The modern village of Ebchester overlies the Roman fort Vindomora which was first built in AD 80. The name Vindomora, derived from the Celtic language, means ‘Black Moor Edge’, a name remarkably descriptive of the position and vicinity of Ebchester. We can only speculate as to whether there was a permanent settlement here before the arrival of the Romans, though a prehistoric site existed ¾ mile to the north-west.
The fort and permanent settlement were built when the Roman road, Dere Street, was extended north from York to Corbridge. The fort accommodated up to 500 soldiers and provided an overnight staging-post on the route north for over 300 years. Once the garrison was established a civilian settlement would have grown up outside the walls, providing various services for the soldiers.
The rampart of the first fort at Ebchester can be seen in the Vindomora playground on the north side of the Newcastle to Shotley Bridge road and also the site and curve of the rampart and angle turret on the west corner of the fort site. The commandant’s house is under Mains Farm behind which are the remains of the bath house, containing part of the hypocaust heating system. When the bath house was excavated in 1962 it was found to date to the fourth century and some of the floor was still in-situ. Two further rooms were discovered inside farm buildings and suggest that the house was possibly of the courtyard type with a range of rooms around its perimeter. The headquarters building is under Shaw Lane, immediately outside the churchyard gateway. Two large cubic bases from the western portico of this building are now under the gateposts into the churchyard.
Under Roman rule England had been united, but Roman withdrawal, around AD 420, saw the fragmentation of England into different kingdoms and tribes. Nevertheless, the Roman road remained the main north-south route until well into the nineteenth century. The large cattle market, at Stagshaw Bank to the north of Corbridge, was referred to in 1296 and would have seen Ebchester established as a staging-post on the drove route to the south and groups of pack-horses would have passed regularly through the village.
In the twelfth century Ebchester came under the influence of Sherburn Hospital, Durham. It was established as a house of lepers by Bishop Pudsey who gave his land at Sherburn, with the mill and lands at Ebchester upon the River Derwent, for the use of the sick brethren and to feed the animals. Ebchester was referred to as a place for meditation and retreat where the sick brethren could stay and the animals could be looked after by local shepherds.
In 1759 David D. Gregory D.O. was appointed Master of Sherburn Hospital. He decided that the wretched huts in which the residents of Sherburn lived should be demolished and that stone buildings should replace them. For this purpose he cut down and sold a large wood at Ebchester belonging to the hospital and it was ‘adequate to the expense’. There are few references to when and for whom most of the old properties were built and they have no early deeds or records. Most of them have now been sold off, so the close connections with Sherburn that lasted nearly 800 years have virtually disappeared. The only traces are the old stone buildings themselves and the land enriched by years of sheep grazing.
Throughout this time, until the impact of the industrial revolution, Ebchester would have been a small, compact and largely self-sufficient settlement serving the farming community in the surrounding area. One small item of social interest is a letter of 1733 to John Bowes referring to an ancient yearly custom at Ebchester, on 24th August, of having a horse race for a plate collected by subscription of the principal gentlemen freeholders and innkeepers of the neighbourhood.
There were three mills alongside the river Derwent, the corn mill, a fulling (woollen) mill and the poss stick mill. Records trace the fulling mill back to the early 1600s although it may have existed many years before this. The Jewitts were among the earliest fullers and dyers on the Derwent and their business was famed throughout the North. In 1759 the Newcastle Courant carried the following advertisement:-
“EBCHESTER BLEACHFIELD UPON DARWENT WATER 1759 – this is to acquant the public that Josiah Jewitt and Ralph Bainbridge, in partnership, propose to carry on the bleaching of linen cloth at Ebchester as was last year carried on by the above Josiah Jewitt to the entire satisfaction of his customers. All those who please to favour them with their custom may depend on having their cloth done to the greatest perfection both for wear and colour and to wash well and early returned with the utmost care.”
Almost a hundred years later, in 1858, the mill was taken over by John Moody, whose son carried on the business after his father’s death in 1874, but by 1898 it was marked as ‘disused‘ and so was demolished many years ago.
The 19th Century
In 1801 the population was 168. This figure had almost doubled to 331 by 1841, when coal mining was beginning to have an impact on the area. Small scale mining had been carried out since mediaeval times; and substantial deposits of ash found in the fort indicate that coal was regularly used by the Romans.
Census returns for 1841 and local trade directories from 1826 to 1856 give a picture of life at this time. The largest single occupation was “servants – male and female” (24) then “miner/collier” (18). There were fifteen farmer/agricultural labourers and seven farmers. Two of the farms, Mains and Demesne, were in the centre of the village. The ten woodmen presumably worked in the substantial areas of woodland within a mile of the village.
Prospect House was the home of Andrew Bolton, surgeon; his wife and two children, a tutor, two female servants, one male servant and a gardener. Slade’s House (now Beveridge’s Nursery) had three coalminers, two of them married, with seven children between them. The Black Horse Inn (now Wheldon House) had the innkeeper and wife and four children and a collier. Another inn, the Queen’s Head (now the Coach House) had the innkeeper, his brother (a farmer), three children and one female and two male servants. Altogether there were five innkeepers. Other trades and occupations recorded at this time include 6 landowners, 2 coal-owners, 3 blacksmiths, harness maker/saddler, joiner/cartwright, mason, iron merchant, shoemaker, turner/wood valuer, nurseryman/seeds-man, corn-miller, woollen manufacturer/yarn/flannel, dyer, bleacher, tailor, butcher, grocer/draper, shopkeeper/ postmistress, tax and rent collector, parish clerk, curate and preacher.
There is no account of social events in the village at the time but social life would have centred on church, chapel (built in 1840) and the public houses. Social links would have been opened up by contact with the passing drovers and packhorse men and the greatly increased accessibility to Newcastle when the turnpike was opened around 1840.
By 1871 the population had increased to 830 as a result of the opening of new larger coal mines in Ebchester, Low Westwood and Medomsley, and the rapid growth of the Consett iron works which employed about 5,000 men. The main employment in the village for about 100 years from the mid ninth century was coal mining.
1867 saw the opening of the Consett/Newcastle railway built to carry coal, iron and steel but also providing quick and easy access for passengers and other goods to Newcastle and the coast. This period saw the first records of social events. The rowing club was founded in the 1870s and before long regular regattas were being held, with spectators entertained by colliery bands from Westwood and Chopwell. Consett Iron Company’s new colliery and coke ovens opened in 1876 at Westwood near Hamsterley and by 1886 the railway was carrying over 80,000 tons of coal and coke from there to Consett. In that same year over 30,000 passengers used Ebchester station and there was considerable traffic in local milk. Several excursions left Ebchester each year, usually to Redcar and Saltburn.
By 1907 there were eleven trains daily in both directions and in 1908 almost 75,000 passengers used Ebchester Station, but the decline of the railway was signalled in the 1920s when motor buses began to operate in the Derwent Valley, and the Westwood coke ovens closed following local colliery closures. The passenger station closed on 21st September 1953 but limited goods traffic continued until the line finally closed in 1963.
Although the track was dismantled in 1964-5, the route was not lost. Thankfully, some 10½ miles from Swalwell to Blackhill were reclaimed by Durham County Council and re-opened in 1972 as a footpath, bridle-way and cycle track. It is heartening to know that people will be able to walk along the route of the old Blaydon and Conside Railway and enjoy the views across the Derwent Valley for many years to come.
(This article includes excerpts from the Ebchester Village Trust booklet ‘Ebchester, The Story of a North Durham Village’ a new edition of which has recently been published)