From a newspaper article in the ‘Star Series’ dated 23rd July 1998


The oldest building In Wheatley Hill - Rock Farm - which boasts architectural features dating back to the time of King Henry VIII, is to be the subject of talk this month.

Wheatley Hill History Club member and owner of Rock Farm, Connie Gregory, is giving the talk to her group, which meets every ­month in the village.

 Rock Farm, which is a working family farm, has been owned by the Gregory's since 1927 and was once also owned by members of the Bainbridge family.

A beautiful 10 foot inglenook fireplace graces the main hall of the 16th century manor house in Wheatley Hill's main street.

Much of the history of the house has been uncovered by Connie as she charted Rock Farm's background while studying for a diploma in archeology and local history.

Connie's talk to Wheatley Hill History Club takes place at Wheatley House, Woodlands Avenue on Wednesday, July 29 at 7.30pm, admission to non-members is 50p.



The following is based on a series of articles for the History Club



Study of a 16th Century House


Connie Gregory




The first reference to the village is in 1180 when Hugo Burrell gave up the lands at Whetlaw, Windgate and Great Smeaton in exchange for lands in Normandy. Wheatley Hill has a long history and various names ranging from Quetlaw and Whetlaw and eventually Wheatley.


Robert Rhodes inherited the estate containing Rock Farm in 1451 from his wife, Joan Hardwike, of Little Eden. Rhodes was a wealthy man and represented Newcastle in Parliament, eight times from 1427. In 1440 he was appointed Controller of Customs at Newcastle by Henry VI and he is credited with the building of the beautiful lantern tower of St Nicholas Cathedral in Newcastle.  He died on 20 April 1474 without issue and the estate of Wheatley Hill passed to his niece, Alice Bainbrigg, aged 14 who was the wife of Richard Bainbrigg. (Robert Rhodes will be the subject of a future article).


Richard Bainbridge of Wheatley Hill married Alice, daughter of John Rhodes who was Sheriff of Newcastle in 1417, and mayor of that town in 1429 and 1431.


Another member of the Wheatley Hill branch of Bainbridges was Francis Bainbridge of whom it is recorded “entered into wages at there repaire to Bernarde Castle from the musters at Chester the 26th November 1569: one Captain (Francis Bainbridge gent) at 4s."


Francis made his will on 10th March 1575. To his son Thomas he left "the letting of my  lande in Hutton Henry" and to his daughters "to have the grounds called the paster grounde and another close for winter ground called the Greenhill for ten years for their better advancement in marriage".


This family of Bainbridges are the likely ancestors of Bainbridges Store in Newcastle.


In 1480 an Indenture was made dividing the lands of Thornley and Wheatley Hill. The boundary was to be a dyke, probably the Gore Burn which is shown on the 1839 Tithe plan. Parts of the original boundary can be seen on modern day maps.


The Bainbrigg family lived at Wheatley Hill until 1621 when it was sold to Sir Thomas Riddell of Gateshead for £2700. It is likely that the house was built probably early in the 16th Century as the fortunes of the Bainbridge family seemed to be declining later on in the century. Greenhills was sold in 1616 by George Bainbirgg.


The estate was sold again in 1639 to Lord William Howard to be held in trust for his son Thomas Howard who was killed in Royal service in 1644 at the Battle of Marston Moor - the Royalists last stand against the Parliamentarians, where he was on the losing side. The Estate was sequestrated (confiscated) after his death and an annuity of £60 paid to his widow.


William Wilkinson bought the estate in 1699, however there are no records of the Wilkinsons ever living in the house.


The Tithe plan of 1839 shows that the owner was Thomas Wilkinson and the tenant was Mathew Dixon. The census returns 1841 - 1871 show that Mathew Dixon remained on the farm for this period. The Census returns 1881 show the farm to be untenanted.


The 1870’s onwards was a period of great depression in agriculture with a series of poor harvests and 1879 was a disastrous year. The continued rise in population led to an increasing volume of grain imports from the Colonies and many tenant farmers left the land for other occupations.


In 1890, the Durham Directories show that John Dunn was the tenant. As a young girl Ruth Gregory worked for his son Ralph, the next tenant, and William and Ruth Mary Gregory became tenants in 1927. The farm has remained in our family since that date and in 1991 we were able to buy the farm and carry out extensive renovation work. As a result of this work some very interesting architectural features were uncovered.


