Fugar, Washingwell and Watergate – A Hidden Heritage



This project has sought to uncover the rich hidden heritage within an area of about ¾ mile radius of the site of Fugar House and share it with those who may only know the area as an attractive rural landscape. Key participants in the project have been children at nearby Washingwell Community Primary School. Consultation meetings with the general public have been held together with guided walks of the area at which emerging information has been shared. This has led to much discussion of things that lie hidden beneath the ground, either just below or many feet below such as layers of coal seams worked over a period of seven centuries but for which there is scant evidence above ground, and making sense of what can be seen but for which there is currently no explanation. In this way adults and children alike have learned to understand the remnants of history covering many centuries that lie on their doorstep and to appreciate the impact of historical events on the local topography. They have also come to know some of the main characters associated with Fugar House and the part that they played in history, both within the area and, in the case of Ralph Swinburn, more widely across the world. One thing that emerged was just how much the area was at the forefront of industrialisation. However, nature has once again reclaimed the rightful ownership of this beautiful area which now shows few scars of its centuries of exploitation.



The earliest mention of Fugar House/Estate was a reference to the Tuesday after the feast of the Nativity of the Blessed Virgin Mary (8th September 1269) when William de Feugers was granted 26 acres of uncultivated land out of Presthill wood by Robert Stichill, Bishop of Durham, for service and homage. “Robert Grace Bishop of Durham. You should know that we have given our beloved and faithful William de Feugers for his homage and service twenty-six acres of the land in the west of the waste, out of the wood which is called our Presthill towards the south”.

Although we have been unable to trace any illustrations of a dwelling it is clear that the name Fugar derived from this original land grant. The earliest reference to Fugar mediaeval manor house is in a charter of 1296, published by Surtees, the early nineteenth century antiquarian, who wrote that 120 acres of wasteland created out of Whickham Wood had been the origin of the estate. The illustration above shows a typical mediaeval house of the period. In 1352 the Lady Ravenshelm held a messuage (dwelling house with outbuildings and land) called Fugar House and 60 acres by fealty and two arrows.

Over the next one hundred and twenty years or so the Fugar estate was the subject of much negotiation and changes of lease with the common theme that coal was mined on the estate. In 1377 Fugar was leased by Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham, to Henry de Percy (1341-1408), the first Earl of Northumberland, and the most powerful aristocrat in north-east England. Records show that Bishop Hatfield also leased a coal pit to him for a period of 7 years, with specific mention that the bishop would grant permission to “have coal borne from Fugar House to the Tyne by a suitable route”. After leading the failed rebellion against King Henry IV, Henry de Percy forfeited the estate which was then granted to Roger Thornton in compensation for losses and charges he had incurred in supporting the King against the rebels.


Roger Thornton is a noted figure in Newcastle’s history described as the richest man ever to have lived there, a merchant deriving his considerable wealth from fulling, lead ore extraction, and refining, plus transportation and sale of coal. The Fugar estate was only one of his many properties and he may never have lived there. Thornton went on to serve four terms as Mayor of Newcastle where he held various offices including collector of taxes. He also served as MP for Newcastle four times. Following his death in 1430, Roger Thornton and his wife were buried under a famous brass memorial which is now in St Nicholas’ Cathedral in Newcastle.

By the early 17th century the area was even more deeply involved in coal mining and transportation and the Fugar estate was owned by George Liddell of Ravensworth. A key contributor, as a surveyor and wagon-way developer, was Albany Baker who lived in Fugar House (1714-1724) from where he, as a dominant figure in the immense expansion of coal mining and conveyance, was responsible for the innovative gravity haulage wagon-way from Watergate to Penny Fine. A remarkable feature of this development is that it successfully navigated the very steep gradient of part of this line (1 in 12) the second steepest conventional railway in the country.   This is still shown as ‘Baker’s Bank’ on OS maps, now part of the Tanfield Railway footpath.


The Rev Ralph Swinburne

The next notable family to live in Fugar House was the Swinburns. They were a remarkable family pioneering railway developments, working with the Stephensons in their historic railway expansion. One member of the family in particular, Ralph Swinburn (1805-1895) was notable for the fact that, after pioneering railway developments in this country, he emigrated to USA in the mid 19th century. There, he is generally regarded and lauded as one of the earliest railway engineers in the world because of his engineering expertise and experience which he brought with him to West Virginia.

