Murders and spirits from village’s past.

PITTINGTON, or Low Pittington as the old village is now occasionally known, was originally called something along the lines of Pytta’s dun, the word “dun” in the earlier spelling Pittindun meant hill and was a reference to the prominent magnesian limestone hill overlooking the village.

William Fordyce, the Durham historian, described the hill at Pittington during a mid-19th century visit, noting that there were bare rocks at the summit while the steep sides of the hill were covered with kitchen and flower gardens cultivated by local miners.

The gardens overlooked the plain in which stands St Laurence’s, the parish church of Pittington, a church we visited last week that has striking architectural similarities to Durham Cathedral.

The church is situated in Hallgarth, a shrunken medieval village on the outskirts of High Pittington.

Last week, we recalled the murder of a Victorian servant girl at the nearby Hallgarth Mill. As we noted, this particular incident was recorded in a ballad at the time, but it wasn’t the only murder associated with Pittington.

Regular readers may also recall that in a Past Times of 2007 we related the story of a Pittington policeman shot dead at Sherburn in 1868 by a fellow officer, who subsequently killed himself.

The grave of the unfortunate victim, a Constable Cruikshank, can still be seen in Hallgarth church, though that of the murderer who was also buried in this cemetery is nowhere to be seen.

However, there was another unfortunate murder at Pittington where the victim was not granted such a sacred burial ground.

This particular victim was buried somewhere along the westerly back road that links Low Pittington with High Pittington.

The circumstances surrounding this event may owe more to legend than fact and the back road in question is Lady’s Piece Lane. The story – of which there is admittedly very little detail – was perhaps created to explain the road’s unusual name, but whether the inference is that the lady lies at peace or in pieces is open to question.

Many years ago, or so it is said, the daughter of a family residing at Hallgarth Manor House used to regularly meet her lover in the lane, but one unfortunate day she failed to return home.

Apparently murdered, her body was discovered and for some inexplicable reason, she was buried under a stone alongside the road.

The lane is still apparently haunted by her ghostly presence and, in times gone by the local villagers took care to avoid the lane at night.

The identity of the girl remains a mystery, but we know a little about some of the old occupants of Hallgarth.

As far back as the Norman era, Pittington belonged to the church of Durham but passed to Durham Cathedral after the dissolution of the monasteries in the 16th century.

At this time, lands in Pittington, notably at Hallgarth, were granted on lease to Christopher Morland and, by 1617, they had passed to his grandson, Sir Henry Anderson.

In 1626, they were leased to Ralph Simpson, a gent who kept a horse for the service of King Charles I.

Around 1675, Simpson’s land passed to the Shipperdsons of Murton through a marriage of Ralph’s daughter and only heir.

The Shipperdsons inhabited the manor house at Hallgarth into the 19th century, but I am unable to determine whether the murder victim was one of their family members.

It was during the 19th century that the Pittington district experienced extensive colliery development and population figures for the area give some idea of the mining impact hereabouts.

In 1801, the area’s population was only 220, rising to 304 people by 1821.

However, the figures for 1831 and 1851 were much higher – at 1,632 and 2,530.

Old Pittington village, now called Low Pittington, still has a rural feel to it and cannot really be described as a typical colliery village.

It saw some population growth during the mining era, but the main growth in the area was focused on the purpose-built early 19th century mining village of New Pittington, or High Pittington as it is called today.

Several newly-opened collieries surrounded the two villages by the third decade of the 19th century and the first was called Pittington Colliery.

This was begun in about 1820 under the ownership of the Marquis of Londonderry and his family. Four pits made up this colliery, all interconnected by an extensive network of wagonways and railways.

A glance at the 1850s Ordnance survey map of the Pittington area shows an abundance of collieries, engines, boilers and colliery railways.

Fordyce, writing about this time, described the volcanic appearance of the Pittington mines as they glowed in the night.

He also mentioned the long range of cottages for miners “commonly called Pit Rows” that formed what he described as a striking feature of the Pittington district.

He noted that their doors were generally kept open, allowing one to observe “handsome furniture contained within the majority of the houses”.

He also noted that the Marquis of Londonderry was the principal coal owner in the district and that his coal was known in the market as Stewart Wallsend, a reference to the Marquis’ family name of Stewart and the coal’s favourable similarity to a highly-valued grade of Tyneside coal.

Fordyce was clearly impressed by the colliery developments of the area and also mentioned a railway eight miles in length, extending from Pittington Colliery to the Wear at Penshaw, and other railways supplying Pittington coal to docks at Sunderland and Seaham Harbour.

In next week’s Past Times, we will recall the collieries of Pittington and the development of the mining village.