There is evidence of people in the area in the late Neolithic and early Bronze Age: a cyst grave on Fulforth farm land, and various cup and ring marked stones picked up in the fields. Field finds from Roman times suggest that there was a small Roman settlement at Crookton, across the Browney Valley from Witton. Crookton existed as a settlement from before the Norman Conquest until the thirteenth century. Witton itself was the centre of an estate created out of thick woodland some time before the Conquest and by the end of the twelfth century it was owned together with Fulforth by the Bishop of Durham. His tenant and Lord of the Manor was Gilbert de la Ley, who gave his name to his village in the woods. It is thought that his Manor house and its buildings were at St. John’s Green down by the river. They have now totally disappeared, although its chapel of the same name still survived as a farm cottage in the early 1920s. There were other early settlements in the parish based on farms created at the edges of the village; Stobbilee (near Langley Park), Straight Stirrups, Findon and Sacriston Heugh.
The people of Witton Gilbert in the late twelfth century would have had their own small cottages, and worked strips of land which they held in the large open village fields. In return for their land, they owed the Lord of the Manor work in the manor fields and paid rent in cash and in kind. They had to pay to grind their corn at the Lord’s mill at Wallnook. Animals were pastured in the common waste on the edges of the settlement, and the meadows by the Browney were kept for hay. The crops grown were wheat and rye for bread, oats and peas for animal fodder and barley for beer and bread. Unless they had 20 or more acres, the Witton farmers would have had to borrow oxen for the plough and horses for riding and pulling carts. Some sheep were kept for their meat and wool, and everyone would have pigs and hens, and a cow or two for milk, butter and cheese. The more prosperous farmers sold any surplus produce at Durham market.
The original parish of St. Oswald’s in Durham was huge in the Middle Ages, stretching from near Chester le Street to near Croxdale and included Witton Gilbert. To make the Witton villagers’ journey to church easier Bishop Hugh de Puiset built Witton Gilbert Chapel about 1175, with its own graveyard. About the same time, Gilbert de la Ley gave land near the chapel to Durham Priory for the building of a hospital for five lepers. A new grange farm, later known as Witton Farm was built alongside, and produce from the farm provided money to run the hospital and fund a chaplain for it. The farm was managed for the Almoner of the Priory, who provided clothes, shoes, food and fuel for the hospital’s inhabitants. The farmhouse had a suite of rooms where monks from the Priory stayed when they visited Witton at Christmas and Easter for religious celebrations. By the fourteenth century, the lepers had been replaced in the hospital by retired people who had worked for the Prior and Bishop, and it became an alms-house.
There is evidence for coal digging in the parish from the early fourteenth century. It was mostly produced from bell pits reached by ladders, and soon worked out. There are several references to pits at Kimblesworth, in Beaurepaire Park, Findon and Fulforth. There were small drift mines too in the chapelry and a miner called John Nattress was fined in 1450 for not paying his coal tithe to the Bishop.
Some part of the Prior’s Park of Beaurepaire was within the bounds of Witton Gilbert. Crookton fields, some woods in the Browney Valley and a small cattle farm became the Prior’s when he built a house there for his retirement in 1258. Shortly afterwards he enclosed his land by making a ditch and bank along its boundary. Over the years the Park grew by further land grants until 1311 when it was enclosed by a stone wall. It was reckoned to contain 1500 acres. The gatehouse was at Stottgate and the keeper’s house was Lodge Farm. Deer were kept in the Park, and monks from the Priory took their holidays in the mansion house. At one time there were 2000 sheep in the Park, and tenants fed 42 pigs in its woods. During the Scottish wars of the fourteenth century, the Prior’s estate was invaded several times, horses and cattle taken and the house of Beaurepaire and its chapel robbed of valuables. In 1346 King David and the Scots camped on the estate before the battle of Neville’s Cross. Prior Fossour spent considerable sums repairing the damage and restocking the estate farm. After 1535 when Durham Priory was dissolved, the Bearpark estate, owned now by the Dean of Durham Cathedral was divided up into tenant farms, some of which were in Witton Gilbert parish. Farmers from Lodge Farm, Sleights House, St. John’s Green, and Paper Mill Farm are buried in Witton churchyard.
After the Reformation Witton Gilbert became an independent parish. Kimblesworth was affiliated to it in 1593 when its people were permitted to use the church and burial ground, as its church there was ruinous. Witton’s population had grown and now, amongst the farmers and agricultural workers there were tradesmen and craftsmen. At least one, Miles Sheppardson who was village constable in 1641 and had a farm in the parish, was a member of the Masons’ Guild in Durham. People had houses and shops on each side of the village street, with long plots of land at the back to accommodate sheds, barns and workshops and to grow vegetables. In 1641 there were 76 men over the age of 18 in the parish, and in 1666 there were 92 houses of sufficient size to pay the government’s Hearth Tax. Witton was reputed to be a healthy place and there is little evidence for plague. There were some large farms in the parish, some owned by Durham business men as their houses in the country. Mixed farming was carried out now with rather more emphasis on stock rearing than corn production.
