The Winlaton Story


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Part 7.  St Anne's Chapel

This year, possibly about November, will be the four hundredth and third anniversary of the destruction of St. Anne's Chapel in Winlaton, and so could the following notes be used to possibly piece the story of its existence together.

Up until this time no documentary evidence is forthcoming to support the existence of a catholic chapel dedicated to St. Anne which tradition states, stood in Winlaton in the 16th century. Tradition, which sometimes speaks truthfully says, that the small catholic chapel of St. Anne was burnt down during the rebellion of the earls in 1569. How, when and why this chapel stood in the village is unknown, but the problem leaves large scope for conjecture.

William Hutchinson, the old reliable County Durham historian, writing in 1787 quotes, "that whenever the ground near to the site of the old chapel is broken to any depth, large quantities of human bones are frequently dug up".

The site of the chapel was on Front Street, where the road forks, with the Congregational Chapel covering the exact spot today. In 1890, Mr. T. C. Nicholson an architect of Blaydon, who is mainly remembered for having designed the schools at the bottom of Shibdon Bank and Winlaton Board Schools, excavated the site, but unfortunately nothing of note was found. This fact is hardly surprising considering the large amount of activity that has taken place upon the grounds of the chapel after its supposed destruction.

When Sir Ambrose Crowley came to Winlaton in 1691, he decided that his workmen needed spiritual comfort in the village instead of having to travel the long rocky road to Ryton Parish Church, so in 1703 he licensed Winlaton Hall as a place of worship. On April 17th, 1705, a subscription was commenced for building a chapel upon the ruins of the old chapel, which was finished and regularly pewed the following January. It had a gallery at the west end, with a turret and a clock, and it afforded accommodation for three hundred persons. This chapel was also dedicated to St. Anne, proving the tradition of the chapel was still strong in the beginning of Crowley's regime. Daily service was performed in the chapel by the Crowley firm's own chaplains who also combined these duties with those of a schoolmaster. The burial, baptism and marriage ceremonies were still carried out at Ryton.

In 1815 Winlaton was abandoned by the Crowleys, the chapel fell into decay and was demolished; then in 1816, a large school-room was erected upon the same site, by subscription aided by gifts from the National and the Diocesan School Societies, and from Lord Crewe's trustees. This school remained until about 1898 when the ground was prepared for yet another chapel, the Congregational, whose date of erection is quite plain to any passer-by. These activities have successfully obliterated all traces of the first chapel to St. Anne.

A little to the east of the chapel stood Winlaton Hall, which was owned by a noted catholic family, the Hodgsons of Hebburn, in whose possession it remained until 1698 when it passed into the hands of Lord Widdrington, who let it to Sir Ambrose Crowley. Sir Ambrose converted it into offices and warehouses, but also used it as living quarters. The Hall was described as "well situated, fit for a gentleman's family, with a large tract of meadow and pasture ground around the same, with several houses and smith's shops", the Crowleys vacated it in 1753. When this hall was built is uncertain, but Mr. Matthew Kirsop, who owned the hall (which was sometimes known as Crowley's Castle) said at its demolition (about 1935) that it was probably built about the 13th century. If this is true could St. Anne's Chapel have been connected with the hall, possibly as a chantry? On the estate map of 1632, there are no buildings marked on the site, but the stout old catholic knight, Sir Robert Hodgson, is known to have lived here, and he died in 1624, so no doubt the map is inaccurate.

There are some quite mysterious facts connected with the area of both chapel and hall which created quite a lot of local interest in 1936. During road repair work, the heavy roller the council men were using, broke into a subterranean passage between Winlaton and Blaydon Burn. The press were soon investigating the discovery and the headlines of the now defunct Evening World ran :-


The story given was thus: "The mysterious tunnel which runs parallel with the south side of the highway, is about five feet deep, over two feet in width, and covered with stone slabs eight inches thick. It is two feet below the surface.

At each side of the cavity is solid rock, and where the workmen have holed in there is sufficient room to allow anyone to make a journey underground".

The reporter took the news of the find to the local member of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, Mr. M. Kirsop.

"We know", said Mr. Kirsop, "that there is a subterranean passage from what used to be the old castle at Winlaton, afterwards known as Belts' Buildings. This passage leads across to Hallgarth Farm (now the council depot). Fifty years ago one of the old stalwarts of Winlaton, whom I knew well, entered this passage way, which breaks off at right angles below Back Street and then runs to the Sandhill. He told me that he had walked underground as far as the Sandhill. Just below the Sandhill he came across a large stone table. The passage then leads to the Low Town End, and no doubt the tunnel which has been discovered is a continuation and may lead to Stella Hall - its termination".

It has never been verified how far the tunnel extends, although it is still in existence, nor has it ever been fully explored. The entrance is now securely sealed off but can still be traced today near to the grounds of the old hall and chapel.

The story was, that it was a means of communication for the monks of the early days, who inhabited the district, between Stella Hall and Winlaton, when the Scots were raiding far into County Durham. It is on record that Ryton and Whickham were often ravaged, the Scots at least once taking the church plate at Whickham, so Winlaton probably suffered too. Somehow this theory does not ring true and we can only conjecture, what was this passage and did it have any connection with St. Anne's Chapel?

One of the leaders of the Rebellion of the Earls, Charles, Earl of Westmorland, in July 1569, conveyed his manor of East and West Winlaton - which included Blaydon, Bates Houses, Thornley, Spen, Smailes, Sherburn, Lintz Ford and Barlow, and a free fishery in the Tyne to Robert Hodgson and William Selby for £2,000. The money obtained from this transaction was probably used to finance his ill-fated rising to restore in England the "old faith".

After the rebellion (which really had no chance of success), had failed, the north country suffered under Queen Elizabeth's unsparing vengeance. Sir George Bowes who was instrumental in the defeat of the rebellion, took on the task of retribution, and he boasted that for 60 miles in length and 20 miles in breadth, between Newcastle and Wetherby, there was hardly a town or a village where he had not executed one of the inhabitants. Two of the rebels were executed in Whickham on the village green. It is very likely this spiteful hand fell on Winlaton, once owned by his arch-enemy and now owned by another noted catholic, Sir Robert Hodgson. What could not be better than to burn down a catholic chapel, where possibly one of the ringleaders of the rebellion had worshipped? If this so happened what is the explanation of the bones, were they from this period or earlier, what of the subterranean passage from the grounds? One of these days evidence may be forthcoming to explain these riddles of the past, but until then, people must abide by their own theories.

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© Copyright 1971, R. Anderson

First published in The Bellman (the Blaydon Urban District Council newsletter) No 22, November 1972.