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Wolsingham, Weardale, County Durham

This case study concentrates on Wolsingham, chosen to represent a small rural community and not because it was unusually rich in either listed buildings or historical associations. Wolsingham is a small market town in the North East of England set in a remote upland valley where agriculture and mining have traditionally been the main activities.

Wolsingham from Redgate 2002 ©  Mary Mills

It aims to illustrate how using Images of England, to identify buildings of interest, can allow teachers to start exploring the character and development of an area. Local source material will complete the picture.

You can use the same technique and range of sources to study your own locality. Click here for tips on finding images for your own locality.

Click on the links to find more details of the sources referred to and how to get them

.Church of St Mary and St Stephen - Image 408059 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPS

The parish church is a useful place to start a study of a small town or village and is often the oldest building. In fact this church was almost completely rebuilt in 1848 leaving only the lower part of the tower from the original Norman church. The church is unusual in having had two names. The original, and present, name is St. Mary and St. Stephen but it was known as St. Matthew's from 1848 to 1896.St Mary and St Stephen photographed in 1944 by A Graham , Crown copyright.NMR, ref. A45/2339

Most churches will have a brief history available to look at or buy from the church. If not, any history of the town or county will certainly include a church history and architectural description and trade directories always did. It is also generally easy to find old photographs or sketches. The National Monuments Record [NMR] has many such images. The Pevsner 'Looking at Buildings' website has an excellent model of the development of a parish church.

Churches are also places where you can find information about the people who used to live in a place, both those who were prominent and families who were less well known but whose stories are none the less interesting.

Mackintosh tomb, Church of St Mary and St Stephen - Image 408279 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSThis gravestone commemorates, in poetry, three children of John and Isabella Mackintosh who were buried between 1815 and 1845. William was only ten days old when he died, Robert died aged eleven years and their daughter Isabella died aged twenty-three.

Learning opportunity

  • Research the story behind this family. Further gravestones, or memorial plaques inside the church, may provide some answers. Archive sources including parish registers and the census, in this case initially the 1841 and 1851 census enumerators' sheets, should give more information about this particular family and the wider community.

  • What can one family's story tell us about how people lived in nineteenth century Wolsingham and the problems they faced, such as child mortality? How did it reflect society as a whole at the start of the Victorian period?

Reproduced by kind permission of Durham Record Office  ref. EP/WOL 25 Extract from St. Mary and St. Stephen parish register recording the burial of Robert Mackintosh

Charles Attwood tomb,  Church of St Mary and St Stephen - Image 408061 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSPortrait of Charles Attwood from  John Robinson 'The Attwood Family with Historical Notes and Pedigrees' 1903,  Reproduced by kind permission of Durham Record Office


This tomb commemorates Charles Attwood of Holywood House, Wolsingham and Tow Law who lived from 1791 to 1875. It tells you he founded an iron works in Wolsingham and patented a new method of steelmaking, giving you the name of one of the town's most influential men plus a clue to its main industry.


Former Wolsingham Ironworks - Image 408015 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPS


Another search of the Images of England database shows that the former Wolsingham Ironworks, now part of Weardale Steel (Wolsingham), is also a listed building.



Reproduced by kind permission of Durham Record Office reference DX/1340/1

A visit to Durham Record Office reveals the original Articles of Incorporation for The Weardale Iron Company dated October 7th 1846.

Click on the image to see an enlargement with the signature of Charles Attwood clearly visible.


The Ironworks were a major employer in Wolsingham from 1864 producing steel from Weardale iron ore. When Charles Attwood died his nephew took over the company and traded as John Rogerson & Co until 1930. Steel castings were produced for use in both shipbuilding and munitions, industries of major importance to the North East. The firm made a major contribution to the war effort in both World Wars. Electric arc furnaces were installed around 1950 but trade declined and the works closed in 1984. Manufacture continued for a time on a smaller scale run by a workers cooperative and steel is still produced on the site today.


Gin-gang and barn , north of Scotch Isle Farmhouse - Image 408016 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSClues to smaller scale industrial activity can still be seen as shown by this barn which has a gingang [the circular structure] attached. A gingang was a building that housed a horse engine. The horse walked around and turned a wheel to provide power that could be used in manufacturing, mining or farming.


