Robert Surtees was a wealthy young man when he began his epic history of County Durham, an undertaking that would take him a lifetime.
Long before the invention of computers, telephones, typewriters, voice recorders, cameras, photocopiers and other time-saving research tools, historians dedicated to investigating the past and preserving records and artefacts faced a daunting challenge which frequently committed them to years of travelling extensively, and usually expensively, composing thousands of letters, transcribing documents faultlessly by hand and copying illustrations and maps in the most minute detail.
Such a task, which could be nothing less than a labour of love, frequently lasted a lifetime, as was the case of Robert Surtees, of Mainsforth, who, after decades of research and writing, was still working on his monumental History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham just a few days before his death.
Having heard the tale from Sybil Elizabeth Cockburn, of Offerton, he wrote it up and sent a copy to be verified by Sir John George Lambton, who later became the 1st Earl of Durham.
The story was included in the second volume of Surtees’ History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham, published in 1820.
Robert Surtees, born on April 1, 1779, in Durham’s South Bailey, just a stone’s throw from the great cathedral, came from a wealthy background.
His parents, Robert Surtees and Dorothy, daughter of William Steele, one of the directors of the East India Company, had been married for 18 years before their son was born.
Their ancestral family home, which Robert inherited, along with its estate, on the death of his father in 1802, was Mainsforth Hall, not far from Bishop Middleham.
It was there and in its tranquil surroundings that he would spend most of the rest of his life absorbed in his great history.
The property having been bought by the Surtees family from the Huttons in 1708, the hall was rebuilt in 1725 to create “one of those peculiarly English mansions in which comfort and elegance are happily united”, as another historian, William Fordyce, put it.
It was demolished in 1962, the modern Mainsforth House now standing where it had been.
From an early age, Robert Surtees was fascinated by anything related to history and antiquities and had among his childhood companions the Beckworths, heirs to the Silksworth Estate, and the Robinson girls of Herrington Hall.
His early schooldays were spent at the Royal Kepier Grammar School, in Houghton-le-Spring, Wearside, which he attended from 1786 to 1793, quickly gaining a reputation as an excellent classical scholar with a commendable memory.
The school was old even in Surtees’ time, having been founded by Bernard Gilpin and John Heath in 1574, its royal charter from Queen Elizabeth I dated April 2.
Surtees’ headteacher while he was there was the Reverend William Fleming and the establishment was described as being at that time a gentlemen’s boarding academy to which a good many county families resorted.
From Houghton-le-Spring, Surtees moved to Neasden, in Middlesex, to end his school days before going on to Christ Church, Oxford, where his nickname was “Greek Surtees”
to gain his degree.
In 1800, he became a law student at the Middle Temple, but was never actually called to the bar, coming into his inheritance at Mainsforth when his father died in 1802.
A quiet and sensitive man not blessed with the best of health, Robert married Anne Robinson of Middle Herrington, his “dearest Annie”, in 1807. They had no children.
He had earlier nurtured a passion for her sister, Emma, who had died aged 21.
IT was while a student at Oxford that he had resolved to create his great history and now, at the young age of 23, he had the time and resources to do so while also being a regular attender at Bishop Middleham Parish Church, a conscientious landlord and a caring squire, but it would be 14 long years of research and writing before the first of the four volumes would be set before his readers.
Sykes’ Local Records reports on Surtees’ manners and kindness: “Towards the neighbouring poor, by whom he was much beloved, he often carried his consideration to a fanciful refinement.
He would frequently drop small sums of money on the road and enjoy the notion of the unexpected pleasure that the next poor person passing by would feel in acquiring them, unencumbered with the debt of gratitude. He extended his sympathies to the brute creation and in his love for dogs was a successful rival of his friend Sir Walter Scott. His manner was generally distinguished by courtesy and consideration but false pretension of any sort he could not bring himself to tolerate and unlucky was the man who, in his presence, ostentatiously affected to know more than he did.”
As a child and young man, he had collected coins and folk tales and his method of working as an adult was to travel around the country driven in his gig gathering information during the summer months and then working on what he had collected during the winter at Mainsforth.
He also employed researchers to work as he directed them, mainly in London.
He was not against including the occasional piece of humour in his work and also liked to put in extracts of Durham folklore.
It was Surtees’ interest in local legends and the fact that he always enjoyed a joke that caused him to play several on one of his regular correspondents, Sir Walter Scott, who visited him at Mainsforth in March 1809 and planted a tree while he was there.
Sir Walter was also a collector of legends, usually those which could best be described as “Border Ballads”, and it just so happened that Surtees was an expert at writing ballads himself and passing them off as originals, always making sure that he could explain with perfect credibility where he had come across the piece.
Unaware that Surtees could do this, Scott was delighted to receive from him a poem called The Death of Featherstonehaugh, which he claimed to have heard recited by an old woman in Alston, but which he had written himself.
THE 13th Century Thirlwall Castle, near Gilsland, on Hadrian’s Wall, was built of stone taken from the Roman fort of Carvoran.
It had long been the home of a family of thieves and outlaws called the Thirlwalls, who were immortalised in the border ballad so cleverly constructed by Surtees, in which Albany Featherstonehaugh, a High Sheriff of Northumberland, is murdered:
Hoot awa’, lads Hoot awa’,
Ha’ye heard how the Ridleys
and Thirlwalls and a’
Ha’ set upon Albany
And taken his life at
There was Williemontswick
And Hardriding Dick,
And Hughie of Hawden and
Will of the wa’
I canno’ tell a’, I canno’ tell a’,
And mony a mair that the
De’il may knaw.
Scott was completely taken in and included the poem in his great work Marmion.
In a letter to the poet Robert Southey, Scott described Surtees as an excellent antiquary who was goodhearted and excellent company.
This was not the first time that Surtees had pulled the wool over someone’s eyes.
The people of Northumberland had for centuries been in the habit of recording their history in songs and ballads, the most famous of these being the Jacobite Rebellion story of Lord Derwentwater’s Farewell.
Most of these ballads were anonymous, written by unnamed local people, and many of them were gradually collected by James Hogg, the Ettrick Shepherd, who eventually published them in his Reliques of Jacobite Poetry.
Although it was believed that the poem had been written by James Radcliffe, the 3rd Earl of Derwentwater, the night before his execution, it was actually composed by Robert Surtees:
Farewell to pleasant Dilston Hall
My father’s ancient seat.
A stranger now must call thee his
Which gars my heart to greet.
Farewell each friendly, wellknown face
My heart has felt so dear.
My tenants now must leave their lands
Or hold their lives in fear.
Radcliffe had been taken prisoner at the Battle of Preston during the first Jacobite Rebellion, was found guilty of treason and beheaded at the age of 27 in February 1716.
THE first volume of History and Antiquities of the County Palatine of Durham was published in 1816, the second in 1820, the third in 1823 and the fourth posthumously and largely put together by Surtees’ friend, James Raine, in 1840.
Surtees died at his beloved Mainsforth Hall on February 11, 1834, and was buried four days later in Bishop Middleham churchyard.
The marble tablet to his memory inside the church was designed by his architect friend Edward Blore.
After Surtees’ death, his coins were sold by Sothebys in London for more than £600 while his books and pictures were disposed of by Walkers of Durham at Mainsforth.
Many of his manuscripts survive in the Dean and Chapter library in Durham.