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Memories from Cliff Brown
Memories relate to the 1950s

My family lived at 7, Outram Street from the late 1940s until about 1960 (I was born in 1951), when we moved to Sunderland, so we’d left before the guts were ripped out of the town. My Great Grandmother, Elizabeth Henderson, lived further along the street with her daughter Lily, who eventually ended up living in Shakespeare Street in the 60s, married to Jack Bunker, when Grandma Henderson died.

I’ve been pleased to see that Outram and the neighbouring streets have been left more or less as they were, as a little enclave.

Although times were a bit on the rough side there in the 1950s, I’ve always held Houghton in high regard, and managed to get in touch with one or two people I went to Newbottle Street Junior School with through Friends Reunited - although I’m not sure they really remember me as I was only 9 or so when we moved. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

A Christmas time view of the infants in Newbottle Street Junior School, c1958

The headmistress of the Infants school when I was there was Miss Sedgwick, a formidable character who wore a tweed suit, and whom you didn't get on the wrong side of. She was short and stocky and very much ‘old school’. She'd probably been there for years when I started in 1956. The ‘baby class’ teacher, what would be called Reception nowadays, was Mrs Bailey, and the next class up from that was Miss Wraithe. A very nice teacher was Mrs Walker, who'd got married the year we had her.

I don't remember a great lot about actually being at school, apart from being run over on the school crossing one day and ending up with an undiagnosed broken leg! The crossing lady on Newbottle Street was Mrs Tremble. At the Junior school the head was Mr Smith, a jovial Pickwickian character who always told a joke whenever he came to see our class teachers. The teacher I remember most was Mr Crawford, who walked on water as far as that generation of Houghtonites is concerned. Our classroom was a prefab on the field next to the gasworks at the bottom of Station Road - the opposite side to the rest of the school - and that was my final class when I left for Sunderland in 1960. I loved it - in contrast to Hill View School in Sunderland - and I used to come back on the bus to visit whenever I could; I even walked it once! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

My Grandad was a TV shop manager in Washington and managed to get us what was probably the only one in Outram Street for the Coronation event. I remember a room full of people watching it in flickering green and white, and have a strong memory of the white aerial cable running across the carpet - not bad for two and a bit years old! I don't have any memory of the street party.

Children at the Coronation street party on Outram Street, Houghton-le-Spring, on June 2nd 1953

Houghton was very clannish, and the ‘Newts’ (boys who lived in the New Town) were definitely not welcome on our patch - they always seemed to turn up twenty at a time, so they were presumably scared of us too! ‘Teds’ were a hazard then, too, and Houghton Feast could get a bit hairy - there was one particular gang who you needed to avoid at all costs. Bonfire time was devil-take-the-hindmost, and if any of your friends found your stash of firewood they nicked it for theirs.

The old cemetery, which was never looked after even then, still had all its headstones, as well as the Standish Standish vault, which had a caved-in roof, and of course there was the Elliot one. It was, together with the cliffs on both sides of the road and the dolomite ridge in both directions as far as we could go on a summer’s day, one gigantic playground. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The door on the Elliot vault was a single big rusty iron door, the same size and shape as the arch, hinged on the right and possibly studded with rivets. It opened inwards but was locked. On the morning we found it open, which I’m guessing was a Sunday, as my Dad was there and he worked six days a week then, it was half ajar. They must have managed to get through the lock, as the door itself was not apparently damaged.

I couldn’t actually bring myself to look inside; the cemetery was scary, and none of my gang would ever go in there on their own under any circumstances.

The family vault of Sir George Elliot, Bart., M.P. at Houghton's old Hillside Cemetery

The next time we went up, there was a council bricklayer filling it in with (crap) commons, and presumably it is his initials on the mortar to this day. It was quite a tall, imposing entrance in its day, although I was quite small! The door may still be inside the brickwork if it was hinged off the back of the jambs. It would have taken some shifting from where it was, so they may have left it. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The story about Standish Standish going over the edge on a foggy night and being buried with his horse and faithful dog (who supposedly jumped after him) was accepted as fact then.

There used to be a large stone pinnacle to the east of the Elliot tomb, on a raised piece of ground, that had nothing written on it, and the story was that this commemorated a mining disaster. The Devil was supposed to appear if you did something along the lines of running around it seven times, but we never had much success with that! Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

In retrospect, that was all probably private land, but nobody ever bothered us, and I don’t recall anyone I knew ever doing any deliberate damage or vandalism. A lot of it was overgrown, as there’d be no cheap way of cutting grass between the stones in the pre-strimmer era, and I remember talk of the odd funeral still taking place although I never saw one.

I also remember the Lodge at the entrance being knocked down - I even think someone was living in it in the mid 1950s, but that could be imagination. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

They did have nice gardens, though, with snow-in-summer on the left as you went in, and then raspberry canes in a separate garden on the left just before the path widened into the cemetery proper.

The large memorial found at the east end of Houghton's old Hillside Cemetery

We had names for all the ‘climbs’ up the rock faces, although the only one I can remember now is the Giant Steps, which were big square blocks on the east side of the road at the ends of the ledges, presumably there to stop stone falling on passers-by. On the Miller’s Hill side (now gone in the road widening) was a wooded bit right at the top known as Fairyland, presumably because nobody could ever get to it. Copyright © Books of the North 2009.

The Health and safety people would have a fit nowadays!

Cliff Brown, 2007


Collected & Edited by
Article and research by Paul Lanagan, local historian

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Houghton-le-Spring Cottage Homes Ref No. CC/X 128 Deeds, contracts etc. re Houghton-le-Spring Union (inc. bill of quantities for proposed cottage homes (1914); deeds re land on north side of Manor House, Houghton-le-Spring, (1876-1914), 1876-1922; deeds etc. of messages in New Elvet, Durham City, 1804-1965