“MY family’s story starts with coal mining,” Dr Fiona Hill told pupils at Bishop Barrington Academy on Tuesday as she took their assembly.

Dr Hill attended the school in Bishop Auckland in the late 1970s and early 1980s, and went on to advise US presidents Bush, Obama and Trump on their relationship with Russia – well, it sounds as if she tried to advise President Trump, but he took neither to the concept of advice nor to her accent, and she ended up testifying against him at his first impeachment trial.

The Northern Echo: Dr Fiona Hill speaks at Bishop Barrington school in Bishop Auckland. Photograph: Stuart Boulton/The Northern Echo.


Coalmining stretches as far back in her family tree to at least her great-grandfather, Thompson Hill (below), who was known as “the Stockton Lad” when he was a champion speaker, and also as an orator pressing for better conditions for Durham miners.

The Northern Echo: Thompson Hill

Will Lowther, secretary of the Durham Miners’ Association, once said: “When Thompson Hill spoke, people listen in spell-bound silence. He was a giant in the oratory world.”

Dr Hill reminisced about her days at Bishop Barrington, saying: “The school was built near an old mine. I was watching football from the hill and the goalie came out of the goal and there was a big rumble and a hole opened up where the old coal shaft had been behind the goal.”

This subsidence must have been caused by the workings of Woodhouse Close Colliery, which was to the south of the Barrington school with its main shaft located just beyond the sports fields of St John’s Catholic school.

The first organised mining in the area was conducted by Sir Thomas Clavering – the County Durham MP from 1761 to 1790 who lived at Axwell Park in Gateshead and owned much of the coalfield – in the late 18th Century, but it wasn’t until the railway arrived in Bishop that deep mining got underway.

A shaft was sunk in 1835 and the main Durham coal seam was “found in great perfection at a depth of 74 fathoms”. A second shaft was sunk a little further south in 1850, where Weardale Avenue is today, and the two were connected by a tramway which ran roughly where Cheesmond Road is now – this 1950s estate has lots of open green space because of what once went on beneath the ground.

The colliery was never a massive employer – at its peak after the First World War, there were 78 men working below with another 15 on the surface.

But it did reap 27 lives. For example, in 1841, just four years after coal was won, Bishop Edward Maltby, of Durham, gave £10 to the four children who had been orphaned by the death of their father William Rand, who had been killed by a fall of stone in Woodhouse Close Colliery.

The colliery was never directly connected to the railway line so the coals had to be carted to the trains. On April 26, 1849, George Heron was collecting coals when his pony spooked and he was crushed beneath his own cart. He received a nasty facial wound which was dressed and “he appeared to be on the mend”, says the Durham Mining Museum, “but on the 30th "erysipelas" (a bacterial infection) appeared on his face and spread to his scalp; this caused his death on 2 May”.

As several educational places now cluster around the colliery’s site, it is ironic that six of the 27 killed underground (or 22 per cent) were younger than 18. George Ord, a trimmer who shovelled coal, was 11 when he died in 1861; Samuel Walker, a trapper boy who opened doors underground, was 12 when he died on April 26, 1858, and, 10 weeks later, William Dixon, a horse driver, was 13 when he died on July 15. All the boys were crushed between tubs.

Woodhouse Close Colliery closed in March 1934, and for a couple of decades the area returned to agriculture. However, Bishop Auckland was expanding southwards, and the fields around the colliery were soon covered in housing – the first tenants moved onto the Woodhouse Close estate on February 17, 1951.

The Northern Echo: One of the items on display in the new exhibition charting the early days of Woodhouse Close Modern School at The Discovery Centre in Bishop Auckland.

The first 452 pupils started at Woodhouse Close Modern School (above) in September 1959 – its motto was “tempori parendum”, or “we must move with the times”.


The first prefects at Woodhouse Close with the first head, TM Corner

The secondary modern lived up to its motto in 1974 and became the lower school of Bishop Barrington, which moved to adjoin it on the site from the Market Place where it had been founded in 1810.


Bishop Barrington School had been in the Market Place since 1810 until it moved to Woodhouse Lane in 1968

Over the years, the school has been regularly added to and rebuilt. The modern school of 1959 was demolished in 1997 and now the houses of Barrington Meadows are on its site, while Dr Hill that the hall in which she gave her assembly had been the gymnasium, back in the day.

The Northern Echo: ANIMAL MAGIC: Bring your pet to school: Barrington School, in about 1960

Bring a pet to school day in about 1960 at Bishop Barrington - naturally someone brought in a pit pony

The Northern Echo: In February 2, 1982, a long procession snaked out of King James I school and through the

town as part of the campaign to prevent its amalgamation with Bishop Barrington.

In February 2, 1982, a long procession snaked out of King James I school and through the town as part of the campaign to prevent its amalgamation with Bishop Barrington.