When Wheatley Hill pit was sunk in 1867 it was the third colliery in the small empire of the Thornley Coal Company who were also responsible for the collieries at Thornley and Ludworth.
It is not clear who the sinkers of Wheatley Hill colliery were but Thornley was sunk by the eminent engineer from Durham City, William Coulson, and it may be that the same team carried out the sinking at the new Wheatley Hill Colliery. We do know however that the first sods of earth to mark the new colliery, were cut by directors of the coal company, John Patton and John Smith and as a result of their names the new colliery became known locally as the ‘John’ pit. Their names will also account for John Street, Patton Street and Smith Street.
The Directors of the Coal Company were investors and had no previous knowledge or interest in coal mining and were in the business of coal only for profit. The rest of the Directors were:
H W Gothay
George M Wolmerhausen
Of course the owners had to provide housing for their workforce, this being an isolated area before the pit arrived, and the first houses were those of the single storey type. All bore the names of the directors listed above and in addition there was Anne Street, Emily Street, Elizabeth Street and Grainger Street, all street names representing either the company directors or their families.
The next phase of housing stock would be Gowland Terrace, Office Street followed by Quarry Street, Webb Street, Hirst Street, Patton Street, Gothay Street, Louisa Street, Arne Street, Maria Street, Ford Street, Pyman Street and Wolmerhausen Street and once again these names were consistent with the directors of the coal company and their families. Mr G Pyman, as well as being a shareholder in the coal company was also a local JP and Magistrate.
However it is Wolmerhausen Street that warrants our curiosity as a result of the many myths that have surrounded its name over the years. The street contained 25 two-storey dwellings and ran parallel to the existing main road through the village, along the top of Patton Street. I recently met a German linguist liv-ing and working in London and I asked her the origins of the word “Wolmerhausen” (pronounced “Wool-mer-hows-en). She told me that it is the name of a town in Germany near Cologne and as is the case with some towns in England, the name is also often used as a surname which is how one of the di-rectors of the coal company, Mr G M Wolmerhausen, got his name. As an investor, Mr Wolmerhausen lived in London and he will have had very little contact with the village of Wheatley Hill.
Over the years, the word “Wolmerhausen” has been the topic of many a heated debate with regard to its origins and several popular myths have grown up around it and passed on. Some of these myths are:
Myth No 1—German Sinkers
Untrue. As the sinking of Wheatley Hill pit was started in the mid-1860’s just a few years before the unification of Germany took place, there was no necessity for people who would have been known as Prussians at the time, being in England. They were not known for their coal mine sinking skills.
Myth No 2—Prisoners of War
Untrue. Presumably this myth refers to German Prisoners of War, giving credence to the German origin of the name. However Wolmerhausen Street was built in the 1870’s, almost 40 years before the begin-ning of the First World War against Germany. There is no record of the United Kingdom being at war with Germany in the 1870’s and therefore unlikely that we had German Prisoners of War in Wheatley Hill.
Myth No 3—Meaning of the Word
Untrue. As already explained, the word “Wolmerhausen” is a proper noun, the name of a town in Germany and sometimes used as a surname—the word has no other translation value, it does not mean “workers houses” or “workers cottages” as has been suggested over the years.
There is no doubt that Wolmerhausen Street took its name from a director of the coal company as many of the other streets did. You may be asked by future generations on learning that their ancestors lived in Wolmerhausen Street, how it got its name—and you can tell them with absolute certainty!!
At the time of the Second World War, Wolmerhausen Street was used as the Headquarters of the 22nd Battalion (Wheatley Hill) Home Guard and they used the following houses:
No 1 and No 2 Platoon Headquarters
No 17,18,19 Company Headquarters
No 21 & 22 Battalion Headquarters
No 23 Battalion Store