AS all the seats on Durham County Council are up for election on Thursday, it is appropriate to look back at the council's most famous leader as he is the man who started off the Labour dominance that continues to this day - although will it continue after polling day?

He, of course, was Peter Lee, and he became leader when Durham became the first county council in the country to be won by Labour in March 1919.

“The coup was nearly as surprising to Labour as it was to the moderates,” said The Northern Echo in a five-day profile of Mr Lee published in 1934. Suddenly, said the Echo, Labour had to switch from being union agitators into council decision makers, yet most of the newly elected councillors had never sat on a committee, but now they had to fill a cabinet.

“At a hastily summoned meeting in the Miners’ Hall, Jack Lawson (the Labour MP for Chester-le-Street) moved that Peter Lee should become the first Labour chairman of the county council,” said the Echo.

“Mr Lee asked for time to consider it. He went home and talked it over with his wife, Alice. ‘Accept,’ she said. ‘You will do the work alright’.”

Mr Lee was 55, having been born in Duff Heap Row at Fivehouses, Trimdon Grange, in 1864. He'd started down the pit when he was ten but one night when he was 20, in the Colliers’ Arms in Wingate, he had a dramatic conversion. He gave up the beer and went to nightschool.

He continued his self-education in America and South Africa, and on his return in 1903 was elected to Wheatley Hill Parish Council.

With Alice’s prompting, he accepted the role as the first chairman. It represented a huge change, the coming of age of the working man.

Previous council chairmen had had private incomes and so were able to survive on their background money, but Mr Lee the pitman had nothing. Controversially, and rather embarrassingly for him, a motion was placed before council allowing him expenses. Sir Arthur Francis Pease, a coal owner from Middleton Tyas, spoke in favour of the motion which he amended to grant Mr Lee a larger allowance.

The Durham Miners’ Association also built for Mr Lee a comfortable house, Bede Rest, overlooking the cathedral.

The next council election was two years later and it coincided with a lock-out in the coal mines. That was controversial enough, and Mr Lee's political opponents began making much of the expense of Bede Rest which, they said, had been built out of the contributions of ordinary miners. It every bit as controversial as the redecoration of a Prime Ministerial flat in Downing Street.

In 1922, Labour lost overall control of the council, but they regained it in 1925, with Mr Lee once more installed as chairman. Perhaps his greatest achievement was the creation of the country’s first council-owned water board, buying out the Peases’ Consett and Weardale Water Company and building Burnhope Reservoir near Wearhead to provide fresh water for the coalfield communities.

“Big physically and mentally, Peter Lee has proved that it is possible to be both an idealist and a practical man of affairs,” said the Echo in 1934, as Mr Lee stood down as council chairman. “He has been a pioneer in grappling with the wider and more complex problems that confront Labour in the modern world.”

Since 1925, Labour has been continuously in control of Durham County Council, regularly winning more than three-quarters of the seats. However, it is now confronting even more complex problems than those that Mr Lee grappled with, and if it were to lose 11 of its 74 seats in next week’s election it would, for the first time since those heady days of the 1920s, not be in overall control