Learning opportunity

  • Do you only find gingangs in Wolsingham? Search the Images of England website to find out how many other gingangs have been listed [Go to Advanced Search, type 'gin gang' in the Keyword search box, click on exact]. Go to Printer friendly and print out a list.
  • Make a graph to show which counties had them. Which part of the country seems to have had the most? Why do you think this was?
  • If you were looking at one of these buildings what features would tell you its purpose? Draw a picture or make a model to show what the interior may have looked like.
  • Find out what horse engines were used for using the list descriptions and thesaurus.

The 1879 Durham Post Office Directory lists people in Victorian Wolsingham and gives their occupations. Lead was mined as well as iron ore and other steel products were manufactured, in particular edge tools for use in agriculture. Some people combined mining and farming, a feature of this part of the world.

Click on the image to see an enlargement.

Both the old trade directory and the listed buildings illustrate strongly the dual importance of industry and agriculture in Wolsingham. Wolsingham's annual Agricultural show, established in 1763 is one of the oldest in the country.

Tunstall House farmhouse and cottages - Image 408543 ©  Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSTunstall House, off Leazes Lane, is a good example of a linear farm: very much a local feature. All the buildings; house, barns, cow shed, cottages and outbuildings have been constructed in a straight line and built against the side of a hill.

Learning Opportunity

  • How many linear farms have been listed in Wolsingham? [Go to advanced search, type Wolsingham in the Place Name box, select Durham in the County box, Type 'linear' in the Keyword box, click submit] What do you think were the advantages of this layout?
  • How many linear farms are there on Images of England? [Type 'linear farm' in the Keyword box and click on 'exact', Leave the place name box empty and make sure 'all counties' shows in the county box] Are they found all over England or mainly in the North East area? Why do you think this is so?
  • How many of the listed buildings in Wolsingham were connected to farming? [Go to advanced search, type Wolsingham in the Place Name box, select Durham in the County box, Click on view building type, click on the words Agriculture and Subsistence, select All Agriculture and Subsistence, click submit].
  • How many of Wolsingham's farmhouses are still working farms? What are the others used as now? Why do you think this has happened? Has the same thing happened in other villages and in other parts of England?

Holy Well west of  Holywell farmhouse - Image 408819 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSThe beautiful scenery around Wolsingham has long attracted tourists. One of the early attractions was the pure water from the Holy well, marked still by a striking well house, the largest structure over any well in Durham.

A quotation, taken from a guide book written in 1951 expresses a strong view about this combination of working town and tourist attraction.

"This is another little, stone-built town, not unpicturesque internally, but painfully unpicturesque as approached on its east side, because of the ugly and unnecessary steelworks that have been cruelly imposed upon it. Why was it deemed right to plant this terrible disfigurement just here among pleasant green hill-sides and pleasant pastures, when there was the whole of the already ruined Durham coal-field to make choice in?"

Companion into DURHAM, JE Morris, London 1951

Learning Opportunity

  • This issue would make an excellent focus for a study of Wolsingham working towards answering these questions.
  • Do you agree or disagree with the quote? Has the ironworks been a good or bad thing for the town?
  • Make 2 columns headed advantages and disadvantages and try to decide whether you think the steelworks should have been built here. Think about how Wolsingham would be different today if they had not been built. Ask people who live in the town and people who work in the town what they think. Are there any differences?

Sources to help answer these questions would include aerial photographs available from the National Monuments Record [NMR] and old maps which would be obtained locally [in this case from Durham Record Office].

Reference 540/570/frame 4172 English Heritage [NMR] RAF photographyThis aerial photograph [left] taken in July 1951 [the year of the quotation] by the RAF clearly shows the layout of the town, complete with ironworks to the right of the river bend.

Click the images to see an enlargement.

Reference MAL/76023/frame 54 reproduced by permission of English Heritage.NMR

The second photograph [right] was taken in 1975 from a much lower height and enables you to pick out individual buildings including the ironworks which was listed in 1987, along with most of the other buildings listed in Wolsingham.

Click the image to see an enlargement.

OS 6" map of Durham  sheet 25 SW, 1895  courtesy of Durham Record Office.

Learning Opportunity

  • How has Wolsingham developed since this map was published in 1895? Use maps and aerial photographs to study change and continuity.
  • Compare them as sources or use to teach geographical skills including; scale, what maps and photos are used for and interpreting historic landscape.


