The Town of Crook in the County Palatine of Durham


Crook was probably little more than a hamlet before the 19th Century, with a few houses and a water-mill (sited about 100yds from St Catherine's Church and utilising the waters of the Crook Beck). The area round about would have been mainly agricultural (as it is today) but it also contained a number of small coal-mines.

Geologically, Crook is at the western edge of the Durham coalfield. Over millions of years the rocks containing the coal deposits have tilted such that the useful coal layers are virtually at the surface around Crook and gradually get deeper and deeper as you go east to the sea-coast; to the west of Crook, the coal layers have been completely eroded by millions of years of Ice Ages and other weather.

Because of the relative ease of obtaining the coal around Crook, it was probably mined in a small way for hundreds of years but the difficulty of transporting it by pack-horses or carts over generally dreadful roads, severely limited the value of these 'land-sale' collieries. Until 1793, probably the only road out of Crook was to the east towards Willington and thence to Durham; in that year an Act of Parliament set up the Lobley Hill to Wearhead Turnpike Road. This was mainly designed to cater for the transport of lead mined at the top of Weardale to the river and sea at Gateshead; however it also included a spur road from Wolsingham to Durham - this involved the purchase of land and construction of a road to the east of Crook to cross the old West Auckland to Corbridge Road (now the A68) at Harperley.

Doubtless the establishment of a properly maintained road through Crook slightly improved the prospects of the local pits - possibly by opening up the market for coal in the lead smelters at the top of Weardale. However what really altered things was the coming of the Railways.

Coal and the Railways

The original Stockton and Darlington Railway finished at Phoenix Row/Witton Park only a couple of miles south of Crook, but the race was soon on to take rails to practically every colliery in Co Durham. The first railway to reach Crook was an extension of the Clarence Railway across from Byers Green. However this followed the contours of the hill above Crook and was an awkward link involving inclines down to cross the Wear at Hunwick; it was soon effectively superceded by the much more convenient link following the Crook Beck valley up from Witton Park. With the establishment of the rail links, the local colleries became major enterprises and the population of Crook mushroomed to provide the labour force. The local coal was suitable for making into coke (required for the steel works at Consett and Middlesbrough as well as other industrial processes) and so in addition to the collieries, a large industrial complex developed at Bankfoot for the production of coke and other coal by-products. Rail inclines brought coal down to Crook from other collieries in adjacent valleys.

With the development of coal mining, the local population increased dramatically: according to the national Census Returns, the population of Crook was 176 in 1811, 538 in 1841, 5,800 in 1861 and 11,098 in 1881. By the middle of the nineteenth century the mining industry was well-established and still growing. At its peak, there were twenty-six pits congregated in and around the town, with all the attendant industry.

Crook became a typical small industrial town; prosperous and (by modern standards) smokey and polluted. By 1900 it had established Churches/Chapels of most Christian denominations, a local Co-operative Society (1865), a British School(1866), plus Police Station, Freemasons Lodge, etc. Coal and coal-related work provided nearly all the jobs in the area. In the 1930s, those jobs were decimated because no-one was buying coal. By 1936, 34% of Crook workers were without jobs, 71% of them had had no work for five or more years. Crook was saved by the Second World War; then, and during the postwar reconstruction, every ton of coal was at a premium. With local support and sponsorship, Crook Town became one of the group of Co Durham football teams that dominated the FA Amateur League and Cup in the 1950's.

Modern Crook

Prosperity started to decline in the 1950's as, after a 100 years of intensive mining, all the accessible coal reserves had been removed, and the collieries shut one by one. Deprived of its main trade, the railway fell to Dr Beeching's cuts in the early 1960's. In the latter 1960's, the one substantial pit-heap and the site of the Bankfoot works were landscaped. Since then part of the old railway line was made into a road, and other parts of Crook were 'tidied'. For better or worse, very little of its industrial past is now left.

The recent history of Crook is typical of the towns in South-West Durham. The geography of this area is a mixture of dense urban and sparsely populated rural. The urban areas were built on coal and heavy industry. However, since the 1950s, these have been replaced by small factories and service industries. In the wake of this industrial transition, pockets of high unemployment and associated areas of deprivation have developed. People are finding it increasingly necessary to travel outside the area, to Tyneside, Teesside and beyond, for work. Whilst road access is good, public transport provision is poor, and the increasing travel-to-work distances leads to further fragmentation of societal and community infrastructures. In the rural areas, agriculture, quarrying and mineral extraction continue to be the dominant industries, although tourism is rapidly developing as an important contributor to the economy of the area. South-west Durham includes an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB).

Since 1960, the town has undergone a gradual and significant change from long-established deep mining and coke works, to short-lived general light industry and dormitory town. This transition has caused a serious disintegration of social identity. Unemployment stands at about 20%. The town has all basic services and amenities, is a local centre for shopping, and has a bi-weekly market.

