CLAIRMONT is a late Victorian institution in Bishop Auckland that is now so derelict that tatty old curtains billow out of its broken windows, but once it was a leading girls boarding school.

We were standing looking at it at the top of Princes Street in Memories 617, trying to work out what the ornate squiggles in the stonework above its barricaded door say. It is only when you know that the place was called “Clairmont” that the squiggles become clear.

The Northern Echo: Can you make out what this spells?

Clairmont was built in the late 1870s as a boarding school and the Misses Hallam, Eliza and Lucy, were the first principals.

From the 1881 census, Billy Mollon has learned that they were schoolmistresses from Nottingham. They were assisted in their work by three governesses, including Euphemia Hunter who was from Greece but had become a naturalised British subject, plus two pupil teachers, two housemaids and one cook.

The census recorded that they had seven scholars, aged from 11 to 15, living with them – so there was a very high pupil-to-staff ratio.

Those scholars included Emily and Mary Willman, who were the daughters of Charles Willman, who was mayor of Middlesbrough in 1880. He was originally from Birmingham, where his father, Thomas, was a nationally renowned clarinettiste – a clarinet virtuoso. Charles was also a noted musician, but his first career was in the navy during the Crimean War. Then he spent two years in Latvia building a railway from Riga before he settled in the Boro as a civil engineer and specialised in building railway bridges.

The Northern Echo: Snowball & Sons, the Harrods of the North, in Gateshead

Another pair of sisters attending Clairmont on the 1881 census were Clara and Ethel Snowball, from Gateshead, where their father ran a huge drapery store, Snowball & Son (above), employing more than 200 people and known as “the Harrods of the north”. Ethel was a star pupil, being the only entrant in the 1886 Cambridge University exams from the Darlington district to win distinctions in religious knowledge, French and English.

With scholars with this calibre of parent, Clairmont must have been highly regarded.

The Hallam sisters retired in 1888, when The Northern Echo reported on July 30: “The Misses Hallam, who have just closed a long and successful connexion as principals of the ladies seminary at Claremont, Bishop Auckland, have received from their late pupils a silver cake basket as a parting souvenir of affection and esteem.”

The Northern Echo: Clairmont in Princes Street, Bishop Auckland

Clairmont as it looks today

That autumn, the Echo carried a little advert saying that a Miss Orr had taken over Clairmont and she was assisted in her teaching by Miss Snowball – presumably the super-intelligent Ethel.


However, we think school closed soon after and was converted into a hospital – certainly for much of the 20th Century, it was a maternity hospital (were you born there?) – before in 1982 becoming the headquarters of the South West Durham Health Authority and the County Durham Nurse Training School.

John Moorley tells us: “It accommodated the Chief Executive, the Chief Medical Officer, the Chief Nurse, the Planning Director, the Chief Personnel Officer (me) and the Authority Chairman (the estimable Erica Wallis who refused to be called "Chair" as she was "not a four-legged structure for sitting on!" - her quote).

“Erica once told me that in the late 1930s, she and her father were escaping to England. Her father's papers had "Jude" stamped on them. On a bus, a Nazi soldier checked their papers, looked around to ensure no one was looking and returned the papers without comment. They continued their journey.”

However, the health authority did not know the name of the building that it occupied.

“All of our stationery was headed "Claremont" and no one queried this until the outside of the building was cleaned in about 1988 and "Clairmont" was revealed and deciphered,” says John.

The authority was wound up in the early 1990s and Clairmont became a “children and family centre” until 2010 when it fell derelict.

BACK to the Misses Hallam, as Billy Mollon’s research shows that their father, John, was a cabinet-maker from Nottingham who moved in 1841 to New Shildon to take a job with the Shildon Works Company, which built locomotives for the Stockton & Darlington Railway.

John’s wife, Elizabeth, died in 1864 and he died in 1873 and both were buried in the cemetery behind the Bishop Auckland Friends Meeting House in Newgate Street. They may not have been Quakers because this was the only graveyard in Bishop Auckland until the Town Cemetery was opened in 1884.

When Eliza, the oldest of the teaching misses, died in 1891, aged 61, she too was buried in the Quaker graveyard alongside her parents.

The Northern Echo: Bishop Auckland Friends Meeting House

The tympanum over the door of the Bishop Auckland Meeting House

The meeting house was on the corner with Great Gates – once an important entranceway but now a minor alleyway – with its cemetery stretching back to Back Way (now Westgate Road). According to a stone over its doorway, the meeting house was built in 1665 and rebuilt in 1840.

However, it closed around 1913 when it was converted into retail premises – Jack Hardisty, the father of the famous Bishop footballer, Bob, had his fruit and veg shop there.

The Northern Echo: COMING DOWN: The demolition of the shops on the site of the Friends Meeting House

In November 1971, the shop was demolished (above) and the graveyard was cleared. We believe the bodies were exhumed and reinterred in the Town Cemetery. There were seven headstones still standing – including that of Elizabeth and John Hallam – and these were deliberately “broken up and defaced” by the authorities.

Hopefully, all the Hallams were able to rest in peace in the Town Cemetery as Lucy, the younger of the teaching misses, had been buried there in 1909. Her headstone still says that she was “for many years principal of the girls school Clairmont”.

The Northern Echo: The Halifax Building Society on the site of the Friends Meeting House and graveyard. Picture: Google StreetView

The Halifax Building Society on the site of the Friends Meeting House and graveyard. Picture: Google StreetView

In 1973, a branch of the Halifax Building Society opened on the site of the meeting house with its rear car park on top of the cemetery. It looks a desperately dull building but its back is on top of where some of the dead had once been laid to rest. According to one who worked there, it is “a peculiarly cold and spooky place”.


The Northern Echo: An Edwardian postcard of Bishop Auckland Town Cemetery

An Edwardian postcard of Bishop Auckland Town Cemetery