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Durham Church Leases, See and Chapter


Durham Church Leases, Dean and Chapter. See of Durham


From A History of County Durham. W. Fordyce. Vol. 1. 1858.


County Durham has a very large amount of church property. It is very difficult to obtain a freehold. Since the Middle Ages there has been hostility and friction between the Church and its lessees. This may be attributed to the long Border wars and the consequent uncertainty of land tenure.

In 1577, leases were only for terms of 21 years and due even then to troubled Border situations, many tenants refused to have written terms with which they might be unable to comply.

About 1626, tenants of the Dean and Chapter began renewing leases every seventh year, paying one year’s fine, thus paying three fines for a 21 year lease. This went on until the Long Parliament of 1649 being petitioned, forbade the excess fines.

In 1661, Dean Barwick’s tenants refused to renew their leases on the Dean’s terms, and petitioned the new king, Charles II, but it seems he did not intervene.

After a more harmonious period of relations between the Dean and Chapter and their tenants in the 18th century, matters deteriorated in the 19th century. The land tax Redemption Act of 1806 brought many enfranchisement, and increasing requests to grant freeholds. Bishop Van Midlert had to obtain the Durham University Act in 1832, in order to free land in Durham City to establish his new university and give the Castle as its first college.

In 1837, the Dean and Chapter received over £29,000 in rents from 277 leases at periods of 21 years, and £41,500 in renewal charges. Other terms were offered - leases for life or two lifetimes. This was a bad time once more in dealings and hostility was widespread against the Dean and Chapter for harsh attitudes.

Sales of leasehold properties ranged from the equivalent of ten years rent in poor situations up to 22 years rent in better places, one such being Westoe in South Shields. A number of surveyors in 1840, remarked on the poor state of leasehold farmhouses and steads in the county compared to freehold farms.

Farms in Colliery districts brought higher rents because of the high concentration of mining families around each farm all in need of milk, eggs, butter, cheese, and vegetables, and fodder for pit ponies. The colliery ponies in turn provided cheap manure.

As well as operating their own coal mines in the county, the Bishops and Dean and Chapter leased many others to coal companies. The Dean and Chapter’s leases were usually for 21 year terms, but the Bishopric offered longer ones, one, two, or three lifetimes. The surface was always kept separate from the underground in mines and quarries for the terms of a lease, because of the value and importance of mineral rights to the Church as freeholder. Exacted on cubic measures for stone and tonnage for coal, all extractors of minerals had to pay a levy quarterly or annually. In the case of the Heworth freestone quarries, the charge of one halfpenny per cubic foot of sandstone in 1837, rose to one penny by 1870, and to twopence by 1900. This seemingly small charge could in fact raise hundreds of pounds a year for the Church in just one stone quarry. Surface rents were differently worked out.

Minerals had to be transported, and again the Church was able to make money by reserving its right to charge lessees for wayleaves for laying and using waggonways and roads which crossed its land. The granting and charging for these was arbitrary, and the Church could and did fix what rates it liked.

The distance and the amount conveyed influenced the rates set for wayleaves. Sometimes the Church allowed others to use a railway already made, paying the owner or builder of it wear and tear charges, and the Dean and Chapter an extra wayleave rent on top of those.

For example, the Stanhope and Tyne Railway paid the bishop a wayleave for 15 miles at £200 per mile, and in addition a damage payment to the lessees of the line.

In the late 17th century the enclosures of common and waste lands became widespread, and gained great momentum in the 18th century. The Act for the enclosure of Heworth Common, 1766, brought great hardship to the few poor common dwellers, but put money in the Dean and Chapter’s hand yet again, for common land or waste it was in name, but their property in reality.

In the early 19th century many parcels of land in the Felling area was sold off by the Church to small freeholders. Heworth enjoyed no such advantage. Even in the 1960s I paid ground rent to the Church Commissioners who still held the freehold of the site of my house, leased for 99 years at £12 a year.

In the last thirty years the Church Commissioners have disposed of much local land by selling their freehold to property companies, and re-investing the proceeds for higher returns. Many, like me, bought the freehold of their site when this opportunity arose.

That the Church’s ownership of land and estate in this region is still substantial, was shown by their partnership with Sir John Hall in the construction of Gateshead MetroCentre, its site at Swalwell being theirs.

J.M. Hewitt. (1990)








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