WHAT place in Durham lies close to the border of two cities, is a town by name but consists of little more than a street, an old chapel and a former pub?

The answer is Littletown which, despite its name, is not a town, but one of Durham’s smallest villages.

This former pit village lies halfway between Sherburn Hill and High Pittington, on the Magnesian limestone hills east of Durham City.

It is only a mile south of the administrative boundary separating Durham City from Sunderland City, but the lovely countryside hereabouts is a far cry from the urban landscape.

With little trace of the mining that once dominated the area it is an area popular with walkers.

Littletown was originally Suthton, a name recorded back in 1366. It means “south farm” and was probably little more than a farm to begin with.

It was also known at one time as Suth Pittington but, by 1581, it was called Little Pittington.

Shortened to Littletown by 1613, the Littletown in question was probably the nearby farm rather than the present village, which came into being later, so it seems the original Littletown wasn’t even a village let alone a town.

Since prehistoric times, Littletown’s livelihood had been tied to the land, with agriculture and quarrying being important activities.

A prehistoric flint has been found as well as a have a couple of grindstones made from local stone and used in the making of flour many centuries ago.

There are faint remnants of medieval earthworks near Littletown Farm but, apart from these scant finds, Littletown only really came to life in the 19th century when the colliery was established.

John George Lambton, the First Earl of Durham, established Littletown Colliery in 1831 and two pits were sunk – Lord Lambton Pit and Lady Alice Pit.

Alice was the name of the Earl’s daughter who was born in April 1831, the year in which the colliery was founded.

A third pit, called the Engine Pit, was sunk at the colliery about 1833.

Lambton was also the owner of Sherburn Hill, Sherburn House and Sherburn Collieries, so Littletown’s mining history was linked to these places rather than Pittington.

At Pittington, the family of the Marquis of Londonderry owned the collieries.

One of the mines there dated to the 1820s, and predated Littletown’s mining activity.

Littletown colliery remained under the Earl of Durham’s ownership until 1896, when it was sold to Lambton Collieries Ltd and came under the ownership of Sir James Joicey.

The Earl of Durham’s Railway, later called the Lambton Railway, linked Littletown colliery to coal staithes at Penshaw on the River Wear and responsibility for the whole southern section of this railway fell upon a man called George Henry Hornsby.

In the early 20th century, he inhabited Littletown House, the building just across the main road from Littletown village. It was previously the home of mining engineer Thomas Crawford.

Other colliery officials in Littletown lived in a row called Moor View cottages that can still be seen today.

Here, at one time or another, lived the colliery manager, the under-manager, a coachman and a gardener.

Just in front of the row stands a former Wesleyan Methodist Chapel erected in 1858 to serve Littletown’s growing population. It was the only chapel in the village and fell out of use in 1979.

Three years later, it narrowly escaped demolition and was later utilised by a timber business.

In front of the chapel is a grassy area that was once surrounded by colliery streets.

Mine officials and colliery owners played an important part in the life of a colliery village, but one of the most famous men connected with Littletown had rather humble beginnings and worked in the colliery as a boy.

His name was Peter Lee (1864-1935) and his first mining job was at Littletown Colliery in the 1870s when, at the age of about ten years old, he worked as a pony driver.

Other collieries in the Littletown area at which Lee worked included Haswell, Pittington and Elemore near Hetton, but he also worked at mines around Brandon and even had a spell working at collieries in the US.

Lee, who was partly descended from gypsies, later went on to become an important trade union leader and a local councillor.

He is principally famed for being the first leader of Britain’s first Labour-run County Council over which he presided at Durham in 1909.

Of course, Lee is also recalled in the name of the new town of Peterlee that was built in 1948 and named in his honour.