Initially as the underground mining of coal came to an end, Crook, with the North East as a whole, was saved for a few brief years by an industrial miracle: the era of Regional Policy. The roads in the area were transformed. The publicly owned English Industrial Estates Corporation provided new factories in the region's new towns and around its old ones. National and multi-national firms flocked to the area.

In 1980, the government downgraded Crook from its previous "special development area" status. Already, many of Crook's factories had closed. Closure in itself is not of course proof of collapse. What is disturbing is that only Ramar Dresses (established in Crook in 1945), which had become the town's major industrial employer, managed to survive any length of time. It too eventually succumbed to outside market forces: in 1990/1 it incurred major redundancies in its workforce, and by the end of 1991 the receivers had been called in. Most attempts to generate new small industry in the area fail to produce sustained results.

The present population of the town is approximately 15,000. Unemployment now stands at about 20%. Whilst factory space continues to be under-used, a steady growth in new housing continues. As the spoil heaps were levelled and other vestiges of deep mining were cleared away, new housing estates were developed through the '70s and '80s on the edges of the town. Some of the old housing stock was demolished. These and other factors indicate a small but definite movement towards the town becoming primarily residential. The town provides easy access and is well within manageable commuting distance to Teesside, Tyneside, Darlington, Durham, Spennymoor, Sunderland and Washington.

The town was originally created by pit-owners who came from outside the area. As a primarily one-industry town, the local economy was directly and radically affected by national economic circumstance. With the demise of the coal industry, the related industry closed down, the railway closed and the Co-operative Store closed. (The Co-operative Society in the North East, with each local branch having its all encompassing departments, and the "divi", was as much part of the fabric of the local community as the pits.)

In an article in "New Society" in 1963 S.Aris made the observation, "strangled by the inevitable decline of the coal mines, Crook is slowly dying on its feet". Since the closure of the deep mines, open cast mining has developed. This has had enormous environmental impact on the surrounding countryside but has made only a minor dent in the unemployment figures for the area. The open cast mining industry is privately owned and regulated from outside the locality, employing semi-skilled workers, most of whom also come from outside the locality. The factories that opened after the closure of the mines were owned and regulated from outside the locality. The type and price of much of the new housing attracts people from outside the town, the prices being remarkably high for the locality, remarkably low for those from neighbouring conurbations and cities (though since 1991 the gap has narrowed considerably). Two major new private housing estates (one of them Barrett housing begun in the mid-1970s, and the other executive-style housing begun in 1987) have had little effect on the commerce and welfare of the town. This is largely because the said estates are of a generally dormitory character: the occupants work, shop and pursue leisure activities elsewhere; and also, because generally the estates are not acknowledged by local people: they are situated out of sight and away from the centre of the town and populated for the most part by outsiders.

Local people have a generally held and usually valid conviction that major decisions concerning their quality of life are made by others outside the locality. There continues to be a strong sense of being done-to: a helplessness in the face of powerful, impersonal, outside influence and control. As long as Crook was based on coal it was shaped directly by the vagaries of national economy and national energy requirements. Furthermore, there continues to be a popular feeling in the North East of being too far away from the centre: that national government is too far away to appreciate or understand the worth and needs of the area, which means the North East is persistently forgotten or undervalued. A new civic centre opened in 1989, housing almost all the local district council offices in one town and under one roof for the first time. With remarkable insensitivity, it was built on the site of the Co-op store, last bastion of the old Crook, thus upsetting local people. The choice of Crook instead of the much larger, though less central, Bishop Auckland annoyed even more people. Relations between Council and local people have been flawed on both sides for many years.

Despite the fact no pits have worked since 1960, many of the people who have lived in the town all their lives still regard it as a mining town. Despite the enormous changes nationally in shopping habits, alongside the two supermarkets the main street still retains its straggle of 1950s/1960s small independent shops (albeit on a steadily reducing scale). This holding on to the past is generated by a dignity and pride in how things used to be (for example, the fact that Crook used to have one of the best amateur football clubs in the country, and the fact that Crook used to produce some of the finest coke in Europe) as much as blind habit and parochialism. The innate conservatism that pervades much of S.W.Durham finds skewed reflection in the local district council's enthusiasm for re-inventing a rose-tinted past. Lifting tarmac and replacing it with new cobble setts is an obvious example of a tourism- and economy-driven distortion of local history.

In all of this, Crook is by no means unique. Nor is Crook alone in the disintegration of its identity, and the dispiritedness which follows from it.

There is very little in the way of provision for the arts or programmes for building community in the town. A pilot scheme was developed in St Catherine's church in 1991 - the use of its Side Aisle for community and arts-based activities and events - has highlighted the interest and enthusiasm of local people to pursue such interests and concerns.

St. Catherine's Church

Thanks to Mr Anthony Young

If you would like to read more about Crook, then why not have a look at Mr Jim Dowson's site - 

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