No deeds are available for the building as they were destroyed in a fire in 1926.


Rock Farm is situated approximately one mile north of the A 181 road and about eight miles south east of Durham City, roughly on an east/west alignment. It is located in the former colliery village of Wheatley Hill and once formed part of an agricultural/manorial hamlet. The Ordinance Survey map of 1857 shows the plan of the house to be similar in shape to the present day building. Research has failed to give a positive date to the features in the house but in the opinion of Peter Ryder, architect and expert on medieval buildings, the parlour door dates from 1500 and is most unusual in a house being more in keeping with church architecture. Dating the house is even more difficult as there is no record of another cross passage house in County Durham with which to compare Rock Farm.


The farmhouse was built originally of magnesium limestone of which there was a plentiful local supply with some sandstone rubble and sandstone quoins and dressings on the traditional longhouse design. It consists of a two bay, two-storey house with cross passage and service wing with a prominent west gable. The house was divided into two dwellings at an unknown date.


The house was built without foundations as it is built on a solid limestone base.


That it was built for a wealthy family can be shown without doubt most probably in the beginning of the 16th Century replacing an earlier building. Documentary evidence shows that Richard Bainbrigg was living at Wheatley Hill 1471 when he was sworn in as a Commissioner of the Peace at Durham Quarter Sessions.


A two storey rear wing with single storey offshoot which led from the hall was demolished in 1991 and replaced with a new wing, now a separate house. Older residents of Wheatley Hill may remember this part of the building being a cobblers shop run by 'Lonsy' Lambert.


Rear Wing

This was probably an original part of the main building perhaps a further service wing.  The features were more basic and had none of the fine features of the house. Although part of the wing was two storey, the attic was very low and may have been sleeping quarters for servants. The gable wall was 7 feet thick and contained a fireplace of very rustic appearance.


At some period the building was re-roofed covering part of the original sandstone sheepshank slates. These were a favoured method of roofing in the north England between the 16th and 19th Centuries and occurred where stone is found in thin slabs. During building work a small doorway was found just under the eaves, which led through a short passage in the gable wall into the upper chamber.



A three light-chamfered mullioned window with a single light in the attic was uncovered in the east gable. A pair of very worn boots were found to the right and above the mullioned window. They had been placed in a special niche in the wall, most certainly as a symbol of good luck. They were replaced where they were found without any attempt to date them. The significance of the find was not realised at the time. Further research has shown that the tradition goes back to the 13th Century and continued until the 19th Century, examples having been found in America and Europe and mostly in the southern half of England and Wales. Shoes were felt to take on the wearers identity and may have been buried to warn off evil spirits. They are always found near doorways, windows and chimneys. (Shoes and their significance in the walls of houses will be the subject of a later article).


A two light mullion window was removed from the north facing aspect of the house and pieces of lozenge shaped, leaded glass were found in the cavity. The glass could date from 1560, when mullions were first built with tiny glass panes set in lead. The Glass Museum in Sunderland were unable to give the glass a definitive dating but could say that it was made from around 1600 and was in use for the next hundred years using the same ingredients and methods.


During renovation of the west gable chimneystack, a beehive bread oven was discovered. The oven measured 5 feet across and was 2 feet 6 inches high. It was lined with handmade bricks and the floor was of red sandstone blocks approximately 15 inches square. An oven door can be seen at the back of the oven and vestigial traces of a bulge can be seen. The chimney was in danger of collapse with large cracks down its length. Extensive repairs were needed and the oven shored up from the inside. The bread oven was situated in the service/kitchen end of the house and was first discovered to the right of the fireplace in the 1940's.


Although a house with an attached kitchen was rare before 1600, there is no evidence to suggest that the kitchen was built on. The roof is continuous, there are no straight lines in the stonework and the bread oven is an integral part of the chimney.


This part of the house had been divided off from the hall and parlour, which was the dwelling of the farm tenant for many years - traditionally it was the 'hinds' cottage.


The floor plan shows the layout of the kitchen and the entrance into the hall. There has been very little alteration to the exterior shape of the building since it was built. The interior however has been altered extensively. It has been possible to draw a fair representation of what it was like originally.   For the purposes of authenticity all measurements of the building are in feet and inches as these are the measurements used by the medieval builders.


