Belmont Community Centre,
Sunderland Road,

Meetings on 3rd Wednesday in the month at 1.00 pm (no meeting in August – Summer Break)

Visitors are always welcome

Each meeting has a talk by an invited speaker followed by discussion and help


Date Subject of Talk Speaker
19th June 2024 Metal Mining in the Durham Dales Brian Young
17th July 2024 Woodwork in the Cathedral Olly Burton
21st August 2024 No meeting
18th September 2024 Strange Cellers of Saddler St. Dave Shotten
16th October 2024 The 1960s Plus My Part in them Ben Haddon
20th November 2024 A Tour Around the Lonsdales John Heckels
18th December 2024**Date TBC Members Forum

Reports of meetings

May 2024

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 15th May 2024 at Belmont Community Centre
The meeting was attended by 15 members and 5 guests.
The speaker was Jane Guilliford Lowes who had previously give two talks based on books she
had authored. On this occasion she used the examples of her own books to discuss how she
wrote family history to make it interesting to the reader. She advised on starting with something
to draw the reader in such as an object, a place, domestic or industrial life at the time. She
emphasised the need to focus the story and not try to include everyone. She also discussed the
various formats now available to everyone to get their story to a wider audience, Members were
greatly interested as was shown by the many questions raised.
The Chairman reported on the progress of the move of the Research Centre to New England
House. He also that the Society was looking to branches to support planning for the 50th
Anniversary of the Society. He asked for a volunteer to come forward to join the Anniversary
Planning Committee. No volunteer was forthcoming.

April 2024

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 17 March 2024 at Belmont Community Centre

The meeting was attended by 12 members and 7 guests.

The speaker was John North who gave an interesting and informative talk “The North East Coast Exhibition” about the Exhibition held in Newcastle in 1929. Much enjoyed by members.

March 2024

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 20 March 2024 which was attended by 13 members and 1 guest.

Our guest speaker was Alan Smith who had grown up in Seaham Harbour. Seaham was a small hamlet around Seaham Hall, owned by the Milbank family. Its development can be traced from the marriage of Lord Londonderry to Frances, the Milbank heiress, when he acquired substantial estates and coal interests. In order to avoid the costs of shipping from Sunderland, Lord Londonderry developed Seaham which was not a natural harbour into a port with coal slides for loading his ships. The town rapidly developed around the local collieries, Seaham, Vane Tempest and Dawdon. The Londonderry’s supported other industries including glass making and the town and its mining community thrived.

Seaham Hall, which had its own railway station, had many society visitors including the Prince of Wales and heads of state. The cricket club sponsored by the Londonderry’s became an important social centre and attracted top professional players. It even hosted a match between Seaham and the West Indies. Seaham attracted national attention in 1962 when the George Elmy lifeboat returning from a rescue missing was overwhelmed by a freak wave, and all but one of those on board were lost. Following the decline of the coal industry Seaham became an unlikely tourist destination helped by its coastline, shops and attractions such as the iconic statue of WWI soldier “Tommy”. Notable recent natives of Seaham included the singer Sir Thomas Allen and cricketer Peter Willey. The members greatly enjoyed the stories and historical photographs behind a place they knew well.

The speaker had a full programme for the remainder of the year and several possible speakers for 2025. She asked members for their opinions on possible topics.

The chairman reported on the 50th anniversary of the Society in 2025: it was hoped to organise a conference and branches were asked for suggestion for topics and assistance in organisation, a possible venue might be the newly refurbished Miners Hall in Durham City

February 2024

The meeting on the 21st February was attended by 12 members and 5 guests.

Our guest speaker was Gary Bankhead the well-known local underwater archaeologist. He began my telling members how a “one off dive” with his brother in the unpromising waters below Prebends Bridge had led to a career as an underwater archaeologist. Their initial finds were religious artifacts from around, the world including a rare Russian Icon, which had originally belonged to a former Archbishop of Canterbury and he hold the story of how they came to be there. Later diving around Elvet Bridge and he had recovered over thirteen thousand small finds including coins, buttons, buckles, pins, trade tokens and religious items including souvenirs from pilgrims to Durham who threw them into the river to ensure safety when travelling home. The articles had all been catalogued for the University Department of Archaeology and individual items had been the subject of dissertations students in their studies. This led Gary to undertake a degree in archaeology himself, and then research which had led to an M/Phil degree. He finished by telling of his appearance in several television programmes with well-known hosts visiting Durham and how this had led to his contribution to a national and then his own series with another planned.

January 2024

The meeting held Wednesday 19 January 2023 was attended by 10 members and 1 guest.
Local Historian Dave Shotten gave a talk “Finchale’s Golden Mile” about the little-known history attached to the area between Durham City and Finchale Priory. He emphasised the difficulty in accessing some of the sites including one which required an unmarked hike through the woods and then a swim across the River Wear. The talk began with the little-known role of the area in Roman times including early evidence of coal mining. He showed the remains of a probable Roman road, much of which had been subsequently removed to provide stone for the building of Durham Cathedral. He also pointed out the area of Mallygill Woods where a quarry had provided stone for the pillars in the cathedral. The area was rich in evidence of early coal mining including bell pits which would have provided a supply for the monks at Finchale.

