Thornley, Durham, England

A Thesis by Gladys Moody c.1960


Chapter 1


The history and development of the area is closely connected with the geology of the district.

The Northumberland and Durham coalfields were formed originally out of living plants including trees that grew near the sea.  In time the land sank during one of the earth’s movements and was covered by water.  The plants and forests were covered by sand and mud whose weight kept the plants from decay.  Heat turned them into carbon, coal.  Successive growth, sinkings and coverings have caused seams of coal, separated from one another by layers of rock or clay.


In Northumberland and especially around the mouth of the Tyne the coal measures are near the surface and therefore mining was carried out in that area from early time.  Valleys cutting down into solid rocks were valuable in the early days of adit mining of the coal seams that outcropped on the valley sides and they afforded route ways down which coal was sent to the Tyne.


The southern part of the coalfield is covered by a Magnesian Limestone Plateau preventing the area from being mined until the last century (1800's).  At the base of the limestone series, however, are yellow sands that are water holding and the spring line of the scarp has influenced settlement from early days.


The early settlement of Thornley was influenced by the fact that it lies on the spring-line of the plateau.  The village is 6½ miles north-west of Hartlepool and 14 miles south west of Sunderland.  Durham is 6 miles away.


Over a thousand years ago the area was lonely, desolate moorland, only the valley stretching from Church Kelloe to Thornley being settled by people who obtained a livelihood from the land.  The valley, wooded on the slopes must at one time, before the days of human habitation, have provided the course for a rather large stream and prior to that have been scoured by glacial movement.  The surface soil consists in the main of infertile clay, but magnesian limestone up to 200 feet in thickness overlays sandstone, sand and various shales, while deep down are the coal measures that are the source of the area’s present day prosperity. 


In past times, life was concentrated around Thornley Hall, the owner of which owned the surrounding land and who in return for services protected the peasant.  The Manor of Thornlaw is mention in the Anglo-Saxon record dated 1072 A.D. preserved in the archives of Durham Cathedral.  This record grants the land of Thornlawe to a lady named Ealdyyth on the conditions “that if she leave it needfully, be it, in death or in life the payment is, 8 oxen, 12 cows and 4 men”, and she was expected to render “plenum servitude” full service, to the congregation of St. Cuthbert.


This is the only record of this time, and it is not until the middle of the twelfth century that

Thornley is again mentioned.  During this time William Comyn was attempting to usurp the See of Durham from William de Sancta Barbara, 1140 - 1152, and the adherents of the bishop “made a place of defence on the spot which is called Thornlaw; and there the bishop abode, getting such scanty provisions as he might”.  It appears that the Manor of Thornlaw was without an owner or that he was disloyal to the bishop for, Hugh the son of Pinton, proprietor of nearby Wingate was appointed guardian of the fortress. The Bishop was unfortunate in his choice for Hugh deserted Sancta Barbara and surrendered the fortress to Comyn having been seduced by a promise of Comyn’s niece in marriage.  The bishop, who because of Pinton’s treachery had only narrowly escaped capture, finally defeated Comyn and re-entered the city of Durham on St. Luke’s Day, October 18th 1144.


Hugh Pinton was forced to hand over his manor and fortress to Hugh Burel.  These possessions did not remain in the hands of the Burel family for long, for records show that by 1194 it was held by Peter Harpyn or Arpin.  His name means ‘sea raider’ and probably he was a descendent of the Viking raiders who first attacked and then settled in the north of England.


Thornley Hall is situated about 100 yards to the west of the ancient Hartlepool to Durham Road.  Foundations of the old fortress or barrier still remain.  Until recently could be seen close to the hall the remains of an old Moat Bridge near the site of the prison of the Prince Bishop.


The Hall during the time of the Harpyns served as a resting place for wayfaring pilgrims passing from, or to, the shrines of St. Cuthbert in Durham and St. Hilda in Hartlepool.  The surrounding countryside was wild and thinly populated and the hall at Thornley must have been an important stopping place on the ancient road.  That the district was wild and travel dangerous is shown by an entry in the Assize Roll of 27 Henry III (1243), which tells of an enquiry into the death of Elas de Kellawe, a local landowner overcome by cold in winter on the barren moor.  The highest point north of the hall is called Sylam (Saelam) Bank and is the point from where the pilgrims had their first view of Durham Cathedral, the Shrine of St. Cuthbert.


Deeds have survived regarding the land transactions carried out by the Harpyns from the early 13th century.  They throw light on the way business was conducted and marriages arranged.  The names of the witnesses are interesting, for some of them still exist in place and surnames to the present day.


1230 circa undated.

Charter whereby Ralph Harpin with the consent and wish of his wife Matilda confirms to Robert le Taboror de Neuton a bovate1 of land with appurtenances in the vill of Kellaw with Christiana, daughter of the said Matilda, in frank marriage; which bovate of land Robert, son of Rodger, held of the land of Ralph de Cestria.  To hold to Robert and his heirs begotton of Cristina, of Ralph and Matilda, and after Ralph and Matilda’s decease of heirs of Thomas de Kellaw, as freely peaceably, as Ralph and Matilda held paying yearly to Ralph and Matilda a pound cummin of 2d, and after their decease to the heirs of Thomas de Kellaw.

Warrent clause.  Witnesses.  Johanne de Rumesye tune temporis seneschallo; Johanne Haunsart; Waltero Daudre; Willo de Hessewell; Radulpho de Appligden; Willo de Basseth; Ricardo de Yeland; Colino nepote domini episcopi Ricardo Harpin.



1  the amount of grazing land needed to feed an ox.


1309, March 21st.

Charter whereby John de Dalton confirms his lands in Thornlawe, the gift of William his father, to John son of Henry de Kellawe.  To have of the chief lords by the services due, paying to Dalton and his heirs a rose yearly for other services.

Witnesses:  Emerico de Kellawe; Willo fil, Henrici de Kellaw; Waltero de Lodeworth; Thoma fil Nicolai de Kellaw; Thomas de Windegate.


Haswell, Kelloe, Wingate and Ludworth are the modern equivalents of the witnesses’ names and they still exist as names of villages near Thornley.