The cross passage house was an innovation of the later middle ages separating the domestic life of a house from the householder. The hall was the most important and imposing room of the house with an impressive ceiling and fine features. Rock Farm can most certainly fit into this category.


Part of the cross passage wall was removed in 1963 to the left of the north entrance, it was approximately a yard square and did not support anything, it ended before the roof space.  Its function was not realised at this time. The remaining cross passage wall as removed in the 1970's to make a separate kitchen, the heck passage remains and is now a cupboard. A window was placed in the south facing entrance of the cross passage. In the early 1950’s the cross passage was converted into a bathroom for the main house with just enough room for a bath and washbasin.


The existing staircase (not original, being of more modern date) was modified in 1964. It had originally ascended up six stairs and then made a sharp right-angled turn at the side of the cross passage wall. The stairs led originally to two upstairs rooms, one of which was partitioned to create a bathroom.


The renovation work was begun in the roof space. In the opinion of an archaeologist who examined the materials in the roof, the trusses are not original and date from the 18th Century. They are not in keeping with the rest of the house – the original trusses would have been more ornate. The house was probably re-roofed for the tenant Edward Walton of Wheatley Hill who was bequeathed it in his will in 1768 together with a house and garden at Old Shotton and £2000 for a Schoolmaster to teach 20 poor children.


A single light window was uncovered in the east gable and during the work in this area, signatures of workmen and a date of 26th September 1930 were discovered. Work was carried out on the south-facing slope of the roof in 1930 when pantiles were replaced with Welsh slate.  The pantiles on the north slope of the roof were not replaced until 1952. There are no exterior traces of a chimney on the north gable roof, although three fireplaces in the north gable wall were found to have one common flue.


The east gable window has been obscured by a chimney built internally from ground floor to roof, almost certainly in 1894 as workmen’s signatures and ‘27 Nov 1894' were written in the plaster. The alterations tie in with the farm being re-let and the colliery being revived.


The Upper Chamber

The window in this part of the house is a three light mullioned window with hollow chamfered (cavetto) mullions set in a deep dressed stone­splayed reveal. This is the upstairs window, which can be seen on the east gable of the house.


In the north wall a dressed stone fireplace with a flat head of rollmoulding was uncovered. A bricked up doorway, which led into the rear wing, was revealed in this area. The original entrance door to this room was to the left of the fireplace.


The Parlour

The heavy oak beam in this room had been repaired at an unknown date when beam supports, fixed with wrought iron bolts had been fitted, possibly when work was carried out in 1894. Some of the scribed joists were badly rotted and had to be discarded, joists were replaced in alternate sockets and the beam was repaired.


A fireplace of the same design as that in the upper chamber was also found in this room. The stone lintel had been removed, the walls heightened with brick and a new curved timber head had been inserted. This room was converted to a kitchen.


The hall was the principal room in the house and its importance is noted with impressive original features - namely the fireplace and adjacent heck area and the doors to the parlour and rear wing. (A heck is a shelter from the fireplace - similar to a braddish). The hall was described by Martin Roberts, an architect with Durham County Council: "the high ceiling is divided into three by chamfered and plain stopped oak beams. The oak joists have scribed roll mouldings on the underside and are of the same design as the parlour ceiling" The ceiling level has been raised to make this room higher than the parlour. A modern staircase rises from the east wall reversing the previous staircase, which was built at some unknown date.


The doorway to the parlour is a very substantial and unusual design in dressed stone. It appeared to have had a four centered arched head but at some point, the central voussoirs (wedge shaped or tapered stone to make an arch) in the head were removed. The doorway is rebated with iron door hooks and slightly splayed into the parlour. The arch is built in the style known as perpendicular Gothic in architectural terms and came into vogue in the early 16th Century. Peter Ryder and other archaeologists gave a definitive date of 1500 - 1525 on the house based on this architectural evidence, after my project was completed.


At the other end of this wall is a plain doorway, which was the entrance into the pantry.


On the north wall there is it low stone doorway which led to the rear wing with a 'broad unstopped, chamfered, semicircular head. Again at floor level is a stump of the chamfered threshold'  (M Roberts) Before renovation this doorway had one step up into the offshoot, the doorway into the rear wing had two steps up and a further two steps to the outside doorway.  It is very substantial for an interior door with ashlar dressed stone and most probably was an exterior door at some time and led directly into the hall. A modern window has been inserted in this wall replacing a door and smaller window, not of original date.


