This guide describes some of the resources available for studying the history of your house and local area in County Durham. It contains information about maps, directories, electoral registers, census returns, rate books and Inland Revenue valuation registers.
Durham’s history and records differ from those of most English counties. The most obvious feature of its history is that, until 1836, the Prince Bishop exercised powers in the County Palatine much greater than those of the authorities in other counties.
Another feature of County Durham’s history is the influence wielded by the Dean and Chapter of Durham through its extensive ownership of land and consequent participation in the development of the coal industry.
The third significant characteristic of Durham’s history is the rise and decline of the coalfield itself.
These three features of the history of the county have also meant that the bodies responsible for the preservation of its records are unusually diverse:
- the records of the Palatinate are in London at The National Archives
- the records of the Bishopric and Dean and Chapter, also the Palatinate courts, are cared for by the Archives and Special Collections section of Durham University Library
- Durham Record Office holds other local records.
This guide describes the records held in Durham Record Office which are relevant to the study of the most common research topics:
- your house and your neighbours
- your high street
- your village and town
- the countryside
For more detailed information on some of the sources mentioned below see also our information guides to maps and plans, electoral registers, tithe plans, turnpike records, inclosure records, local authority records and building control plans.
Your house and your neighbours
What you can find out about your house depends greatly on its age. We hold a variety of maps and plans which might show details of houses. For houses built after the Second World War these include large-scale [1:2500] Ordnance Survey (OS) National Grid Series plans and also four series of 20th century aerial photographs of the county.
If the house was built before 1939 it should be possible to find it on one of the four editions of the OS County Series maps which the Record Office holds. The county was first surveyed at this scale in 1854-1857 and revisions took place in 1894-1897, 1912-1919 and the late 1930s.
If your house pre-dates the first edition OS maps it may be possible to find it on a tithe plan. Tithe plans were created for most parish townships in the late 1830s and early 1840s. They show all fields and buildings, and usually have attached a list of the owners and tenants. Three copies of each tithe plan were made and, although the Record Office does not hold a plan for every parish in the county, a comprehensive set is held in the Archives and Special Collections at Durham University Library.
While there are a number of earlier maps of the county these do not show individual houses. Very few earlier town plans are held here except a couple of maps of Durham City.
House plans submitted to a local authority for planning approval between 1856 and 1974 can sometimes be found at the Record Office, either for an original building or for alterations to an older building.
The former inhabitants of any house may be traced in a variety of ways. For large towns, usually from the late nineteenth century onwards, there are street directories which list most of the inhabitants.
Trade directories were published from the late 18th century onwards and list the tradesmen and more important inhabitants of each settlement. Most trade directories are, however, selective in their lists and it is unlikely that the inhabitants of a particular house will be shown. In addition, it is often difficult to identify the house that corresponds with the people listed, especially in smaller settlements.
Durham Record Office holds directories for 1827, 1828, 1829, 1834, 1848, 1851, 1855, 1865, 1879, 1890, 1902, 1910, 1914, 1921, 1925, 1929, 1934 and 1938 for the county. It also holds directories, including a street index, for Durham City for 1846-1915, 1931-1937, 1939 and 1951-1953.
Electoral registers, which list the names of all those entitled to vote, house by house and street by street, are also useful. Remember that although the series of electoral registers starts in 1832, not all householders were entitled to vote until 1867. All men over 21 and women over 30 got the vote in 1918. All women over 21 were entitled to vote from 1928. Durham Record Office holds electoral registers for County Durham from 1832 to the present day.
If your house dates from before 1921 you could find its inhabitants by using the enumerators’ returns for the 1841, 1851, 1861, 1871, 1881, 1891, 1901,1911 and 1921 censuses. The returns show all the people in each house on census night, their relationship to each other, their ages, marital status, sex and place of birth. Of course there is a gap of 10 years between each census so it would not be possible, using census returns alone, to build up a continuous picture of the inhabitants of a house. The census, in combination with directories and electoral registers may, however, enable you to do this. The census returns are closed to public inspection for a period of one hundred years, so this source can be used only for houses built before 1921. The easiest way to access census returns is online using popular family history websites such as Find My Past and Ancestry. Access is free in all public libraries in County Durham.
Rate books and valuation lists created by local government bodies may also give some information on the inhabitants of each house. Before 1834 most property-holders were obliged to pay a rate to the parish for the upkeep of the poor. Accounts of rates paid were kept by the overseers of the poor of each parish. These were, however, usually simple lists of names and amounts paid. During the nineteenth century the collection of the rate became the responsibility of the boards of guardians and ultimately this function passed to the district councils in 1925. More recent rate books do give the occupier and/or owner’s name, and the address of the property on which the rate was payable. The Record Office does not hold complete sets of rate books and valuation lists for the authorities in County Durham but there is good coverage for the current county area in the 20th century.
