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History of Washington Old Hall

A gravel path, edged by neat box hedges in the formal garden at Washington Old Hall, Tyne & Wear
Washington Old Hall | © National Trust Images/James Dobson

Considered a ‘founding father’ of the United States, the country’s first president, George Washington, is often thought of as all-American. However, his roots start here, at Washington Old Hall. Discover the history of this house and its journey through time, including its earliest years, what it tells us about 17th century life and its use in the 20th century.

From Wessington to Washington

The origins of the first President of the United States, George Washington, are right here in Washington village.

In the ancient County Palatine of Durham, and dating back to Anglo-Saxon times, the name has variously been spelt Wessynton, Whessingtun and Wassington.

It’s now commonly known and spelt as Washington – even if some locals pronounce it Weshintun.

The origins of the 'Washington' name

Around 1180, William de Hertburn, a tenant of the Bishop of Durham Hugh le Puiset, exchanged his holding near Stockton for that of Washington.

The bishop was reorganising his estates and needed Hertburn to consolidate his lands in that part of the Bishopric, or district.

Washington, other than for the land belonging to the church, was untenanted and, therefore, available to William. With Washington now his new home and as custom dictated, William assumed 'de Wessyngton' as his new surname.

Building Washington Old Hall

Washington Old Hall incorporates a large portion of a medieval manor which was home to the Washington family. Whether William built himself a new manor house or moved into an existing one is unknown.

The earliest parts of this building date to the mid-13th century, a time when there was relative peace on the Anglo-Scottish border and funds were available from the marriages of successive Washingtons to wealthy widows.

Parts of the original building remain, the most obvious being the pointed arches at the west end of the Great Hall which could have been part of a screen passage arrangement connecting the hall with the kitchens.

Inside Washington Old Hall, Tyne & Wear. Two arches within a historic stone wall are shown along with a beamed ceiling
The arches are some of the oldest remaining parts of the hall | © National Trust Images/Chris Lacey

Washington family history

The branch of the family that produced George Washington came from the marriage in 1292 of Robert Washington – great, great grandson of the first Washington – to Joan de Strickland of Sizergh Castle in Cumbria.

In September 1304, King Edward I visited Washington on a return journey from Scotland cementing the family’s status during the medieval period.

The original Stars and Stripes?

Soon after, the family adopted a new coat of arms, which was in use by 1346. The arms featured two bars (stripes) and three mullets (stars) in red against a white background. Remains of this appear to be carved in stone on the west front of Hylton Castle, three miles from Washington Old Hall.

The senior branch of the Washington family continued to live at Washington until the death of William in 1399.

His heir was his only child, Eleanor, who before 1402 had married Sir William Tempest of Studley Royal in Yorkshire. Through the marriage of their daughter Dionisia, Washington came into the hands of the Mallory family.

Life at Washington Old Hall in the 17th century

During the 17th century an inventory was made of Washington Old Hall. This has given a wonderful insight into the lifestyle of its residents during that time, as well as what the hall could have looked like.

William and Dorothy James began their married life in the hall in 1645 and had six children. In 1662 William died, and it was six months later that the inventory was taken of the building's contents.

The ground floor had a kitchen, parlour and a great hall. At the western end of the building stood a milk house and buttery. The first floor had five bedrooms and a linen closet.

Dining at Washington Old Hall

Although not listed on the inventory of 1662, Washington Old Hall also has a copy of Robert May's ‘The Accomplisht Cook Or the Art and Mystery of Cooking’ dating back to 1664. It gives a taste of the food enjoyed by the highest tiers of society in the 17th century.

The book is so special that when a 1678 edition was discovered and put up for sale in 2007, auctioneer Charles Hanson said that 'no more than 200 of these books were ever printed in the period.'

A change in fortunes

Although the hall was once home to the wealthiest in society, by the 19th century its purpose had changed dramatically. When a local builder wanted to use the surrounding land, he purchased Washington Old Hall and developed it into a tenement, housing the poorest people in the community.

The hall housed nine families, and there were a further five families living on site: two in a tin hut and three in the adjoining building. There was only one water pipe for all the houses and large families would live in one room - cooking, cleaning and sleeping in the same space.

Washington Old Hall eventually deteriorated to the point where it became unfit for human habitation. Almost a ruin, in 1933 it was closed.

Memories of the 'little gem'

Hear local residents share their memories of Washington Old Hall, affectionately known as the 'little gem'.

Stanley Bone
One of 16 children, Stanley was born in what was 'No.5 the Old Hall’. He reveals there were no gardens at the time, but there was a friendly pet who kept the mice at bay and a somewhat unusual baby bed. Stanley continued to visit throughout his life and was a familiar, friendly face with the staff and volunteers.Hear Stanley's story
Edwin Saint
When Edwin joined Biddick School as a young pupil after the war, little did he know how much the headmaster would influence his life. History-lover and headmaster, Fred Hill, went on to form the preservation society that saved Washington Old hall in the 1930s - even sitting in front of a bulldozer to block it.Meet Edwin
Peggy Douglas
Peggy lived at Washington Old Hall her entire life. She became an ambassador of sorts for the Hall, impressing the American visitors so much that they enlisted her help overseas. Peggy met quite a few celebrities along the way too. Here, Peggy's daughter Patricia, and Duncan McLean, share their memories.Peggy's story
Rhona Arnott
1977 was a memorable year for Rhona. At the time, she lived just down the road in Blackfell village when the news hit that President Jimmy Carter was visiting Washington Old Hall. She hopped in the car and managed to get a good view from the village green to catch the President planting his tree.Meet Rhona
Diane Simpson-Scott
While the tenement room at Washington Old Hall looks rather different today, Diane can remember it only housing a table and chairs. During the late 60s her mother would put Diane in her Sunday best, along with her brother, and they would go to Sunday school.Hear Diane's memories
A black and white image showing Fred Hill and a group of school boys admiring Washington Old Hall. The group has their backs to the camera.
Fred Hill and school children admiring Washington Old Hall | © unknown

Saving Washington Old Hall

In 1937, Fred Hill (1885–1955) launched the Old Hall Preservation Committee to which a local industrialist donated £400. It was enough to enable the group to buy the property for £350 and start a restoration fund.

While the Second World War halted proceedings, in 1955 the hall was fit to be opened to the public for the first time. Sadly, Fred died soon afterwards.

In 1956, Washington Old Hall came under the care of the National Trust .

Alongside the Trust, an independent charity called The Friends of Washington Old Hall have helped to raise money to purchase the surrounding land and to help fund the conservation of this special place for future generations.

A view of Washington Old Hall on a sunny day, with neatly trimmed hedges visible in front of the hall and a border of orange flowers

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