The History of Peterlee, the Durham town named after a trade unionist

Peterlee is a town in East Durham, located 13 miles to the south of Sunderland. Perched on the A19 road, the motorway serves to make the journey between both settlements is short and as such the town enjoys a close relationship with Wearside. Peterlee is a new town, which was created following the end of World War II in 1948. Named after trade unionist “Peter Lee”, the town has a current population of around 20,000 people.

Castle Eden

The land which became Peterlee is situated upon the Eden Burn, a stream and area of woodland in East Durham which spans out into the sea. The name Eden is theorized to be derived from Old English “Yoden”, or Yew dene, or “Idun”, as opposed to a direct use of the biblical name. To the south of the stream, the area known as Castle Eden was established by the Vikings, which despite the name, no contemporary castle stands.

The land would eventually come under the ownership of the Palatine County of Durham. Scottish warrior King Robert the Bruce at one point is said to have held the land, and by legend his own castle. However, the name “Castle” in the name of the settlement was ultimately derived from a 18th century mansion which continues to stand today.

Little Eden & Eden Hall

To the north of Eden burn, sat the village of “Little Eden” and “Eden Hall”, the predecessor villages of contemporary Peterlee. This was, as was common throughout the Middle Ages, a medieval manor estate which according to old maps, once had its own chapel. To the East of it was another manor, Horden Hall. These historic estates continued to exist until the second half of the 19th century, where the rapid development of the coal industry subsequently changed the landscape of the East Durham region.

The rise of the mining industry

The Industrial revolution and the rapid changes which taken place in Britain, including the rise of factories, steam ships and railways, heralded a boom in demand for coal which seen the industry rapidly expand during the 19th century. This transformed County Durham into an industrial heartland, and by the start of the 20th century new mines had been opened in Easington, Horden, Blackhall and many more locations. The population of East Durham boomed, and new communities sprung up simultaneously.

A new town

Following the end of World War II, the Labour government of Clement Attlee pursued a radical poverty alleviation scheme which reshaped Britain. This included the creation of the Welfare State, the NHS and of course a dramatic expansion in affordable and new housing to clear out impoverished areas. This facilitated a massive migration of poorer families to both new social housing estates, such as those built in Sunderland (Farringdon, Thorney Close, etc) but also “New Towns”, such as Washington and of course, Peterlee. The

The town of Peterlee, rehousing many people from Easington and the surrounding areas, was named after the celebrated County Durham trade unionist and Methodist preacher of the same name (1864-1935). While preaching and working as a miner, Peter Lee served on Durham County Council and dedicated his life to serving the interests of the village of Wheatley Lee. A real working peoples “champion”, he was later described by Lord Lawson as a “living witness to the power of religion in the life of a man, and he gave ample testimony to it. He gave all, asking nothing in return, little dreaming that a great New Town would bear his name“.

The town of course, as has all of the North East and County Durham, suffered hard times following the decline of the mining industry from the 1980s onwards, which had given birth to it. Yet, the town continues to live on, and as with the rest of the region, lives in the hope that one day revival and renaissance will come, avenging the injustices and hardships of the past.