During the renovation work, all the plaster was removed from the south wall to reveal the outline of the original hall window, which was much wider than the modern window and probably of four lights. 'An unusual dressed stone corner was revealed between the window and the parlour. The feature was finely constructed of ashlar work, similar in character to the other architectural details of the room and had a thin chamfer, which extended (after excavation below the current floor level.  Its reveal had no jamb for door or window and must have originally extended out beyond the main wall as a full height southerly projection' (M Roberts)


A large ten feet wide inglenook fireplace was found on the hearth passage wall, it had been filled in by later fireplaces but survived intact. 'It is a substantial false four centered arched design, with a roll moulding stopped by two stone benches running into the full depth of the fireplace. There is a relieving arch over it. A bell-shaped projection, with access from the hearth passage was removed during building work."


To the right of the fireplace is a solid stone wall, which separated it from the heck passage (now a cupboard). A large timber lintel can be seen over the heck passage, it appears to have been severed at the arc but most probably ends there. In the opinion of Martin Roberts there was possibly a support post at this point as access to the staircase would have been difficult if the lintel had continued to the north wall, there were also probably two or three stairs, which projected into the forehouse.


The original stone staircase has survived, having been bricked up at some unknown date, one of the lower steps was incorporated in the brickwork. It rises and turns over the heck passage, giving access to the first floor. The top steps were removed and a landing created with a new opening to the outside.


Wallpaper remained on the walls in this area and samples were sent to Anthony Wells-Cole of Temple Newsam House, an acknowledged expert on wallpaper dating. In his opinion the first of the wallpapers probably dates from about 1860, the second from the 1890’s and the third dates from the 1920’s. The papers are all machine printed on machine-made wood pulp paper, techniques which only came into being after 1840.


The dating of the wallpaper is very significant as it is most likely that the provision of an upstairs flat coincided with the sinking of the colliery, which began in 1863. The paper sample dating to 1890 is also significant in that the colliery began to make a profit at about that time and accommodation in the area would be needed. It was also a time when extensive renovation work was carried out  - verified by the workmans signature 1894 (earlier article). The flat was last occupied during the 1920's.



Up until the 1860's, Rock Farm and its buildings would be the most substantial building in Wheatley Hill. In 1863 however with the sinking of the pit shaft, sinkers etc would move into the village to work for the Hartlepool Coal and Coke Company.


The land on which the colliery, was being built was leased to the Coal Company by Thomas Wilkinson who was also the owner of Rock Farm at the time, and presumably recognising an opportunity to make money from offering accommodation, he presumably gave permission for the alterations to the house.


The newly formed village of Wheatley Hill was chronically overcrowded and obviously where overcrowding exists, conditions were unsanitary, - this of course was also in the light of no running water or suitable drainage system.


A report by Dr Arthur for the Easington Sanitary Committee in 1882 recorded a death from typhoid - that of a 32 year old man 'in a house with two rooms where dwelt wife, six children and two adult lodgers' (W Moyes 1969).


Ruth Mary Gregory, who worked at the farm as a young girl, spoke of an old lady who used to live upstairs in a room over the kitchen. The 'flat' was unoccupied when the Gregory's became tenants 1927. There used to be steps up to the outside door of the flat, but no trace remains of them today. Vestigial traces of the doorway can be seen in the exterior stonework.


Masons marks were found on the east gable window in the upper chamber, on the fireplace in this room, the parlour door and the hall fireplace. The marks were the symbols, which identified the mason, showed his proficiency and enabled him to get work as he travelled around. They were also used to certify that mason 'x' had cut and dressed stone from a quarry which was suitable for building work. The marks were called 'bankers marks' by the masons, as a masons workbench is his 'bank'. They are still used today.


English Heritage advises that no definitive work has been done on mason’s marks and they were often passed down from father to son. It would be unlikely that a mason could be identified or his work dated unless a comparative study was done on a similar building in the area and as I mentioned in an earlier article there is no record of a similar building in County Durham.


This concludes my series of articles on Rock Farm – a house with a fascinating history. It was hoped that traces of previous buildings would be discovered in front of the south facing aspect of the house when paving was renewed. However, no foundations were uncovered, as with the present house, previous buildings must have been built directly onto the limestone base.