‘The research will continue’

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A group dedicated to preserving Sunderland’s past has become history itself. Sarah Stoner reports.

“This is not a decision we have taken lightly,” said chairman Douglas Smith. “It was a sad move to make, but the group really had to come to an end.

OLDEN DAYS: The Board Inn at Middle Herrington at the turn of the last century.

OLDEN DAYS: The Board Inn at Middle Herrington at the turn of the last century.

“We are all proud, however, of the legacy we are leaving. We have achieved many successes in our time, including books, Heritage Plaques and the restoration of a local grave.”

Herrington Heritage Group – dedicated to investigating the history of New, Middle, East and West Herrington – was launched at St Aidan’s Church in New Herrington 16 years ago.

The group later moved to the chapel at Crow Lane, Middle Herrington, where 30-plus members regularly gathered to discuss local history – until numbers started to drop.

“Our group was formed at a time when local history societies were starting up all over the place and, at first, we had a flourishing and very enthusiastic membership,” said Douglas.

“Sadly, this membership has gradually been eroded over the years. We still have members who are very keen, but we just don’t have enough to make it possible to keep the group going.

“Sometimes it would be rather embarrassing when booking a speaker, as only six or seven people would turn up to listen to the talk. It became clear the group had run its course.”

Among the successes chalked up by the group over the years are two books detailing the history of the Herringtons – as well as two Blue Heritage Plaques at Middle Herrington Park.

“The plaque on the park wall in Crow Lane commemorates Herrington Hall, once a wonderful old building, as well as historian Robert Surtees who got married there,” said Douglas.

“Sadly, the building was pulled down for no other reason than its new owners, the Coal Board, didn’t know what to do with it. It was a great loss to the Herrington area.

“Our group once entertained descendents of the Robinson family, who lived at the hall from Edward III’s reign until the 19th century. They came over from New Zealand to see us.

“There is one of our plaques on the nearby chapel too, commenting on the unsolved murder of 1815, when Isabella Young – the servant of local miser Lady Peat – was beaten to death.”

The Herrington historians have also documented details of all the plots at West Herrington cemetery over the last few years, in addition to donating to local good causes.

Vintage bus trips, regional visits and collaborations with local schools – which resulted in an artwork being installed at Middle Herrington Park in 2010 – have been highlights too.

“One of the most memorable things members have done is restore the grave of local heroine Margaret Wheatley of West Herrington, which had fallen into disrepair,” said Douglas.

“Margaret became famous after sacrificing her life to save a dog from a train track. Even though our group has come to an end, our members have pledged to look after her grave.” The remains of the group’s funds are now to be shared among local causes, and one final act is also planned – the publication of the diary of Herrington road man Harry Shickle.

“Harry kept a diary between the 1900s and the 1930s, recording local news, gossip, weather reports and pit accidents,” said Douglas. “I’m sure people will find it absolutely fascinating.

“Although the group has come to an end, individual research will still continue into the history of the Herringtons. The history of our villages will never be forgotten.

“Indeed, it is always possible that at some point, some time in the future, our group will be revived. All it takes is a few keen people to drive it forward. This may not be the end.”

Herrington History Group’s website will continue to operate for the forseeable future. It can be accessed at: www.herrington-heritage.org.uk

The lonely tale of famous miser Lady Peat...

THE meanness of Herrington kleptomaniac Lady Peat was legendary.

“If she could beg a free meal, she would, and if she could steal something, so much the better,” said Douglas Smith, chairman of Herrington Heritage Group.

“But raking through the smoking remains of a tragic fire, to find nails to sell for scrap metal, was considered somewhat callous – even for her. She certainly was a colourful character.”

Lady Peat was born plain Jane Smith in 1752. The only child of Squire Matthew Smith, she grew up at Herrington House – next to Herrington Hall and opposite the Board Inn.

Despite being rich, Squire Matthew was an eccentric miser. Both unsavoury traits passed down to Jane, who first fell foul of the law at 14 – when she lied to get out of paying a toll.