Once you have explored the history and development of your area, and have an overall feel for the place, then you can look at aspects of the locality in more detail. One way to do this would be to split your students into groups and have each group research a different topic and give a presentation to the rest.

Alternatively you may prefer to choose a few aspects and concentrate on them with the whole class. You can plan topics in advance or allow pupils to suggest those that look interesting from the general research they have completed. Some topics may fit in particularly well with specific subject areas.

There are several aspects of Wolsingham that could be studied in more detail, supporting National Curriculum programmes of study.

Buildings Conservation - Links to Citizenship

The preservation and sustainable development of the built environment is recognised as an important issue for all communities and is included in the QCA list of suggested topics for citizenshiPhotographer A Graham, Crown copyright.NMR, ref. A45/2349p.

Front Street, Photographer - Image 408289 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSThis group of buildings in Front Street [left] includes three listed buildings; two seventeenth-century cottages and the much larger Whitfield House [far left] built around the middle of the eighteenth century.

The photograph taken in 1944 [right] shows that the overall appearance of these buildings has not changed a great deal in more than fifty years.

Learning Opportunity

  • Study the buildings in more detail comparing the smaller cottages with Whitfield House in terms of size, shape, materials etc. For more ideas on how to study a building click here.
  • Look more closely at the two photographs and find examples of things that have changed and things that are the same.
  • Look for other past and present photographs for examples of change and continuity. Can you find any buildings that have been unsympathetically altered or appear rather run down?
  • Look at the section on how to trace the history of an historic building for more suggested activities.

Baal Hill House Farmhouse, Photographer - Image 408281 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPS

Baal Hill House farmhouse features on the Images of England website as a bastlehouse built in the late sixteenth century with a wide stairway leading to a well defended first floor doorway.


Extract from the 1881 census for Wolsingham including the Angus family at Bail Hill Houseref. Baal [Bale] Hill is recorded in both the 1879 directory and 1881 census [right] with the Angus family listed as living there in both sources.

Click on the images to see an enlargement.

Photographer A Graham, Crown copyright.NMR, ref. A45/2363The house is described in the 1879 directory as 'an ancient peel-house, or fort, which served as a watch tower, and a shelter both for man and beast during the raids of the northern moss-troopers'.

This photograph taken in 1944 shows that, although the hedge has gone, Baal Hill farmhouse is largely unaltered except for its windows.


Learning Opportunity

  • Compare the extract from the trade directory with the census return. Do the two sources complement or contradict each other?
  • Find out more about the two sources. Ask pupils to say which source is likely to be more accurate and why. Which source is the most useful and why?
  • Look up the unfamiliar terms in the list description and trade directory using the building type thesaurus on the website. Write a brief history of the house.
  • Who do you think the northern moss troopers were? Ask your pupils to research further or to imagine who they might have been. Use as stimulus for work in drama or literacy.
  • Search the Images of England website to find out how many bastlehouses have been listed. [go to Advanced search, type the word 'bastle' in the Building Type box, click submit, go to printer friendly and print out a list].
  • Whereabouts in the country are they? Plot the places on a map. Are there any outside the North East? If not, can you think of a reason why? Remember that there may be more than one possible explanation.

Religion and Education - links to History/Citizenship

Wolsingham had a number of churches serving different religious groups, six of these feature on the Images of England website.

John Wesley made many visits to Weardale and preached in Wolsingham several times between 1764 and 1790 from a rough stone pulpit at the rear of Whitfield House.

Former Primitive Methodist Chapel - Image 408549 ©  Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSThe first Wesleyan meeting house was built in 1776 for the Wolsingham Methodist Society and John Wesley preached there. The building was later used as an undertakers and is now part of the outbuildings of Whitfield House. Two further Wesleyan chapels were constructed in 1836 and 1862 and a Wesleyan school was built in the High Street in 1856.

In 1885 a Primitive Methodist chapel was built that went out of use in 1983 when its interior fittings were moved to the USA.

Memorial to John Duckett taken from WJ Nicholson 'Blessed John Duckett priest & martyr' Northern Catholic History No 17 courtesy of Durham Record OfficeThere is a long tradition of Catholicism in Wolsingham. A memorial on Redgate Bank commemorates a Roman Catholic priest, John Duckett, who was arrested on this spot before being taken to London to be hanged at Tyburn in 1644.

