the homes became all too apparent,” explained Nicola. “The houses were costly to maintain and had to be repaired or replaced. In 1961, the defects in houses in the south west and Dene House areas of the town were dramatically revealed when stormy weather caused flooding in 150 homes. It was discovered that no water-resistant material had been installed between the panels and windows, and when they looked behind the panels, they found paper had been used instead of felt.

“Sadly, many of the required alterations – including the addition of pitched roofs – ruined Pasmore’s original aesthetic.”

One element of the development Pasmore remained proud of and championed throughout his lifetime was the Apollo Pavilion. The structure divided opinion from the outset. For some it is a fine example of brutalist architecture; for others it is an eyesore plagued by graffiti and anti-social behaviour.

Now a Grade II listed building, the pavilion was fully restored in 2009, but the exhibition delves back much further than this. Visitors can view Pasmore’s initial sketches of a concept he had been longing to realise for over a decade, as well as designs for a second pavilion that was never built.

Newspaper cuttings, meanwhile, reveal the strong feelings the concrete structure provoked. Among them is a report from the Independent newspaper in which a councillor calls on the Army to blow the pavilion up. There are also letters from the artist defending his creation and expressing his fondness of the graffiti it later acquired.

The pavilion has been hitting the headlines again this year, as residents and admirers have come together to mark its 50th anniversary. Last month, a day of celebrations took place near the pavilion in the town’s Sunny Blunts estate. And earlier this year, a Lumiere style light installation by artist Mader Wiermann captivated the crowds who gathered to see it.

Nicola said: “This exhibition is our tribute to the pavilion. It has been such a fascinating project to work on and I would encourage anyone with an interest in Peterlee, new towns and social history to come along and find out more.”

The free exhibition is located at Durham County Record Office in County Hall, Durham City. It is open from 9am to 4pm, Monday to Friday, until March 2020, excluding bank holidays and the Christmas and New Year closure.

To find out more about Durham County Record Office, visit

BORN in Trimdon Grange in 1864, Peter Lee was a miners’ leader, Methodist preacher, local councillor and trade unionist.

His strong work ethic, ambition and steadfast commitment to east Durham made him the perfect namesake for the new town.

Peter began working in the pits at the age of ten and by 21 he was veteran of 15 pits. With a naturally inquiring mind and a love of stories instilled by his mother, at the age of 20 he returned to the classroom and learnt to read.

Two years later he moved to America, where he worked in mines in Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky.

After returning to England, he began to work at Wingate pit where he was elected as delegate to the Miners’ Conference. In 1900, at the age of 33, Peter stood for the parish council in Wheatley Hill and went on to be elected chairman.

By 1909, he was a member of Durham County Council and 100 years ago, in 1919, he was elected as chairman of England’s first Labour county council. Despite all these commitments, he still found time to be President of the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain.

Peter died in 1935, more than a decade before Peterlee was built, but his name lives on not only in the town but in the Peter Lee Methodist Church.

A souvenir brochure produced by the church in the 1950s stated: “Peter Lee was a living witness to the power of religion in the life of a man and gave ample testimony to it. He gave all, asking nothing in return, little dreaming that a great new town would bear his name.”