“It happened in 1786, while she was out riding with her father along the West Rainton turnpike road,” said Douglas. “It was a common enough trick, but the gate-keeper was incensed.”

Jane and her father were brought to court for the offence. Despite pleading not guilty they were both fined £10 by magistrates – thanks to the evidence given by the angry gate-keeper.

Three years later, having just laid her father to rest in the family vault at Houghton, Jane was in trouble again – this time over hair powder tax, which was charged at one guinea a year.

When Jane failed to declare her use of the powder, then extremely fashionable for well-to-do ladies, Herrington man Willie Watson reported her to the authorities and she was fined £40.

“Not only was she a miser, but she was also a hopeless kleptomaniac. Everything she could lay her hands on disappeared into her pockets, despite the fact she had money,” said Douglas.

“She was usually let off with a warning, but one crafty grocer got his own back. After seeing her steal butter, he kept her talking in front of a roaring fire until it melted in her petticoats.”

Just a few years later, in August 1815, Jane left her teenage servant Isabella Young in charge of Herrington House, while she set off for Lanchester to collect rents.

For several nights the young girl heard someone trying the doors and windows but, despite begging a neighbour to stay, she remained alone.

“In the early hours of August 29 John Smith, who lived in the nearby blacksmith’s, awoke to see light reflected on his ceiling,” said Douglas. “Looking out, he saw Jane’s home on fire.”

Dashing across Durham Road, he forced his way into the building and dragged out Isabella. The servant’s head had been smashed, her eyes beaten in and her jawbone broken.

“The first thing Jane did after arriving home was gather up nuts and bolts from the ruins to sell for scrap,” said Douglas. “She even slept in the shed with Isabella’s body to save on paying for lodgings.”

Three men were brought to trial for Isabella’s murder. Two were found guilty, but their convictions were overturned after new evidence emerged. The murder still remains unsolved.

Jane went on to marry Sir Robert Peat, a chaplain to the Prince Regent. The couple set up home in Villiers Street, but Peat – a heavy gambler – was quickly angered by Jane’s meanness.

“When Peat inspected the larder, he found mouldy old pies and a decomposing leg of pork, which so revolted him that he took up separate quarters in a nearby street,” said Douglas.

“As soon as he could, he scuttled off to London. He visited her once a year, but it was thought he had to do that, or lose the allowance she gave him.”

Lady Peat spent her remaining years looked after by her servant, Bella, and surrounded by her ill-gotten gains – including an old tea-pot said to have been used by Cromwell.

“I suppose the lesson to be learned from her life is that you can’t buy happiness,” said Douglas. “It is also clear that, in her case, you can’t steal happiness either.”

l A heritage plaque marking the murder of Isabella can be seen on the wall of Herrington Park. A sculpture featuring Isabella and Lady Peat can also be seen in the park.

Tribute to animal-lover Margaret

THE story of teenage animal lover Margaret Wheatley touched the hearts of the nation during the depression years of the 1930s – until she was forgotten.

Grass and weeds quickly obscured the touching inscription on her gravestone: “We honour the name of Margaret Wheatley, aged 16, who lost her life in saving a dog, 4th June, 1936.”

Indeed, the granite cross in the churchyard of St Cuthbert’s at West Herrington was all but derelict when members of Herrington Heritage Group pledged to restore the grave in 1996.

“Margaret was apparently a very cheerful girl with a great love for animals,” said Douglas. “She was the daughter of a retired miner and, on leaving school, went into service.

“She was staying at Grange-over-Sands when her mistress’s dog got out one day. Margaret went after it to the railway line, pushed it off the track and slipped on the embankment.

“Sadly, she fell in front of the Carlisle express and died several days later, on June 9, 1936, of her injuries. Margaret was posthumously awarded the RSPCA Silver Medal For Gallantry.”

The RSPCA went on to name its highest gallantry award after Margaret, of West Herrington, as well as paying for a special marker for the teenager’s grave.

“Even though Herrington Heritage Group has now come to an end, we intend to keep on looking after Margaret’s grave. It is an on-going project for us,” said Douglas.