St Thomas of Canterbury RC Church - Image 408788 ©  Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSSt. Thomas of Canterbury RC Church was built in 1854 and an associated school in 1864. People attended from all over the dale and the numbers grew when the Wolsingham steelworks opened.


Learning Opportunity

  • Look at the Wolsingham website for the story of John Duckett. Is he commemorated in any other way?
  • Find out if the Methodist tradition was particularly strong in this region. If so, why was this? Compare to other areas for possible reasons [NB mining and non mining areas].


Communications - links to Geography

Milestone outside 12, High Street - Image 408529 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSEarly travellers came by road which was maintained by the Gateshead Turnpike Trust in the mid nineteenth century when this milestone was placed in front of number 12 High Street.


At that time there were 13 public houses in Wolsingham, including the Black Bull, Black Bull - Image 408550 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPScatering for the coaches conveying tourists and travellers. Commercial travellers would have used them both for accommodation and for business meetings as they moved from town to town. Public houses fulfilled a rather different role in the nineteenth century from today, the 1879 directory lists the excise office as being in the Black Bull.


Former Railway station - Image 408828 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPSThe Wear branch of the Stockton and Darlington Railway reached Wolsingham in 1847 and the station, now a private house, was built in the same year.


Photographer G L Barnes reproduced by permission of English heritage.NMR ref. Pen 4/66/4 21
This photograph was taken in 1966 when the station stood derelict. There was no regular passenger service after 1953 and the stations on the line closed during the 1960s although goods trains continued to run until the 1980s.

Learning Opportunity

  • Assess the impact of both the arrival and closure of the railway on the town in terms of industry, tourism, population and the environment.
  • Talk to residents who remember the railway about how they felt when it closed and how it affected their lives.
  • Look in local old newspapers for reasons why it closed and evidence of local reactions.
  • Investigate if it could be reopened. What would be the advantages and problems?

Health - links to History

Holywood House from John Robinson 'The Attwood Family with Historical Notes and Pedigrees' 1903 courtesy of Durham Record Office


In the early years of the twentieth century Wolsingham's clean air led to the establishment of two sanatoriums for the treatment of Tuberculosis. Holywood House, originally built by Charles Attwood, was purchased by Durham County Council in 1905 and converted into a 100 bed sanatorium.


Learning Opportunity

  • Why did Wolsingham have 2 sanatoriums for the treatment of Tuberculosis? How big an area did they take patients from?
  • Why were there such places in the early twentieth century but not today?

Migration - links to Geography and Citizenship

In the early twentieth century a number of families emigrated from the Wolsingham area, in particular to Perdue, Saskatchewen, Canada.

Learning Opportunity

  • Why did people emigrate from Weardale/Wolsingham?Who were they and where did they go?
  • Look in the newspapers of the time for advertisements and articles on the families who emigrated.
  • Some of these families still come back to visit Wolsingham. Why do you think they come back? Look at a geneaology website such as GENUKI
  • Write a booklet or design a website to tell them what Wolsingham is like today.
  • See if you can find people of the same name in the graveyard or in old school registers.
  • Were people leaving other areas at this time? Find out more about the assisted places programme.

Snipe Gate Bridge - Image 408057 © Mr Brian Wilcockson LRPS


Wolsingham was chosen to represent a small rural community and not because it was unusually rich in either listed buildings or historical associations. Nevertheless it proved to be a place with an interesting past in its own right that also provoked questions relevant to many other communities and connected with national issues both past and current.

This study, based on listed buildings, is only an introduction suggesting some of the interesting themes and sources that could be investigated.

Sources Used


  • Durham County series XXV 13 25" to 1 mile, 1939 edition
  • Durham County Series XXV SW 6" to 1 mile, First edition 1861
  • NMR:

  • Historic Photographs
  • Aerial Photographs
  • Books:

  • WEARDALE IN OLD PHOTOGRAPHS, June Crosby, Alan Sutton 1989 ISBN 0 86299 694 5
  • Companion into DURHAM, JE Morris, London 1951
  • History, Topography and Directory of the County Palatine of Durham, Francis Whellan & Co 1894
  • Post Office Directory of Durham 1879
  • Kelly's Directory of Durham 1938
  • Archive and Local History Sources:

  • From Durham County Record Office
  • Internet:
    A search under the name 'Wolsingham' produced 2,270 results; the following websites all provided useful information;

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    Please note that the inclusion of a listed building on this website does not mean it is open to the public.