He also told the story of St. Godric, who was associated with the first Finchale miracles, who first established a hermitage in a cave, on land donated by Bishop Flambard, at the area known as St. Godric’s Garth and then a chapel at Finchale which subsequently became the site of the Priory. As well as miracles associated with powers as a healer, he had a reputation of foreseeing the future, and he is said to have warned Thomas Becket of his impending fate.

The chairman reported that the Society was beginning to plan for it’s 50th anniversary in 2025.
Unfortunately, it appeared that the newly established Consett group looked likely to close because of a lack of volunteers coming forward to take up the various associated roles.

December 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 20 December 2023 at Belmont Community Centre which was attended by 6 members and 1 guest.

As previously agreed by members, the meeting took the form of a members’ forum. Members presented a wide range of different aspects of their family history research resulting in much discussion. All agreed that it was an enjoyable and worthwhile experience.

The chairman commented that the low attendance was undoubtedly due the closeness to Christmas but this was still disappointing since members had previously agreed not to move the meeting to a week earlier, as we had done in previous years.

November 2023

The meeting Wednesday 15 November 2023 attended by 14 members and 4 guests.

Our guest speaker was George Nairn, a “deltiologist” (collector of postcards). He selected from his extensive collection a series of views which took members on a journey down the River Wear from its beginning near Wearhead, the confluence of the Killhope & Burnhope burns, to its outfall at Wearmouth, Sunderland. His talk covered many of the industrial and social changes that had occurred in the region, including lost or repurposed railway stations, long gone houses and pubs. It also included two WWI POW camps and the Lambton Park training grounds for troops awaiting deployment to the British Expeditionary Force. He acknowledged the enthusiasts who documented their region and the specialist firms who produced the images. As many of the images were of family groups, he explained that people would commission the photographs to send to relatives celebrating important family events. In essence, postcards were equivalent of today’s “selfies” and emails. The talk induced many reminiscences and was thoroughly enjoyed by members.

The Chairman reported that the search for new premises for the Society had narrowed down to two possibilities and that negotiations were underway with the preferred candidate. The Society had a new publicity officer who was keen to increase the Society’s profile particularly using social media. Several members had brough in items including books, maps and research materials. These were enthusiastically acquired by the other members. The Chairman reported that he had received a close Y-DNA match with a distant cousin sharing the same surname, confirming that two branches of the family were indeed related

October 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 18 October 2023 at Belmont Community Centre
The meeting was attended by 7 members and 4 guests.

Our guest speaker was Alan Ribchester, a member of the City of Durham’s Mayor’s Bodyguard who came in his full regalia and carrying his halberd. He outlined the origins of the bodyguard which can be traced back to Bishop Pudsey in 1179. After the king refused the Prince Bishop permission to form a bodyguard, he travelled to Rome and obtained a charter from the Pope. There are only five official bodyguards in the UK including two for the King and the Lord Mayor of London. After the appointment of the first mayor or Durham in 1604 the bodyguard became his tax collectors. Today they fulfil a ceremonial role for the mayor at major engagements and whenever the sovereign visits Durham. As well as sword and mace bearers the bodyguards all carry a halberd. Several halberds, including the one that Alan brought, were made by Scottish prisoners of war who were held in Durham Cathedral during the civil war.

The Chairman reported on the ongoing search for new premises following the necessity to leave Mea House. Following site visits, a shortlist of potential premises was under consideration

September 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 20 Sep 2023 at Belmont Community Centre which was attended by 11 members and 6 guests.

Our guest speaker was Graham Soult who gave a talk on “Wor Woolies” Graham is a North East Retail Consultant who often appears on local TV. Following the demise of Woolworths in 2008 he had developed an interest in the buildings formerly occupied by the company and had visited and photographed many of them. He outlined the history of the company from its beginnings in the USA in 1879, the first UK store opening in Liverpool in 1909 and the first in the North East in Middlesborough in 1911. There are over 1,400 sites which have housed a Woolies since then. Originally, they occupied existing buildings, but the company then developed their own buildings which had a characteristic style. He was often able to identify former sites by the remaining building characteristics. He showed photos of former stores in their new roles. They had taken on many roles including a council office but the greatest number now housed similar “value” stores such as B&M, Poundland and Wilko, with grocery stores next most common. He pointed out that the history of the buildings provided a social history with snapshot of changes that had taken place on the high street. The talk was thoroughly enjoyed by members and provoked much discussion and nostalgia.

The Chairman reported that following the Society and other charities unexpectedly being given notice to vacate Mea House, a location committee had been established and a new search for premises was underway. The Speaker Coordinator outlined a programme of talks for the first six months of 2024.

July 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 19th July which was attended by 15 members and 5 guests.