A similar set of records is the Inland Revenue Valuation registers compiled in 1910. They include details of each property and names of each owner and occupier and a brief description of the property. These records are held in the Durham Record Office for some, but not all, of the civil parishes in the county. Similar records are found at The National Archives.
Your high street
All the records and approaches described in the section on an individual house and its inhabitants can, of course, be used for more than one house to build up a picture of an entire street. The Ordnance Survey plans, and possibly tithe plans, show changes in buildings; the census, directories, electoral registers and rate books show changes in the people who lived there and what type of people lived in each house. It should, by using all the records mentioned above, be possible to tell when the street was built, what each building was used for, and when buildings were demolished or changed in use. In some cases, it should be possible to make this picture of the street more vivid by using old photographs. The Record Office has many topographical photographs. These mainly cover the main street of any village or town or significant buildings.
Your village and town
The history of the settlements in County Durham differs in most cases from other English counties. Most other counties are either primarily agricultural and characterised by market towns and agricultural villages, or have been shaped by the development of large industrial towns. County Durham, however, enjoys a combination of pre-industrial villages and small mining villages, which developed very rapidly in the second half of the 19th century. The history of the mining villages in County Durham is, therefore, comparatively short. Their physical expansion, which usually follows the opening of a colliery, can be seen by comparing successive editions of the OS plans. You can trace the consequent rapid increase in population by using the census statistics which are available for every 10 years from 1801. Find census reports on the website A Vision of Britain through Time. (Remember that no census was taken in 1941). If your village developed before 1891 the nature and origin of its population can be traced using the census returns which are available online.
The only corporate towns within the present county boundaries are Darlington and Durham and records for both towns are held in the Record Office at County Hall.
Trade directories, especially Francis Whellan’s county directory published in 1894, give useful, brief descriptions of the most important aspects of the history of each settlement and its schools, churches and administrative bodies. More specialised aspects of a settlement’s history can be traced by using school log books (a diary kept by the headmaster of each school), or records of the Church of England, Methodist and other non-conformist places of worship.
Also of use may be records of the boards of guardians (the poor relief authorities from 1834 to 1929) and district councils and their predecessors as local authorities (local boards of health and sanitary authorities). It should be stressed that records for all these institutions may not have survived for every area.
In addition, all records mentioned in connection with tracing the history of a house or street may be used to build up a picture of the village or town as a whole.
The records helpful for tracing the history of the mining villages so characteristic of Durham will also be useful in tracing the history of the longer-established villages. Their earlier history can be seen by using tithe maps and land tax returns which listed, by township, the owners and chief lessees of property worth more than £2 a year for the period from 1759 to 1831. The land tax returns were made annually, but by no means have all survived. They do, however, give a good idea of the land ownership and prosperity of many settlements from the mid-18th to the mid-19th centuries. The registers of baptisms, marriages and burials which were kept from the 16th century by the Church of England are, until the introduction of civil registration in 1837, the main source for tracing the details of the size and rise and fall of population in any town or village.
Before consulting manuscript sources, use the general histories of the county which provide a short description of each settlement. The standard histories of County Durham are:
- William Hutchinson, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine, 3 volumes, 1785-1794
- Robert Surtees, The History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, 4 volumes, 1816-1840
- William Fordyce, The History and Antiquities of Durham, 2 volumes, c.1855-1860
- The Victoria County History of Durham, 5 volumes so far.
The most obvious sources for the study of the countryside are maps and plans. The OS maps and tithe plans have been mentioned above. The tithe plans are especially useful in that they show the use of each field.
One important factor in the development of the modern countryside was the inclosure, or enclosure, of the medieval pattern of common fields. Much of the inclosure of the lowland in Durham occurred at an early date and most of the inclosure awards made in the late 18th and early 19th century covered fell and wasteland. The Record Office has copies of the 17th century inclosure awards among the Palatinate records in The National Archives, and holds inclosure awards and plans for the later period of inclosure.
For those areas which formed part of a large estate, estate plans are also useful for constructing a picture of the countryside. The Record Office has some collections of estate records, including plans, but many others remain in private hands. Remember that the Dean and Chapter was a large landowner in the county.
Other estate records, such as account books, ledgers and even title deeds are important in building up a picture of the development of the landscape. In much of County Durham the landscape has been determined mainly by the coal trade – many villages owe their existence to this alone and many of the county’s physical features still are a legacy of mining activity. Roads, waggon ways and railways were built to serve the needs of the trade. Estate collections, especially the Londonderry and Strathmore collections, and the records of the pre-vesting colliery companies deposited by the National Coal Board may be useful here.
Most of the records described here may be used for the study of multiple aspects of local history.
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