Gruesome tale that inspired a local ballad.

THE name of Pittington, east of Durham City, conjures up images of pit heaps and coal mines, but in fact the name goes back to Anglo-Saxon times when a settlement was established here by someone called Pidda or Pytta.

Pittington lies near the western edge of the magnesium limestone escarpment formed by the creamycoloured stone that dominates the eastern coastal region as far as Hartlepool and South Shields.

The old farming village of Pittington, or Low Pittington as it is now generally known, sits beneath Pittington Hill, which provides excellent views of the surrounding countryside.

The village was known in earlier times as Piddington Towne, suggesting it was an important medieval settlement.

It has a rural feel that is often missing from larger Durham colliery towns and villages but, there was once much coal mining in the Pittington area, particularly in the 19th century.

Just to the north of Pittington stood the Lord Seaham Pit and the Belmont Colliery and to the east there was extensive coal mining activity out towards Hetton.

To the south there was a Lambton colliery, at Littletown, while Pittington Colliery itself lay to the south of the village.

This 19th century colliery development gave rise to the larger mining village of New Pittington, now called High Pittington.

On the edge of High Pittington is Hallgarth or Pittington Hallgarth, which was known in earlier times as Kirkpiddington.

It is a shrunken medieval village which includes earthworks of a manor house that belonged to the Priors of Durham Cathedral. This was built about 1258 and was in use until the 16th century.

It should not be confused with the buildings of the old Hallgarth Farmhouse, now a hotel called Hallgarth Manor.

The most important historic building at Hallgarth is however the church of St Laurence, which is also simply known as Pittington Church.

It has medieval origins, and was described by the architectural historian Nikolaus Pevsner as one of the most exciting pieces of architecture in the county of Durham.

It was almost certainly built by Christian, the master architect of the powerful 12th century Bishop of Durham called Hugh Du Puiset, or Bishop Pudsey for short. Pudsey’s architects were also responsible for the Galilee Chapel of Durham Cathedral, where the tomb of the Venerable Bede now lies.

The Galilee is often noted for the Moorish influence in its architecture that seems to have taken its inspiration from Islamic designs in North Africa. The similarities of St Laurence to the cathedral’s Galilee chapel are quite striking.

In the 19th century, the village of Hallgarth gained a great deal of notoriety when it was the scene of a murder that captured the imagination of the County Durham people and even inspired the composition of a ballad.

The murder took place at Hallgarth water mill, which stood on a stream about half a mile to the south west of Hallgarth. It was on the road to Sherburn not all that far from the eastern terminus of Renny’s Lane.

It was at 6pm on Sunday, August 14, 1831, while the mill owners were away that Thomas Clarke, a servant boy at the mill, alarmed the residents of the village of Sherburn with the news that six Irishmen had broken into the house at Hallgarth.

Clarke, who was in a most distressed state, claimed that the Irishmen had ransacked the house for its money, and then assaulted him with a poker before brutally murdering the servant girl.

Returning to the mill with the people he had informed, the girl’s body was found in the kitchen with several brutal wounds including a cut to her throat from ear to ear.

Upon futher investigation, it was found that money had been stolen from the household and that a whitewashed tool had been used to break into the drawers containing the money.

It was then discovered that Clarke’s room had recently been whitewashed and in that room was found a blunt piece of metal which would have fitted the identity of the tool used in the robbery.

Further suspicions arose that Clarke was the murderer when it was realised that he bore no signs of an attack upon him.

Moreover, Clarke and the girl had been seen together earlier in the day and he had apparently been overheard to comment on some “saucy remark” which she had made.

Huge crowds turned out for Clarke’s trial at Durham on Valentine’s Day, February 14, 1831, and despite Clarke’s calm plea of innocence, he was found guilty.

On Monday, February 28, he was hanged on the order of the judge. His last words were: “Gentleman, I am innocent.

I am going to suffer for another man’s crime.”

The Hallgarth murder became the subject of an interesting local ballad about 60 years later in the Monthly Chronicle of North Country Lore and Legend.

It seems to place the murder a year earlier than it actually occured:

Eighteen hundred three times ten,

August the eighth that day

Let not that Sunday and that year

From memory pass away

At Hallgath Mill near Pittington

Was done a murder foul

The female weak – the murderer strong

No pity for her soul.

Her skull was broke, her throat was cut,

Her struggle was soon o’er;

And down she fell, and fetched a sigh,

And weltered in her gore.

Her fellow servant, Thomas Clarke,

To Sherburn slowly sped,

And told a tale that strangers six

Had done the dreadful deed.

Now, woe betide thee, Thomas Clarke !

For this thy coward lie;

A youth like thee for girl like her

Would fight till he did die.

“They’ve killed the lass,” it was his tale,

“and nearly have killed me”;

But when upon him folk did look,

No bruises could they see.