The Surtees connection

Following the figure cut by Lady Peat and contemporary with her but displaying an altogether different character by his generosity comes another connection with Herrington. Robert Surtees was a scholar to whom all historians look back with gratitude for the spadework he covered in the great history of the County Palatine of Durham.

A child of middle-aged parents, married 18 years before he was born, he grew up to be a retiring studious boy fascinated by antiquities. He had some boyhood companions – the family of the Beckworths who later inherited the Silksworth Estate, and the Robinson girls at Herrington Hall with whom he often stayed (there is a pastel drawing of him at this time by his father), and it may have been this fact that made his parents choose the Kepier Grammar School at Houghton when the time came to leave the ancestral home at Mainsforth. Here he quickly became a classical scholar. There is a story told of him in later life visiting the schoolmaster at Richmond. On the way up to supper the master quoted in Greek a line from the Odyssey – “What was my astonishment when Mr Surtees quoted not the next line but line after line of the passage, I have never spent such an evening in my life!”.

Not many schoolmasters today would cope with, let alone enjoy, such an evening but it was unusual for a country squire in that hard-riding, fox-hunting time. It suggests perhaps he was a lonely figure at school if not quite something of a joke. He was much influenced by a Rector of Houghton, George Wheler, whose works commended the keeping of daily offices and this Robert Surtees did to the end of his life. “What is our business in life,” he said, “but to take heed to our salvation”. Always there was the quiet retreat and friends at Herrington where he collected information on the area and dreamed of his ambition to write a history of the county. It was whilst he was here that he visited the old Sybil Elizabeth Cockburn of Offerton to hear the story of the Lambton Worm. Later while at Oxford and destined for law, his parents died and he came to Mainsforth, wealthy enough to fulfil his ambition and indulge his love of the past. Employing searchers of records in London he collected a vast amount of information, travelling round the country in his gig to inspect sites in summer and immersed in the solitude of his study to write in winter months.

Robert Surtees
Robert Surtees

He still retained an affection for Herrington and said the greatest sorrow of his life was the death of Emma Robinson at the Hall, aged twenty-one. Using his easy facility for balladry, he penned a memorium:
“Is there any room at your head Emma?
Is there any room at your feet?
Is there any room at your side Emma?
Where I may sleep so sweet…

There is no room at my head Robin,
There is no room at my feet,
My bed is dark and narrow now,
But Oh! My sleep is sweet…

And kind and true Robin,
Take this counsel free,
If ever you love another sister,
Never love her as you lo’d me…

But in 1807 he did love, and married another sister Anne Robinson – his dearest Annie he called her – and he could not have found a better companion. She seems to have understood his love of the past but broke through the solitude that such a study brings, with her companionship, with visits of friends and of family.

The first volume of the great history was published in 1816: an enormous book in size as well as achievement. Sir Timothy Eden has described it as too uncomfortable on the knees, the weight enough to topple a small table so it can only be read sitting bold upright with head bent.

It is the finest and the first of all histories of this county. And because he first started his jottings here, because his dearest companion and support in his work came from here, because the first essay for the first volume covered Houghton and the Herringtons, it is perhaps not untrue to claim this village as the birthplace of Surtees’ great history of Durham. It would be satisfactory if one day a road or lane might be named after him to commemorate this fact.

Robert Surtees was greatly respected in his lifetime. The stories of his kindnesses are legion.

As for example:
When he raised a subscription to provide a new cow for the poverty stricken curate of Merrington he successfully petitioned the Dean with humour – “My Lord! I hope you will go to heaven on the back of that cow!”. He was instrumental in rescuing the last of the ancient Conyers family from a Chester-le-Street work house. His friendship with Scott provided an invaluable source of Border Ballads and tales.

In January 1834, he visited the Robinson cousins who had moved from Herrington to Hendon. He caught a severe chill which turned to pleurisy. Recognizing he was coming to an end he took a long last look at his books saying wistfully “Annie, it’s so hard to die in the Spring”.

Only the last volume of the history was still to be printed and this was brought out after his death by his friends. The Surtees Society established in his honour still continues to publish records of northern history.

Annie Surtees died thirty years later, both are buried at Bishop Middleham and as one writer commented, “If his faith has been rewarded he is now driving about in a celestial gig inspecting the venerable antiquities of heaven”.