(from Geordies, Yankees & Canucks by William Wonders)
The second half of the 17th Century saw rising land values as a result of which yeomen farmers increasingly prospered in the East Durham area. By the 18th Century wealthy businessmen and professionals from the cities began to purchase land for investment purposes, though the agricultural quality of plateau land (land on the magnesian limestone escarpment) was limited by inferior soil—variable thickness of loam over the limestone bedrock in the west and heavy clay over glacial drift in the east.
Most villages in East Durham remained small, though Easington had been a major centre since Saxon times. The 12th Century church of St Mary’s was built on the hilltop site of a Saxon predecessor. In contrast, Thornley was located in Kelloe parish and did not have its own Anglican church until 1843. In 1828 Easington’s pre-eminence as a major village in the district was demonstrated statistically in a local trade directory as having 30 farmers while Thornley only had 3 farmers.
It was the discovery of major coal stocks below the limestone of East Durham and the availability of new equipment to cope with its extraction difficulties and of efficient overland transportation by way of the newly developed railways, that transformed the once agricultural region into an industrial area.
“In the 1820’s and 30’s a scramble to open up the coalfield took place as ruthless as many a gold rush, even though its participants were not rough diggers but titled lords good-living Londoners or local men of humble background. In these two decades the County was criss-crossed with a maze of railway lines and new collieries were opened up with an influx of capital, some from the London area, the rest often within the County itself. At the same time more powerful pumping machines and the safety lamp gave new life at greater depths to many of the existing collieries”.
Following the successful raising of coal at Hetton in 1832 and Haswell in 1835 Thornley was the third colliery to be sunk in the East Durham coalfield. The first boring operations from the surface had been carried out on the Estate by T Rawlings as early as 1765 but nothing came of them. In the 19th Century the partners in the Thornley Colliery Company consisted of Sir William Chaytor of Witton Castle and three others—Messrs Thomas Wood, former viewer of the Hetton Company, John Burrell, a gentle-man from Durham City and the brother-in-law of William Chaytor and John Gully, a former bareknuckle boxer, London pub and racehorse owner and MP.
Sinking for coal began on 9 January 1834 at a depth of 216 feet and the first seam of coal was reached on 29 January 1834. Six coal seams were found at Thornley, varying in thickness from 2’2” to 4’ at depths down to 990’. Production began at Thornley in 1835. The company built a private railway eastwards to connect with the Hartlepool Railway which had been constructed in the 1830’s to transport coal from the East Durham pits to the port at Hartlepool. Thornley coal was the first to be shipped from the Hartlepool Docks and Harbour when they opened in 1835