Brief History of Winlaton

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Welcome to Winlaton and our very unique village.

Winlaton is an ancient settlement – name Saxon origin: Ton = town + Win shrub on hill  or   Wynlacs town   or   Twisted oak

 Written records begin in 1083 when Meldred the Lord of the Manor had exchanged some land & given service to the Bishop of Durham.

Mentioned again in the Bolden Book of 1183 – which was the Bishop of  Durham’s survey of his holdings. The first mention of coal mining was 1367 when ‘sea coals from Wynlayton’ were used in the burning of lime during the construction of Windsor Castle.

 Oliver Cromwell passed through Winlaton in 1650 – he had rested his horses for two days at Whickham, then crossed the River Derwent at
Winlaton Mill & on through Winlaton to cross the River Tyne at Newburn on his way to Scotland to fight General Leslie – and we’ll never know if his troops stopped for a pint at the Rose & Crown – but that well known local hostelry was in existence then.

 In 1877 the Rector’s son married Ellen Terry – the greatest actress of her day – and she was a frequent visitor to the village – and  –  in
1929 Edward VIII ( the king who abdicated ) visited Winlaton whilst he was Prince of Wales 

 Coffee Johnny of Blaydon Races fame was born in Winlaton also Joseph Cowen, MP for Newcastle – owner of the Chronicle – the man who built the Tyne Theatre – you’ve seen his statue in Newcastle outside the Assembly Rooms – he was born here in 1829.

 The descendents the first known Lord of the Manor were the Neville family (, Earls of Westmorland, owners of Raby Castle) Charles Neville
(b1542) ,joined the Earl of Northumberland and others in the Uprising of the Northern Catholic Earls – a plot to supplant Elizabeth I with Mary Queen of Scots – The rebellion was soundly defeated and the rebels fled. Neville  died in Flanders all his English possessions
having been forfeit. The original village chapel of St. Anne  was destroyed by the forces of Elizabeth I  while hunting out the rebels..

 Which is why this ancient village has a church built in 1828

But  – the  person who made Winlaton unique was Ambrose Crowley who set up his iron works  here in 1691. Ambrose Crowley came from the west Midlands –  had served an apprenticeship in London and had set up works in Sunderland in 1682. 

 Iron ore needed charcoal to fuel the smelting process. There was a shortage of wood in England – but in Sweden abundant forests provided a cheap source of charcoal fuel. Making coke from coal wasn’t perfected until after 1749 – so Britain was very dependant on foreign iron in those early days and Sweden had emerged as a great iron exporter. Transport over land was difficult in the 17c. So the advantage of Sunderland was that being on the coast it was easy to import iron from Sweden and there was plenty coal to fuel the blacksmiths’ forges and the finished product was taken by ship to the naval dockyards on the Thames. Sheathing nails were important to the navy. Ships away from
home ports for long periods found that by covering the ships hull with sheets of wood ( copper was too expensive ) the seaworthiness of the ships was improved – so lots of nails needed.

 Ambrose Crowley was working at a time of almost continuous war, England ruled the waves and it was as a naval contractor that he grew rich. Nail making was a  new craft to the north east  – and his problem was labour – he secured a number of workers from Liege with the intention that they would then teach their skills to locals – but the foreigners were looked upon with hostility –different language & different religion –

 So he moved his works to Winlaton.


There are no records for the years 1688-1691 so we don’t really know.  

There was a visitation of the plague in 1604 when 35 souls died and Winlaton was later described as consisting of a few deserted cottages.
So it would seem that there was plenty of space in Winlaton and property available for rent, it has also been suggested that labour might have been cheaper, that his workers would be persecuted less in a more isolated place – also the coal in the Winlaton area was very good for smiths work – burning hot & clear -but we can only speculate.

 In April 1691 he took a 99year lease on   some buildings and 4 acres of land 

This started the factory which made the name of Crowley known throughout the length and breadth of England.

At one time this was the largest iron works in Europe

 He employed locals and advertised around England for skilled smiths Each factory was formed around a square with living quarters, workshops and a gate that was locked at night. Each craftsman worked independently, drawing bar iron from a common stock and delivering his finished product to the Crowley wharehouses..then goods shipped in Crowley vessels to London. , and Crowleys became
notorious for dodging the tariffs imposed by Newcastle for shipping goods down the Tyne.

The workers lives were governed in every detail by the Law book which had some 117 rules –   designed by Ambrose to control large scale
industrial production from a  distance. Each square was in the charge of a monitor  – who made sure that all carriages were out of the square before candle light and that the great gate was shut and locked after dark – so the people who lived in the squares were locked in at night.

 Work started at 5am and  carried on till 8pm  – an  80 hour week !!

Everyone had to be home by 9pm on Sunday and 10pm other nights – No strangers were allowed in the squares, the
curfew was strictly observed.

