A History of Chester-le-Street
“The history of Chester-le-Street is a succession of vague glimpses and large gaps.”
The known history of Chester-le-Street dates back to 122 AD when a Roman fort was built along the banks of the River Wear. The site of the fort was centred on the Church Chare area. The fort was possibly called “Congangis”. The fort was a base for the legions stationed on Hadrian’s Wall. The fort was rebuilt several times before it was abandoned at the end of the Roman occupation in 407AD. Some of the remains of the Commandant’s House can be seen at the corner of Low Chare beside the Salvation Army and Parish Centre.
The next important stage in Chester-le-Street history began in 883 AD when the monks from Lindisfarne brought the body of St Cuthbert here. A wooden cathedral was built to house St Cuthbert’s remains. Chester-le-Street or Cuneceastre under Bishop Eardulph became the seat of the Anglo Saxon Bishops. Eight other bishops were based in the town. It was during these 125 years that the first translation into English of the Bible took place and the famous Lindisfarne Gospels were written here in Chester le Street.
In 995 AD the Danes were attacking the North East coast and the monks decided to move St Cuthbert’s body to a place of safety. After some time they chose the site of the now city of Durham. A new cathedral was built and Durham became the regions capital and seat of the Bishops of Durham. Chester-le-Street’s moment of glory had gone and an old saying “Durham lads have gold and brass, Chester lads have none” refers to this change in fortunes.
Chester-le-Street Parish Church stands on the site of the original cathedral and was built in the 13th century and dedicated to St Mary and St Cuthbert. The spire (50 metres or 156 feet) was added in 1409. The statues known as the Lumley warriors resting by the nave wall date from the reign of Elizabeth 1st. The Church registers start in 1582. The Ankers House Museum celebrates the lives of a number of anchorites who lived in the anchorage cells. The museum houses artefacts from Roman and Saxon times and tells the story of the town.
The Middle Ages saw “Chester in the street” as the head of the Manor of Chester Deanery. The church was the centre for local and diocese government. Many documents from this period have survived. The seats of two of the leading families in the area, the Lambton's and the Lumley's were near by. The medieval field system with large fields about the town continued up to the eighteenth century.
By the early eighteenth century Chester-le-Street was at the heart of the developing coalfields. The Great North road ran through the town en route from London to Newcastle. The main inns Lambton Arms, Queens Head and Kings Head were all coaching Inns. The engine works developed by members of the Murray family exported standing engines to all parts of England and abroad. The railways finally came to Chester-le-Street in 1867 and the impressive eleven arched viaduct has dominated the lower end of town since then.
Chester-le-Street was the head of the Chester Poor Law Union and the local government of the area was centred on the town. It was one of the largest wards in the area and the parish was one of the major parishes in the Bishopric.
By 1900 Murray’s engines were long gone and the town was a centre for trade, employment, amusement and entertainment for the colliery villages which surrounded it. Horner’s factory was for 50 years the home of Dainty Dinah toffee and the massive chimney was a feature of the skyline.
Following the First World War the expansion of motorised transport brought Northern buses and many other private bus companies to the town. The rise of the motorist caused great problems to the narrow Front Street and the By Pass built in the 1930’s was to relieve the traffic congestion.
The Town has expanded on three sides, new housing estates stretch nearly to Waldridge, Pelton and Birtley. The Front Street has hardly changed in area since 1900, but over the Twentieth century many family businesses have come and gone. The massive Co-operative Society Building has dominated the town both before the fire of 1932 and since with its Central Premises. Other shops such as Woolworth’s, Burtons and Boots have been in the Front Street most of the century.
The turn of the millennium has brought a different development to Chester-le-Street with the building of the Riverside complex. The home of Durham County Cricket Club, the Riverside has had coverage on television screens all over the world. The spectacular backcloth of Lumley Castle and the River Wear is now a familiar scene to cricket lovers.
“What a history the place would have, could it be fully and accurately recorded!”
Quotes from Bygone Durham editor W. Andrews and published in 1898.
A Brief History
Copyright 2007 Chester-le-Street Heritage Group. All Rights Reserved.