The church was Protestant and the few remaining Catholics in the parish were listed as recusants and heavily fined. There were Quakers in the parish as early as 1660, when John Woodmas, the miller at Wallnook Mill and two other men were arrested for their nonconformity and sent to the gaol in Durham. The Church Vestry appointed the parish officials, who superintended road and bridge building and road repairs. Overseers of the Poor administered the Poor Tax and in 1747 organized a Poor House in the village where the infirm poor could be cared for. Other poor received small pensions and help in sickness. Two parish constables, under the authority of the Durham Sheriff, caught poachers and thieves, kept a check on alehouses, and were in charge of the village pinfold at the bottom of Norburn Lane (also called Nor Lane), where stray animals were kept until their owners reclaimed them by paying a fine.
There were some small schools in the village quite early. The vicar Robert Hawksworth ran one in his house for up to 15 boys in the early 1600s, and later there were some Dames’ Schools, where literate old ladies took a few younger children into their homes and taught them the rudiments of reading. A school was built on Front Street in 1720 by public subscription and the first schoolmaster was the parish clerk, Stephen Clark. A few small collieries were developed in the parish on a slightly larger scale than before, employing a handful of men at Charlaw, Blackburn and Findon Hill. Conditions for working were agreed between owners and their men by a pitman’s bond.
By 1896, the parish was much changed. It was reported to have 4400 inhabitants and to cover 2535 acres, the increase in population being `attributed to the extension of the collieries in the neighbourhood.’ Charlaw Pit employed 300 men, Sacriston Pit 600 men, Kimblesworth and Nettlesworth employed 250 and 600 respectively. Sacriston, always part of the parish, had grown up to house the immigrant workers, and now totally dwarfed its neighbour Witton Gilbert. It was separated off into a new parish in 1863 with a new church. Langley Park Colliery opened in 1876, and Falkous Terrace and East and West Block, together with 80 back-to-back houses on the Clink Field were built at Witton to take the overspill pitmen from there and from the colliery at Bearpark, opened in 1872.
In 1862 a station was built on the edge of Witton village, which was now on the Browney Valley railway line to Consett. Coke from the plant at Langley Park, coal, creosote and timber, farm produce and passengers travelled the line between Consett and Durham. A postal service had grown up and Witton had its own Post Office on Front Street, where letters arrived from the Durham Office twice a day. Not far from the station, the Kaysburn Brick and Tile Company took advantage of the seams of fine blue clay found when the Langley Pit was sunk.
There were two new National Schools in the village, one for 100 infants and a Mixed School for 150 boys and girls. These schools were closed during the First World War due to subsidence. A prefabricated corrugated iron school at the top end of the Dene was in use until a Council School replaced it in 1932. There was also an Industrial School at Earl’s House with its own farm. It took in boys from the County who were truants, or from poor homes, and taught them a trade.
Front Street had electric light, courtesy of the neighbouring collieries. Main drainage was installed along Front Street too, to help prevent the fever outbreaks when patients were sent to the Fever Hospital at Langley Park.
The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built in 1857 to hold 150. It had a Sunday School, and was the centre of a band of the Temperance Movement at work in the village, no doubt with good reason as there were seven public houses each with its own entertainment speciality. Rabbit coursing was held at the Black Lion, the stirrup cup was drunk at the Three Tuns on hunt days, the Gardening Club met at the Travellers’ Rest, the Oddfellows’ Arms hosted dances, at the Glendenning Arms the Oddfellows held their Club dinners, and at the Three Horseshoes, smoking concerts were held.
There were several shops in the village: Joseph Hedley was a draper and bootmaker, Cuthbert Green was a grocer. There was a greengrocer at Kaysburn, a tailor and draper at Fell House, a hairdresser, a blacksmith, a joiner and cartwright, and a photographer on Front Street. Small lending libraries were run from a cottage on Dene Bank and from the Post Office. After the First World War, a small drift mine was begun by Benjamin Pescod in the side of the Clink Bank, and employed about 20 men, mostly newcomers to the village, until shortly after the nationalization of the coal industry. In 1894 the Local Government Act removed responsibility for parish affairs from the control of the church vestry and created a joint civil parish of Witton Gilbert and Sacriston. After two years, and quite a lot of bad feeling, a boundary was established between the two sections, and five councillors assigned to Witton Gilbert and ten to Sacriston.
At the beginning of the 20th century the village started to move towards Sacriston with new council houses being built at Hillside, Fair View, Chester Gardens and Rose Lea. These were some of the first council houses to be built in the country and marked a social revolution as families moved away from the back to back terraces into spacious modern homes. Durham Rural District Council continued this building programme into the 1960s, and 1970s then the Whitehouse Farm estate and Norburn Park were built. Both private estates which saw the housing stock in the village rise to approximately 1100 with a resident population of about 2500.
Witton Gilbert Primary School opened on Sacriston Lane in 1939. The present Workingmen’s Club and the White Tun public house were built in the 1960s as were the present two shops trading as newsagents and general dealers. The Community Centre, (Cooper Hall) which is very much part of the village’s recreational activities and where the Parish Council is based, was opened in 1974.
At the start of the twentieth century it was unusual for women with families to go out to work, the men mostly being employed at the nearby collieries or on local farms. However by the 1980s the mines were closed and both men and women now go out to work, mainly in service industries in Durham, Chester-Le-Street, Newcastle and Sunderland.
This century saw a massive rise in road transport with almost every household having a car. Front Street which was a constant problem and an accident black spot was by-passed in 1996 and is now a quiet residential area with two public houses, the Glendenning Arms and the Travellers Rest.
Several of the old farms are still there, and on fine summer evenings you can still walk across the meadows and down to the Browney, and imagine that the centuries have rolled back to the village’s rural beginnings.