Aycliffe (originally ‘Acley’) probably take its name from two Saxon words: ‘Ac’, meaning oak, and ‘ley’, meaning ‘a clearing’. Saxon Middridge seems to have been sited near the Aycliffe golf course, on the ‘middle ridge’ between School Aycliffe and Eldon. Both villages seem to have been on the main road north in those days, and Aycliffe became quite important. Church synods were held there in AD 782 and AD 789, and Saxon remains can still be seen in Aycliffe Village church.
Saxon Aycliffe disappeared suddenly in 1069, when the Norman invaders destroyed the region. Most of the inhabitants were killed, or died of starvation and disease. The survivors were herded into prison camps. Aycliffe and Middridge were re-sited and rebuilt as bleak rows of huts around a village green. Their inhabitants became ‘serfs’; they were owned by the Bishop of Durham, and were made to work for him in the great Open Fields surrounding each village.
Insurrections and Industry
Through the centuries, the ‘serfs’ gained their freedom. They became independent-minded and quarrelsome; 28 of the inhabitants of Aycliffe and Middridge joined the 1569 rebellion, and 5 of them were executed for their part in it. During the seventeenth century, when the Open Fields in Middridge were divided up into separate farms, the process involved considerable ill-will and litigation! The new farmers built their own farmhouses – for instance Greenfield, Horndale and Williamfield – though the land was never very good farmland.
Then, in 1821, George Stephenson was asked to build the Stockton and Darlington Railway, and the Industrial Age came to south-west Durham – including a coal mine in Middridge and a railway line at Simpasture (it is possible to walk along the course of the Simpasture railway).
The Beveridge Way
The Industrial Revolution brought its problems. The pit villages of County Durham were often just rows of slums. When the mines closed down, problems of unemployment were added to the problems of poor housing.
During the Second World War, however, the Government established an Ordnance Factory near Aycliffe Village, and after the war this became the basis of an industrial estate. On the poor farmland to the north, a ‘new town’ (of about 10,000 inhabitants) was planned, where the workforce could live. Building began on 28 June 1948. The County Council wanted people to move into ‘Newton Aycliffe’ from the old ‘Category D’ (scheduled to die) pit villages.
The first chairman of the ‘Aycliffe Development Corporation’ was Lord Beveridge. Beveridge chose Newton Aycliffe as the place to realise his vision of a ‘Welfare State’, where poverty, unemployment and squalor would be no more. He even came to live in one of the houses – though he did not find ‘life among the people’ quite as easy as he had expected. The ‘Master Plan’ for the new town envisaged a class-less society, where managers and men would live side-by-side in high-quality council houses. These were the days of the fearsome Miss Hamilton, who interviewed prospective tenants, and visited them to make sure they were keeping their council houses tidy!
Over the years, Newton Aycliffe has grown. Although much of Beveridge’s vision has been lost, the township has conquered its ‘new town blues’, and its people have established a vibrant, happy community.
John D. Clare