 There were long lists of persons not allowed in the squares – including hawkers and tinkers. Drunks were driven out unless they lived in the square. There were fines for swearing,   betting and fighting – children breaking any of the regulations were to be whipped by their parents or the parents would be fined. A constable was paid 4d to make sure the workers didn’t keep late hours.

The workers became known as Crowleys crew – and living and working as they did – as one unit – their social life was shared too.

 So Ambrose is first and foremost a hard headed business man – he’s out to make a name and a fortune for himself – but, maybe a legacy of his Quaker upbringing, he was conscious of building a community and referred to his workers as ‘this society’ or ‘my people’ – he said he wanted to create such conditions for his workers ‘ as would make them quiet and easy amongst themselves and a happy and flourishing people among their neighbours’   He felt a moral responsibility to his workers

 He was groping in the dark concerning the running of his works – he visualised countrywide as opposed to local trade – he had no role models to follow – only his own shrewd business sense. He never lived in Winlaton, although he did visit occasionally – so he relied on his managers for the day to day running of the business 

 His solution to the problems of running a business from a distance was unique in the history of industrial relations – he was years ahead of his time in the social benefits enjoyed by his workers – BUT he demanded hard work and loyalty in return.

 Workers had to give 6 months notice before leaving & could not work within 50 miles of Winlaton under fine of £50.

 An experienced nailer could expect to earn 14s 2d (71p) per week for his 80 hours. They were paid by weight of nails – so every nail had to be inspected to stop the smiths adding lead to make up the weight.

 Crowley HAD A SYSTEM OF 10 WEEK ACCOUNTS……..decimalisation 300 years early. 

In the 17c & 18c there was a chronic shortage of coins of small denominations – Ambrose Crowley was not unusual in issuing his own coins He also drew up his own notes – like a modern cheque book – anything from 2d to 20/- which could be used in all shops and markets . 

 The monitor checked the workers were at work and not wasting Crowleys time and money drinking, gaming or poaching – no one could leave the square without informing him. 

  They had their own courts which met  every 10 weeks – to settle disputes and  a debt could be retrieved by a % deduction from the debtors wages – but Crowley wouldn’t acknowledge debts to a publican.

 An almost prison like existence,  but, Crowley’s crew enjoyed social benefits unheard of in the 18c.There was a chapel and a minister – paid for by deductions from their wages. 
There was schooling for the children  – working class children receiving an education in the 18c

 None of this is free
Each worker subscribed to a fund for a schoolmaster and  because this was before compulsory schooling it gave rise to Winlaton being known as Knowledge Hill – and there is a street in the village with that title.

 There was a health fund and Crowley appointed a full time Doctor –  but this fund had problems we would recognise today – Crowley was annoyed at anyone feigning sickness or frivolously demanding treatment then selling the medicines they had received He wrote ‘ I have never forgot Thomas Haydon for being too sick to work but well enough to bayte the bull’

 There was even a pension scheme:..  employees and employer paid into a superannuation scheme which paid a pension of 5shillings (
25p). However, the pensioner had to wear an armband with the inscription ‘Crowleys Poor’ written on it.

Crowleys crew were masters of gaming, bull baiting, cock fighting and  bare fist fighting –   Remember Thomas Haydon whom we mentioned
earlier – too sick to work, but well enough to bait the bull ! It was said that as poachers Crowleys Crew  had no match in the kingdom – in  fact Crowley had to promise Sir William Bowes that he would try to protect the game on the Gibside estate from his workmen.

 Every year there was horse racing to celebrate the birth of Ambrose’s grandson – there foot races for men and women – the men ran for a
guinea & the women for a smock valued at 8/-. Bells were rung and everyone drank to Mr. Crowley’s health and the prosperity of the factory.

 Then in 1816 with the end of the Napoleonic wars – and the downturn in Admiralty trade – Crowleys suddenly pulled out of Winlaton – this
was devastating –  for 4 generations  Crowley had been virtually the sole employer – providing guaranteed work and social benefits –  we can compare the upheaval to the closure of coal mines & steel works in the 1980’s – some found work at Winlaton Mill and Swalwell others migrated to the midlands. Those who stayed started work on their own account and many became very successful – and in 1826 a group – mindful of the social benefits they had enjoyed under Crowley –   started their own ‘Winlaton Blacksmiths Friendly Society’.Members had to be aged 18-28 and be able to earn a competent livlehood & they could apply for relief and benefits when in distress –

  The first secretary of the society was Joseph Cowen senior – a Winlaton smith himself – who later was also MP for Newcastle and Chair of the Tyne Improvement Commission – for which he was knighted.

The blacksmiths continued working in the village until the 1960’s, the last surviving shop finally closing in 1966 ending a history
lasting 275 years.

 So no longer can we hear the clink of the blacksmiths hammer upon the anvil — but  Winlaton  continues to be a thriving village.

Susan Lynn  February 2014