England's Past for Everyone County Durham


Having been dormant for more than 80 years, the Victoria County History of County Durham restarted in 1999 with the appointment of County Editor Gill Cookson. The first ever Victoria County History paperback volume, The Townscape of Darlington (ISBN: 978-1904356219), was produced for the County Durham pilot project in the bid to the Heritage Lottery Fund for a national project (submitted in 2001-2002). The Durham project would centre on the city of Sunderland, utilise staff seconded from the University of Sunderland history department and result in two companion publications – the first tracing the origins of Sunderland from prehistory to the formation of the parish of Sunderland in 1719, and the second charting the physical development of the town in the post-medieval period, culminating in Sunderland’s successful quest for city status in the late 20th century.

The Durham EPE project was planned be undertaken over four years and be delivered by the team leader, Dr Gillian Cookson, and a team researcher, Dr Christine Newman, with substantial additional contributions from Dr Maureen Meikle, Dr Peter Rushton and Dr Gwenda Morgan. These research contributions would be supplemented by a volunteer project, coordinated by a volunteer team leader appointed in 2005. The project would also deliver an interactive web resource, building on the success of the www.durhampast.net site which formed a successful part of the Darlington pilot project and a schools project which further developed the History Footsteps material uploaded to the Durham past website during the pilot project.


The participation of the Durham team in the pilot project and the early commencement of research by an established team meant that the manuscript for the first EPE paperback, Sunderland and its Origins: Monks to Mariners (ISBN: 978-1-86077- 479) was well advanced by the time that the national project officially commenced in September 2005. Responsibility for authorship was equally divided between Christine Newman and Maureen Meikle, with the former producing five chapters covering earliest prehistory to 1600 and the later delivering four chapters coving the period 1600-1719 and focusing on political history, including Sunderland’s role in the Civil War. In addition to these chapters, archaeologist Professor Rosemary Cramp, the established authority on the Wearmouth-Jarrow monasteries, produced a summary chapter based on her 30 years of excavation and survey at the Wearmouth site. This material was edited into the final manuscript by VCH Executive Editor Dr Alan Thacker, himself an expert on the Anglo-Saxon world. The result was one of the most synthetic accounts of the Wearmouth monastery available in print.

Architectural consultant Peter Ryder produced interpretive surveys of the parish churches of St Peter, St Michael and All Angels (Bishopwearmouth Minster) and Holy Trinity, in addition to an introductory survey of Hylton Castle and the associated chapel of St Katherine. Further survey work produced by EPE central office staff of the Hylton castle site, formed the basis of a new interpretation and a resulting reconstruction painting produced by English Heritage artist Peter Dunn.  The volume was launched by television historian Michael Wood on 30 April 2008 at the National Glass Centre (see gallery).

Overlapping chronologically with the origins volume, Sunderland: Building a City focuses on topography, the physical environment and how a collection of disparate medieval villages spread across two ancient parishes, grew to form the modern city of Sunderland.
Authored by team leader, Gillian Cookson, this volume also benefits from seconded research contributions from Peter Rushton, Gwenda Morgan and Tony Hepburn. Additionally, architectural historians Michael Johnson and Graham Potts were commissioned to produce an analysis of the buildings and architects which shaped Sunderland during the 18th and 19th centuries. Michael Johnson also produced a report on the Sunderland Cottage housing type. The majority of the research generated by the volunteer groups was also utilised in the generation of the second Sunderland manuscript.  This volume was the last of the 15 EPE paperbacks to be completed and was launched in May 2010.

Schools Resources

The County Durham school project was produced in collaboration with Living History North East (LHNE) and explored the local history and development of Sunderland in the old East End of the city, with particular emphasis on the Victorian period.
The project was trialled among 26 Year 5 (ages 9 – 10)) pupils from Hill View Junior School over five weeks during the 2009 spring term. The pupils had creative, hands-on experience of the Victorian period through documents, exploration and role play.

EPE had been attempting to start a school project in County Durham earlier in the national project, but a number of factors hindered any progression. Once LHNE came onboard they were able to establish direct links with teachers on site and resolve any delays in delivering the project. After these initial difficulties, the project came together quickly and efficiently under the lead of the education consultant, Janette Hilton.
The pupils enjoyed the creative elements of the project and found the experience both enjoyable and educational. The use of volunteers in the project, to support and encourage the children within their group activities, was considered a positive one both by the volunteers themselves and the project leaders.

The project created a unique resource which can be easily duplicated and used again by other schools in the local area. Hill View Junior School has already repeated the project with additional groups of Year 5 pupils. The project can also be used as a template for future involvement by LHNE in promoting educational heritage.

All of the resources generated during this project are available on the Schools Learning Zone: www.EnglandsPastForEveryone.org.uk/schools.