In 1856, after more than 40 years in railway work, he retired to farm, and in the same year was ordained a Baptist minister, becoming well known in both America and England for the power of his preaching, until his death. He is buried at Graceland Cemetery in Ruth, West Virginia.

The OS map of 1856 shows that at the time Fugar House was an extensive court yard farm with many buildings, including a gin-gan. Although not identified on any maps, the census of 1861 records the Dunn family living at Fugar House Farm, with the Swinburn family at Fugar House.
Significant changes nationally affected farming in the second half of the 19th century and by 1890 the OS map shows only Fugar House remaining on the site, the farm buildings have been demolished and the land sold off.

The OS map of 1947 shows that the layout of the site remained largely unchanged until that time. Fugar House remained occupied until 1952 when it was condemned and subsequently demolished. Today no trace remains, although many fruit trees still survive in what was the adjacent orchard.


The history of the project area is inextricably linked with the progressive and pioneering developments of coal extraction and transportation.  Within the initial land grant in 1269 there was a coal pit which undoubtedly added value to William de Feugers’ acquisition.   Early exploitation of the coal seams near to the surface was either by the bell pit method or by adits (drift mines) where tunnels were burrowed into hill sides.   Recent subsidence at the SW corner of the Fugar Orchard may well be the site of the pit in the original land grant.


No less than 65 bell pits (defined as a colliery) were worked in the comparatively small area to the north towards Dunston Bank, which were compulsorily acquired by Queen Elizabeth from Bishop Thomas Barnes of Durham in 1578 as a way of increasing funds to the Crown at the expense of the church.   This can be seen by the monetary annual value assessed from the coal output at the time which was £12,000 equating to a staggering £37.68 million updated to the year 2014.   Subsequently this source of ‘black diamonds’ was sold back to a group of Newcastle based merchants, many of whom then collaborated under the title of ‘Grand Allies’.   Some of the descendants of the named individuals including the Russells of Brancepeth, the Brandlings of Gosforth, the Liddells of Ravensworth and the Bowes family, continued to be involved in the coal trade until nationalisation in 1947.

map-1700Between 1700 and 1750 there was an immense drive to increase coal production, with deposits further to the south towards Marley Hill and Tanfield being exploited.
map-1750This can be seen from the two maps reproduced below which clearly identify this development.   In the project area coal continued to be mined by bell pit and drift mine methods, which largely worked out the accessible upper seams by the beginning of the 1800s.


In the project area, the last coal mine was at Watergate, sunk by Priestman Collieries Ltd in 1923.   This was the last deep coal mine of the North Durham Coal Field, and was worked until its closure in 1964.   The development of Watergate Colliery brought with it Priestman’s prior identification of the need to attract workers for the new pit, resulting in the village of Watergate being developed off Broom Lane.   This was in many respects a state of the art development of 146 houses with running water, electricity, bathrooms and outside flushing toilets.   Alongside the housing, Priestmans also provided extensive recreation facilities including a welfare hall for dances, snooker and billiards, together with bowling greens and hard courts for tennis.







Access for the miners between their homes and workplace access was provided by the Miner’s Path, and specially constucted steps, which are still in use today as a footpath.

The closure of Watergate pit was the final chapter in seven centuries of coal extraction in the project area.





Throughout the 16th and 17th centuries there was a huge demand for coal in the London area, which arose due to the shortage of firewood, mainly for domestic heating.   At the same time demand for timber was increasing as a result of the expansion of ship building, both merchant and naval.   Transport of coal from the Tyne via keels and sailing collier brigs was relatively easy but always the problem was the overland transport from the pits to the riverside staiths.

page-07-horse-with-wicker-paniersIn the early days pack animals carrying coal in whicker baskets strapped to their sides were used.
page-07-chaldronAs output and distance increased so more efficient systems evolved, from two wheeled carts called coups, pulled by one horse, to four wheeled carts or wains pulled by a team of horses and/or oxen transporting two to three tons.
page-07-metal-flanged-wheelsIn turn this was followed by the development of chaldrons, wagons with flanged wheels running on wooden rails, resulting in a massive increase in efficiency ie that one chaldron pulled by one horse with one man in attendance, could transport the same amount of coal as that carried by three wains each one pulled by up to 6 animals with three men in attendance and at almost twice the speed.   Although this provided a massive increase in carrying capacity, the capital cost of laying the rail system to each pit was prohibitive, therefore the coal dug from the pits continued to be transported by wains to coal dumps.   From there it was carried by the newly laid costly wooden rail system to the staiths, where it was loaded into keels to be taken down river to the collier brigs.

