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Village History

Prior to the building of a railway link to the wider world, Howden-le-Wear was a small rural settlement of farms and cottages scattered around crossroads. Although life was very agricultural, there have been coalmining links since the Middle Ages with evidence of Bell Pitts, monks complaining about the price of ‘Hargill Coles’ and medieval maps showing ’Ye Cole Pitts’ in the wooded Beechburn valley. Since the 15th century there has been a house and farm estate at ‘Smelt House’, now Fir Tree Grange, suggesting at some time there may have been small scale iron smelting as iron nodules were mined alongside rich coal deposits in this area. When a branch of the Stockton & Darlington Railway came into the valley in 1842, the interests of Pease and Partners and North Bitchburn Coal Company Ltd saw rapid industrial expansion and, for the next 120 years, Howden-le-Wear became yet another of County Durham’s many coal mining communities surrounded by drift mines, coke ovens, brickworks etc. The coal seams hereabouts were close to the surface and of particularly fine quality for coke production and steam raising. Mined fireclay was also extensively utilised in adjoining brickworks where special firebricks and drainage pipes were manufactured in circular coal-fired kilns. From the 1840’s, the village quickly developed to meet the needs of a rapidly expanding population. Streets, shops, workshops, railway station, inns, hotels, public houses, clubs, church and chapels, entertainment halls, public park, workmen’s hall, cinema and a school made Howden-le-Wear a vibrant place. Now there is no railway (Beeching 1965), no coal associated industry, little evidence of the former and, thankfully, none of the pollution from the many ovens, kilns and work’s chimneys. The final colliery to close was North Bitchburn in 1968 and the pipe-yard a few years later. The North Bitchburn Fireclay Company Ltd owned several sites and was once the largest producer of fireclay goods in County Durham. All the former industrial sites have now been reclaimed and landscaped by Durham County Council. Beechburn beck, once called ‘Blackie’ beck because of its polluted water, again flows clear and clean through the park. The village is, once more, rural in character with new estates of modern housing developments from where most people commute to work. Although the population has increased, there are far fewer amenities now. The village centre remains at the busy crossroads with modern traffic clogging streets where drovers once herded their sheep and cattle.
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