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The Cochrane Family

It was Alexander Brodie Cochrane that obtained the right to mine for coal at Sleetburn although it was Lord Boyne of Brancepeth Castle who held the Royalties. Cochrane had his somewhat grand home, Eshwood Hall, built not far from what he hoped would be a very profitable colliery. He was part of an influential and financially successful family; they owned iron works at Ormesby and were socially ambitious. Actually it can be said that they were more or less ‘up and arrived’ rather than ‘up and coming’.

Sleetburn’s excellent coking coal supplied the Cochrane’s iron works at Ormesby. By the eve of the First World War the colliery had become a large complex, with brickworks and a plant to crush a valuable mineral called brytes.

The Cochrane approach to managing his workers and villagers had clearly been the product of some considerable thought. I imagine that he was mindful of the fact that a trawl through the Durham County newspapers of the time indicated a significant amount of lawlessness and violence in local mining communities – which to a large extent was fed by alcohol and despair. For some miners the alcohol temporarily brushed aside the big physical demands of coal mining. The despair may well have been caused, to some extent, by the sight of too many mangled or impaired bodies, the experience of periodical unemployment and the demand for deference. Perhaps such a social climate encouraged Cochrane to build Sleetburn as two separate villages, one for pitmen called the ‘lowside’ and another for colliery officials and craftsmen. Fields separated the two classes of workers and in effect social control and sanctions prevailed. If one of his officials or craftsmen stepped out of line they risked being moved to the lowside – or even worse – sacked and blackballed.

We can all make a judgment about the arrangement of the village but of course we have the benefit of hindsight. Certainly the demand for deference was a feature of Victorian times and the Cochrane demand for it was not unusual. I think the demand that the doors to the houses be open, with heads bowed, when the Cochrane coach came down into the village is too much for me – I can visualize it and it smells of unnecessary humiliation. That coach came down Unthank Terrace where I was later to live! Henry Heath Cochrane was in charge by the time of the ‘keep your doors open demand’.

Much earlier in that century, after the war the battle of Waterloo, the Government and landed gentry were wary of an uprising in protest against acute social deprivation; after all governments were falling in Europe. It was, amongst other considerations, the soothing balm of religion and the 1832 Reform Act [giving the vote to many of the middle class] that played their part in calming the poor. Even the famous Chartists of the 1830s and 1840s were, it could be argued, thwarted by the good harvests that fed the poor and diluted justifiable protests. So deference still carried on but only, I feel, because the poor allowed it to.

I posed myself the question: is it likely that the owner of Eshwood Hall would employ local servants? My guess was that he would not. After all the Cochrane’s would not be unaware of the risk of displaying their human failings [we all have them] in front of servants who might gossip, or more likely let something slip, when they shopped or socialized in the village. That might weaken their imposed discipline of the villagers. I was sort of right. In 1901 Isabel Potter [19] was a housemaid domestic at the Hall. She was near, in modern terms, to being a local having been born in Penshaw. In those days a trip from Sleetburn to Penshaw was quite a journey!

Ellen Weatherson [17] was employed as a bedroom maid at Eshwood Hall and she was born in Elsdon, Northumberland. Her father was a shepherd living in Hexham with his wife Isabel and their children.

The parlour maid, Elizabeth Wood originally came from Northallerton. She had earlier worked as a housemaid for another of the Cochrane family, Alfred Cochrane – Ironmaster and JP who lived at Norton House, Coutham, Cleveland. As you can imagine Norton House was in a good area – an immediate neighbour was a bank manager and the other was a hotel proprietor.

The above indoor staff was managed by Maire A Thompson, a widow of 44 with the grand title of ‘Lady Manageress.’

Some of the outdoor staff employed at Eshwood Hall in 1901 included: Richard Middings [27], foreman gardener and born in Salop, Edward Foster [24] gardener born in Lumley, County Durham, Richard Stevenson [26] gardener, born in Tipperary and David Stevenson [16] born in Alstead, Yorkshire [brothers?}.

Eshwood Hall had some fun and games on the 23rd and 24th of September 1905 and also on December 21st 1906. On those days the water supply at Eshwood Hall failed! That latter date must have induced some panic, with it coming near to Christmas. Now there’s a thought: Christmas at Eshwood Hall without water.