This system so impressed Daniel Defoe (author of ‘Robinson Crusoe’) visiting the area in 1726 when he wrote “Whereas when we are in London and see the prodigious fleets of ships which come constantly in with coals for this increasing city, we are apt to wonder whence they come and that they bring the whole country away: so in the contrary we see prodigious heaps, I may say mountains of coals which are dug up at every pit, and how many of these pits there are, we are filled with equal wonder to consider where the people live that consume them”.

The next innovation was to cap the wooden rails with iron plates to take the wear and tear of the wheels which by this time were of iron construction.  The topography of the area with steep slopes generally facing in a northerly direction was used, with gravity as the power source, to enable loaded wains to run freely down the hillsides.   The gravity incline system which Albany Baker played a significant role in developing, was self-contained in that the weight of full wagons moving downhill under gravity pulled linked empty wagons up hill to be reloaded.   Horses were still used to pull the wains along the easier parts of the routes.

The next phase of coal transportation was the use of iron rails and static steam engines and locomotives, although not in the project area.   Highlighted, however is the involvement of the Swinburn family, occupants of Fugar House for almost all of the 19th century, as being involved in the developments of steam rail transportation with the Stephensons.

To facilitate this huge movement of coal some of the steep sided valleys, otherwise impassable, were either bridged or culverted. There are two significant culverts still to be seen, one in the area of the ‘Grand Allies’ colliery and the other carrying the main road at Fugar Bar. This massive square stone structure is believed to have been constructed at least as early as the 14th century, to bridge the very steep valley to the north of the orchard. Credibility for the claim arises from records which show that in 1378 a coal pit on the Fugar estate leased to Henry de Percy by Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham specifically required “coal borne from Fugar House to the Tyne by a suitable route”.


It can be seen therefore that the main highway carrying coal from the pits, as they progressively opened southwards, passed through the project area and was so until the pits and line closure programme of the mid 20th century. Undoubtedly many of the innovative, pioneering developments, culminating in railways being built in almost every country worldwide, may be identified as originating in the Fugar area.





Visible evidence remains of at least four quarries worked at some time in the past in the project area. One, identified as Baker’s Quarry, is believed to have been opened by Albany Baker to provide the stone sleeper blocks used to support the wooden rails on his Baker’s Bank gravity haulage system. A shortage of suitable timber for sleepers at its time of construction resulted in the need for stone blocks to be used for this purpose.plinths2


Within the excavated area of the quarry, now a seasonal pool, there is an entrance to a brick lined adit – with a metal grid preventing access – believed to have been an early drift mine. One of the other three quarries is of particular interest as it appears to have been a very large excavation, lying in the field outside the north west boundary of Washingwell Woods. It can be speculated that waste material from this quarry was dumped in the area just before the junction of the northerly stream that flows into the Black Burn. This is based on the observation that the mound conforms to ‘man made’ criteria in that its sloping side has an ‘angle of repose’ of about 45°, helping identify such deposits. Coal mining operations in many instances helped initially identify deposits of stone, clay, and sand etc and many coal mines had brickworks as an integral ancillary operation.





“One evening I was walking down next to the Black Burn river and a strangely dressed boy stopped me. He said his name was John. By his clothes, I could tell that he worked in the mine. He wore a black cap, a black jacket and pants and grey safety boots.”

In answer to my question of what it is like down the mine … “He told me it was full of danger. He said it smelled of oil and coal fumes, the air had a bitter, crispy taste. Nothing can be seen (unless you had an expensive lamp) and you can hear just the sound of the miners hacking the coal out of the wall.”

He added … “My whole life is a situation of life and death. The fact I can have some big rock fall on me, the fact I could have an asthma attack and how I could have a catastrophic seizure.”

Thus wrote one Y5 boy in his version of a strange meeting imagined with someone from the local area, belonging to past times, whereas a Y5 girl described her meeting with a small boy covered in coal dust called Jonny who says, “I am 9 years old and so I am a Trapper Boy – a little boy that opens the doors that are inside the mine for mine carts to go through.”

The above are extracts from the creative writing undertaken by the then Y5 pupils at Washingwell Community Primary School as part of their involvement in the Fugar project, working with members of the Sunniside History Society. The work began with a guided tour around the immediate vicinity of the school and local area, led by members of the Society – “this proved a reference point and the basis for all of the work thereafter and was a memorable experience which was of great interest to the children,” as described by the Y5 teacher.

