NAA was commissioned to perform a building recording on the Grade II listed hearse house and reading room in Newbiggin-in-Teesdale. This work was required to create a record of the listed building, along with the blacksmith workshop to the rear, prior to the conversion of both buildings into accommodation.
Located high up the Tees valley, Newbiggin is a small community that grew significantly in the early 19th century due to an increase in mining in the area. By the mid-19th century, following the arrival of the London Lead Company, the population reached over 600. Part of the village’s expansion involved the construction of a two-storey hearse house with a reading room on the first floor. Hearse houses, as the name implies, are cart sheds used for hearses. Unlike most hearse houses, the one in Newbiggin is not connected to the church yard but stands separately. It is also unusual for a hearse house to be connected with a reading room.
Reading rooms were built across rural areas in the 19th century and were often imposed on the working classes by upper classes as an alternative to the public house. They reflected Victorian notions toward philanthropy, recreation, and class divides linked with the temperance movement. The reading rooms promoted an idea of paternalism toward the working class and yet ‘self-help’ was integral in that it was imperative that they be self-sufficient through a subscription system.
The reading room in Newbiggin was partially funded by residents with significant donations by the Duke of Cleveland and the London Lead Company. Opened on 28th October 1879, the use of the hearse house was short-lived as horse-drawn hearses were soon replaced by automobiles. The reading room, however, was initially well used. Five years after its opening, it had 35 members and more than 200 books. Yet by the inter-war period it had become an unruly place and the parish council had the door walled up. The ground floor (the hearse house) had for some years been used as storage space.
Behind the reading room and hearse house was a blacksmith workshop. There is little documentary evidence regarding the construction and use of the workshop, but it is probably of similar date. It was most recently used as a private workshop by a local hobbyist.
There was little remaining evidence of the space’s use as a hearse house and even less of the reading room, which had long been boarded up and was accessible only through a hatch in the floor. The double doors used for access by the hearse had been retained, with the only evidence of the reading room being the fireplace and blocked door and window which formerly would have provided ample reading light. The blacksmith workshop retained many blacksmithing tools, including the hearth and a large bellows. Its stone roof tiles had been removed.
The hearse house and reading room represent a key part of Teesdale’s social history at the time mining expanded in the area. Although reading rooms fell out of fashion in the early 20th century due to the increasing variety of entertainment and a desire for self-governance, they remain a strong representation of social notions of the Victorian period.
The full report for this work can be found on the Archaeology Data Service website.