Place in Focus: County Durham

Place in Focus: County Durham

County Durham has a mixture of mining and farming heritage, as well as a strong railway industry, particularly in the southeast of the county in Darlington, Shildon and Stockton

Header Image: Stockton-on-Tees

Place in Focus, Discover Your Ancestors

Place in Focus

Discover Your Ancestors

County Durham has a mixture of mining and farming heritage, as well as a strong railway industry, particularly in the southeast of the county in Darlington, Shildon and Stockton. Its economy was historically based on coal and iron mining.

The ‘County Palatine of Durham’ was originally a ‘liberty’ – in which rights normally reserved to the king had been devolved into private hands –under the control of the Bishops of Durham. The crown regarded Durham as falling within Northumberland until the late 13th century but by the 14th century it was effectively a private shire, with the bishop appointing his own sheriff.

In 1646 the palatinate was formally abolished. It was revived, however, after the Restoration, and continued with much the same power until 1836.

County Durham has seen many boundary changes, particularly in the 20th century which may affect the location of parish records sought by family historians – Durham County Record Office (in Durham itself) has useful leaflets available.

The proportion of the population working in agriculture fell from around 6% in 1851 to 1% in 1951. There were 15,202 people employed in coal mining in 1841, rising to a peak of 157,837 in 1921. These patterns are reflected in data supplied to us exclusively by .

The site’s census data reveals that in 1841, when the total population was just 322,000, agricultural labourer was the most common occupation, and farmer not far behind, but coal and lead miners also featured prominently in the top 20. By 1911, when the population had shot up to 1.4 million (large towns such as Gateshead and Sunderland were once in the county), agriculture has fallen notably down the list. In contrast, the number of people in mining-related trades in the top 20 occupations has increased almost tenfold.

At its height, the mining industry –which began in medieval times –employed almost the whole of the non-agricultural population, with large numbers of pit villages being founded throughout the county. The North East Mining Archive can be found at the University of Sunderland and has resources for family historians.

Richard II had granted to the inhabitants of Durham licence to export the produce of the mines, the majority being transported from the Port of Sunderland complex which was constructed in the 1850s. The culture of coal mining found expression in the Durham Miners’ Gala, which was first held in 1871.

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Among other early industries lead mining was carried on in the western part of the county, and mustard was extensively cultivated. Gateshead had a considerable tanning trade and shipbuilding was undertaken at Sunderland, claimed to be the largest shipbuilding town in the world in the 19th and early 20th centuries.

TheGenealogist’s data team has analysed census records for the 20 most common surnames in the county. Those that stand out from the rest of the country, in both 1841 and 1911, include Thompson, Robson, Watson, Bell, Richardson, Scott, Young, Dixon, Harrison and Wilkinson. In 1841, Atkinson and Davison are also prominent (a lot of ‘-sons’!), as are Armstrong and Jackson in 1911.

A great place to visit in County Durham is Beamish, the ‘Living Museum of the North’, which brings many past trades to life.

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