The branch welcomed back David Butler who gave a talk on “The Building of the Durham Viaduct” a structure with which all members are very familiar. Originally the main railway line didn’t pass through Durham City and branch line was planned which would then go on to Bishop Auckland. The main driving force was not for passenger traffic but to facilitate the coal trade passing by collieries on the route.. The plan involved the building of three viaducts, one of which was over North Road in Durham City, as well as a cutting near the city. David detailed the design and outlined the political and technical problems faced by the plan. Construction began in 1853, with a workforce of Irish navvies, notorious for their drinking and occasional fights with locals and the police. The line opened in April 1857 with a special train bearing dignitaries to Bishop Auckland. David pointed out that after over 160 years the viaduct in still in use today carrying the main line from London to Newcastle.

The Chairman informed members that the Trustees of Mea House had unexpectedly sold the building to Northumbria University and had given all current tenants notice that their leases would not be renewed. The Society would now have to find new premises by summer 2024. A location committee had been established and a new search for premises was underway.

In discussion of family history one member told members of research he had been doing using the British Newspaper Archive. He had discovered that a relative became manager of West Auckland football club and led the club when they famously beat Italian club Juventus in the first “World Cup” final.

June 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 21 Juneat Belmont Community Centre. The meeting was attended by 10 members and 5 guests.

The branch welcomed back as guest speaker, Anthony Atkinson who gave a talk “Ellen Wilkinson ‘Red Ellen”, the noted Labour politician and government minister. He reminded members that she was the first woman MP to represent a North East constituency. She had been born in Manchester in1891 and became involved in politics after leaving university. As well as supporting women’s suffrage she was a member of both the Communist and Labour parties until this was forbidden by Labour. She was elected as Labour MP for Middlesbrough in 1924, one of only four women in parliament. After losing her seat she was elected as MP for Jarrow in 1935 where she achieved national prominence when supporting the marchers on the Jarrow Crusade.

She served in government under Ramsay McDonald, was opposed to Chamberlain’s appeasement policy but supported Churchill and was appointed to his National Government where she had responsibility for civil defence and supervised the production and use of the “Morrison” air raid shelters. After the war she was appointed as Minister of Education, becoming only the second woman cabinet minister, and so implemented the 1944 Education Act. As well as raising the school leaving age from 14 to 15, she was responsible for the introduction of free school milk. However, she had suffered from ill health for many years and after contracting pneumonia, she died in 1947. Although her name was well known to members, they were intrigued to hear the details of her life as a pioneer of women’s rights and the Labour movement.

The chairman reminded members that the first part of the talk by our member on boyhood memories in January was now in the summer edition of the Society Journal. The second part would be published in the autumn edition.

May 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 17th May at Belmont Community Centre

The meeting was attended by 10 members and 4 guests. The guest speaker was Ben Young who gave an interesting talk on Durham Cathedral from a geologist’s point of view. The cathedral was built by the Normans, not only as a religious symbol but also as a demonstration of their power. The building was largely composed of sandstone and until recently its source was unknown. Recent work suggests it can from close by, in an area now occupied by council allotments. He pointed out that the building would fail modern building regulations as it has no deep foundations, being built on the existing sandstone base. The mortar used came locally from Sherburn.

He then discussed other features of the cathedral and how the stones with differing properties had come from far and wide: Frosterley marble from Co. Durham, which has been used in churches around the world, Purbeck marble from Dorset and even lapis lazuli from Afghanistan. An interesting alternative view of the cathedral which most members know well.

The chairman reported that talk by our member in January was to be published as an article in the summer edition of the society Journal. He also reported that the Society accounts for 2022 had been approved. The Society was is a sound financial position.

April 2023

Report of the meeting held Wednesday 19 April 2023 at Belmont Community Centre

The meeting was attended by 12 members and 3 guests. The branch welcomed back Ben Haddon who gave a talk “Geordie Doon the Pit”. He began his talk with a history of the development of coal mining in the North East beginning with the early “Bell Pits” to “King Coal” which fuelled the industrial revolution. Early mining had provided fuel for local salt pans but then exports to London and further afield Initially mine owners used horse drawn waggon ways to transport coal to local ports. On the Tyne the renowned keelmen transported coal from the upper reaches to the waiting ships lower down. The development of steam engines both for railways and for powering machinery produced a huge increase in the demand for coal. Britain produced two thirds of world coal and Newcastle became the biggest coal exporting port in the world.

Ben described the various roles carried out in the pits and how initially whole families worked underground, including women and children, until legislation was introduced to prohibit this in 1842. Hewing coal was a dangerous occupation and the toll on human life was high, including tragedies involving the loss of many lives. Nevertheless, the miners had a strong community spirit and many regretted the loss of the jobs when the coalfield began its contraction in more recent years. The talk included a challenge to the audience for their knowledge of “pit language” and a film of working conditions down a mine. An interesting and entertaining talk, recommended for those with an interest in life in the North East coalfield.

The Chairman reported on a possible new Society branch in Consett. A working group had been formed and discussions were ongoing on the practicalities needed to establish the group and arrange meetings. The Speaker Coordinator gave details of her plans for speakers for the remainder of the year.

Last updated 20th May 2024