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  1. jenny cochrane
    November 7, 2008 at 5:07 pm

    Alexander Brodie Cochrane who started the family involvement in the Brancepeth pits, was my husband’s great x 3 grandfather. It was actually his youngest son Henry Heath Cochrane who had Eshwood Hall built and who acted as lord & master in the village. I don’t really see the force of your argument that they wouldn’t employ local labour. Alexander Brodie had 8 surviving sons who lived in the north east and the midlands and all employed local help.
    Also, just as a point of interest though Henry Heath complained repeatedly about the water problems I doubt it would have spoiled his Christmas!. In 1906, Henry was widowed and childless and probably spent Christmas with family elsewhere.
    Interestingly I bet none of the Unthank locals knew that Henry Heath had been divorced from his first wife in 1896. She appears to have lied to him about her age and the marriage soon broke down. OOH Scandal!!

    • October 23, 2009 at 5:32 am

      I’m on the hunt for some of those Cochranes! I’m wondering if you or your correspondent Jeny Cochrane (or anyone else for that matter) can direct me toward William Percy Cochrane b. 1860ish. He married Helen Lavinia Shaw of Bath, whom I am researching.

      What I have so far is wonderful, but there is so much more – Rhodesian gold, Sth African diamonds, spying for the Admiralty, military hospitals, benevolence on a huge scale.

      • Jenny Cochrane
        February 10, 2010 at 8:01 am

        Hi Vaughan,

        Sorry to have only just noticed your post. Yes I’m familiar with William Percy and know a bit about him and a lot about the family – sounds like you know more. The Cochrane’s were wealthy, but I often wondered how William and Helen lived in such grand style when William didn’t work in the family business. I was also curious as to why he served in WWI when he was already in his 50’s and not a professional soldier.
        I have just been in contact with a lady called Lynn who is a great niece of Helen and she pointed me to your web site http://vaughanbryers.wordpress.com/in-italia-sept-09/
        but the link won’t work, so I’ll try your link above)
        If you have access to Ancestry, you can contact me through my tree Cochrane (Alexander Brodie) and then I’ll get the message straight to my PC.
        Hope to hear from you soon

  2. Wilf Bell
    November 8, 2008 at 4:54 pm

    Jenny thank you for your informative input. It had occured to me that Mr Cochrane might not have spent Christmas at Eshwood Hall but I was seduced by the thought that some of his wider family might have wished to enjoy a sort of Trust House Forte experience at Eshwood Hall over Christmas – maybe they did but I understand your point. Regarding the water maybe it was the servants that were panicking rather that Mr Cochrane. What I like about history is that peer review can put me right! A comment from a family link is so tangible – brilliant as they say. Thank you again.

  3. Heather
    April 22, 2012 at 9:32 pm

    I have a very old pair of wooden snow skis in a wooden box with the following information painted in red on the box: “Alexander Brodie Cochrane, Esq., Loch Awe, Argyllshire”. I am in Tucson, Arizona, USA and don’t want them and am wondering who might. You can email me directly at hhwuelpern@yahoo.com and I’d be happy to email you photos.

  4. Heather
    April 22, 2012 at 9:34 pm

    I should also have mentioned that antique dealers who have seen the photos can tell the binding have been retrofitted on the skis more likely in the early 1900s, but the skis and box could be as old as the mid 1800s.

  5. Laura Smith
    October 15, 2014 at 8:09 pm

    Dear Paul,
    A fascinating read. I believe my parents house in Durham is built with old parts of Eshwood Hall. It was built in the late 1920’s and has the old bay windows, several single sash windows, internal doors and a rather large marble fireplace (approx 7ft x 5ft!), with a very wide chimney breast built to accommodate this. There used to be some broken pediments above the doors but these are now in the garage! The builder of this house built 2 bungalows for his daughters (one now demolished) and the lady who lived next door told us of the link to the hall. When you look at old photographs of Eshwood Hall you can clearly see that we have the square stone bay windows and the sash windows.
    Any more information you have would be greatly received!
    Many thanks,

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