During the months of the project, classroom-based sessions of 2 hours looked at a range of themes: Fugar House – Fugar Bar … Roman influence … Mining and the history of mining in the immediate vicinity of the school … Coal transportation …The Pitman’s Path … Local people of some renown.



In total, the cross curricular themes of art, history, technology, science, geography, information technology and the development of literacy skills were all covered. “Elder members of society passed on their experience and knowledge to the younger members of society.”

The school used Fugar House as the central stimulus for creative writing; information writing; art work; computer aided design using a number of software packages, and as the main focus for the guided walk led by the children, as well as for homework tasks which led to the involvement of parents and members of the children’s families.

The children received expert support, including in developing high quality video projects, involving the use of green screen technology, and in the use of iPads.

The culmination of the project was a tour of the area led by the then Y5 children conducting family members and friends, involving three generations from a 75 year old grandparent to 3 year old siblings. The children were able to talk to the group about their perspectives on the area, showing what they had understood and learned within the project, providing a wide range of information on the many aspects covered by the project. Feedback on the day was overwhelmingly positive, with visitors contributing their own personal memories of the area.

The school regarded the project as a “resounding success”, so much so that they have requested that the society work alongside the new Y5 teacher with the new Y5 class in the next year. The society were happy to oblige and as such the Fugar project lives on.




1269  William de Feugers granted 26 acres by the Bishop of Durham, Robert Stichill, as a reward for service and homage.


1296  Earliest reference to Fugar mediaeval manor.


1352  The Lady Ravenshelm held Fugar House and 60 acres.


1377-80 Fugar House was let away from the manor of Whickham as one of four ‘free’ estates under rent.


1377  Fugar estate of 100 acres leased to Henry de Percy, first Earl of Northumberland (Harry Hotspur’s father) by Thomas Hatfield, Bishop of Durham.


1378 Specific mention made of permission in the lease to “have coal borne from Fugar House to the Tyne by a suitable route”.


c 1408 The Fugar estate, forfeited by the Earl of Northumberland after his rebellion against Henry IV, is granted to Roger Thornton of Newcastle.


1578-99  Queen Elizabeth I obtained a lease from Thomas Barnes, the Bishop of Durham, for “all the manors, coal pits and coal mines (open or otherwise) in Whickham and Gateshead”. This ‘Grand Lease’ subsequently passed to the mayor and burgesses of Newcastle with an agreement that the Crown should receive significant money on each chaulder (wagon) of coal shipped from the Tyne.


1609-12  Fugar estate sold to Isaac Anderson, merchant of Newcastle.


Early 1600s Fugar estate passes to the Liddells of Ravensworth Castle.


1714-24    Albany Baker, surveyor for George Liddell of Ravensworth, living in Fugar house develops Baker’s Bank gravity system.


1727   Mines at Fugar Field come under the ownership of the Grand Allies.


1755 Boring to a depth of 33 fathoms made 240 yards south-east of Fugar House finds significant coal deposits.


1793   Proposal received to construct a new turnpike road through Lobley Hill, Fugar and Marley Hill.


1840   Tanfield Way, adjacent to Fugar House, purchased by the Brandling Railway Company


1834-65  William Dunn living at Fugar House Farm, farming 170 acres and employing 4 men and a boy.


1856  Fugar House appears on OS maps as a courtyard farm with a gin-gan for threshing corn.


1861  George Swinburn, railway labourer, and family living at Fugar House recorded in the census of that year.


1870-90 Eastern range of buildings and northern half of western range, including gin-gan, at Fugar House farm demolished.


1875  Some farmland at Fugar House Farm taken over by two nearby farms at Marshall Lands and in Streetgate.


1917  Priestman Collieries Ltd, owners of Watergate Colliery, purchased lands “including the orchard that was attached to Fugar House”.


1923  Watergate Colliery sunk.


1939  Fugar House occupied by two families – Jackson and Douglas.


1952  Fugar House was last occupied, but then condemned and later demolished – no traces remain, although some fruit trees still survive in the orchard that was attached to Fugar House.





Fugar: Corruption of the name William de Feugers who was granted title of the estate in 1269.


Washingwell Woods: The title of the woodland area in which there was a well accessed from Whickham Highway, the track known as Washingwell Lane.


Watergate: A watergate is the description of the man-made drainage tunnels driven under the coal seams near to the surface keeping them dry. The watergate system was only applicable when the tunnels were able to discharge at a level below the coal seam ie by force of gravity.