Cemetery Grounds, Wheatley Hill DH6 3JY

email: wheatleyhill.heritage.centre@btinternet.com

phone: 01429 824402

Home History of the Building Find a Grave Peter Lee Thomas Kenny VC Photo Gallery Our War Memorial The Heritage Trail Virtual Tour Local History Info & Sales Guest Book Links

© Wheatley Hill Heritage Centre 2018

He was over 6ft tall and very strong. And he was very fond of drinking and fighting. He had worked at a great many pits by the time he was 21 and had also been introduced to the potential strength and advantage of trade unions to the workers, but he also realised that the pitmen needed representation by someone who understood the industry and its people. As a result of these two things, Peter decided to travel to America to broaden his horizons in 1886 and he worked in various coal mines around that country. He found that conditions for coal miners were no different in America than they were in England and, better informed but disillusioned, he returned home in 1887.

On his return from America, Peter began working at Wingate Colliery and within three months of his return, and at only 23-years-old, he was elected as Delegate to the Miners’ Council.

Peter loved the good fellowship and debate that was to be found in the social life of the public house, and his desire for knowledge was more intense than ever. Also at this time he was very much in love with Alice Thompson, a young dressmaker living at Thornley and in February 1888 they were married in Haswell Wesleyan Church.

In the early days of their marriage Peter and Alice lived at Thornley, Crook and South Shields. Eventually the miners of Wingate offered Peter the job of checkweighman – checking the weight of the coal hewed by the miners to ensure they got a fair deal from the owners. This post was independent of the owners and the holder was elected and paid by the men. The Wingate job differed from most, as it required the successful candidate to sit and pass an examination and many believed that Peter would not be able to pass such an examination but he surprised everyone by doing so with flying colours.

He remained checkweighman at Wingate for four years, leaving in 1896 to travel South Africa, once again to broaden his horizons some more. After one year in South Africa, during which time he had been sending money home to Alice, Peter left to return home. It was the fashion in those days for the sons of the well-to-do to complete their education by completing a Grand Tour of the great cities and distant places around Europe. The Grand Tour gave young men the opportunity to view specific works of art, architecture and music. Peter was neither well-educated nor well-to-do but he did the Grand Tour, paid for by his labours in South Africa.

Upon his return to England, Peter obtained work at Thornley pit before moving on to Sacriston, but it was a job at Wheatley Hill that drew him back to his own people in East Durham. When the miners of Wheatley Hill needed a checkweighman they remembered the courage and sacrifices for principle that Peter had made, and sent for him to act for them. In 1902 he returned to the area to act as the men’s paid representative and in 1903 he was elected to the Parish Council and became its Chairman.

Peter made a remarkable journey from ill-educated, brawling drunkard to the first Labour leader of the first Labour-controlled County Council in England – Durham.  

One of his projects outside of East Durham was to promote the building of the Burnhope Reservoir, realising that it wasn’t medicines and tablets that would be responsible for improving the health of the working classes, but fresh, clean water. There is a memorial at the reservoir to his memory.

He was a popular man wherever he went, Clement Atlee said of him “he typified the courage, integrity and humanity of the community which he served so well”. There is a general agreement that he was the most outstanding figure of the North East never to become an MP, preferring to serve among his own people.

The Rt Honourable Lord Lawson, Lord Lieutenant of County Durham, paid tribute to Peter Lee in the 1950’s saying, “Peter Lee gave all, asking for nothing in return, little dreaming that a great New Town would bear his name”. He is the only man in this country to have a town named after him.

Peter Lee

Peter Lee was born in July 1864 at Duff Heap Row, Trimdon. His parents were Tom and Hannah and his great grandfather, James Lee was a gypsy who passed on to his great grandson his independent mind and wandering spirit.  Peter recorded in his diary that he had lived in 71 houses, worked in 39 coal seams in 27 pits over the period of his working life.

As a young adult, Peter could not read or write and realised what a disadvantage is was. As he matured he became so proud of his mother, Hannah who had been educated by her father. She was able to read stories and also to make them up and Peter treasured the times when he and his siblings, together with their father, would sit around the fire in their miners’ cottage listening to their mother reading or telling a story. It may have been the influence of his mother that inspired Peter to return to the classroom at the age of 20 to learn literacy and numeracy.

Wheatley Hill was typical of similar villages at the time, its streets were described as ‘a joke’. There was no direct route to Thornley where Wheatley Hill burials were carried out, the coffin travelled on the wagon-way and the mourners took the long way round.

The new checkweighman and Parish Councillor saw to it that a new road was built between Thornley and Wheatley Hill and a very good one too. Then he made sure Wheatley Hill got its own cemetery.

He soon saw to it that every house in the village had a tap of its own and water. He was responsible for the village having a proper sewerage system and property lighted streets. It was a legend in the village that newcomers often couldn’t find their own house on a dark night as all the streets looked the same and most had wooden shutters keeping all light inside the houses!

The people of Wheatley Hill were so satisfied with the work of Peter Lee that in 1907 they elected him to the Rural District Council of Easington.

He was held in such high esteem that they made him Chairman of their Co-operative Society and it was through this role that he brought about massive changes to the station at Thornley Crossings. The Co-op had shares in the railway company and Peter used this to have the station and its approach road upgraded.

He  was so responsible for the building of an isolation between  Wheatley Hill and Thornley.

He died on 16 June 1936 at his home in the shadow of the cathedral in Durham City but it was practically his last request that he be buried in Wheatley Hill. Miners from all over the north, part of vast masses of people, many from different places in the country, men and women from all walks of life, came to Wheatley Hill to honour the life and work of Peter Lee on the day of his funeral. He was laid to rest in the cemetery which he had worked so hard to create in Wheatley Hill and his grave is a listed monument.

In 1937, following the death of Peter Lee, the Wheatley Hill Miners Lodge decided to commission a new banner to commemorate his life. Over the years, this banner fell into a desperate state of repaid.

Items like our colliery banner form a very important part of our cultural heritage as they are unique and irreplaceable and the responsibility of preservation for such items falls on the current generation. When an artefact falls into disrepair as our banner did, and with an understanding of our responsibility towards future generations, the Heritage and Banner Societies in Wheatley Hill had to make difficult decisions and carry out a significant assessment of the banner’s place in the history of our area, and as it was made originally to commemorate such a great figure in East Durham history, the decision was made to have the banner restored.

It is unfortunate that the banner can’t be carried into the Big Meeting. It still remains in a fragile state even after restoration, but we can preserve it as a very important part of our culture and heritage to be displayed and admired by future generations who will pass on to their children the contribution Peter Lee made to the lives of their ancestors.

© Wheatley Hill Heritage Centre 2018