Who was Rowland?

The Origin of “Rowlands Gill”.

by Brian Pears

With thanks to Dr Alan Rounding of Newcastle (formerly of Winlaton) who found the 1728 reference which forms the basis of this work.

William Bourne in his 1896 “History of the Parish of Ryton” was quite dogmatic about the origins of the village name – on page 163 we find: “Rowlands Gill derives its name from Robert Rowland, who possessed lands there in 1621, and Gill, a north-country word for a rivulet.” Thus began the myth of “Robert Rowland” which has been oft repeated and long accepted almost without question. But Bourne was wrong.

Yes, “Gill” means a stream, at least it means a stream flowing through a steep-sided valley, and Bourne is correct in his assertion that the village took its name directly or indirectly from “Rowlands Gill” the stream which carries the united flows of the Spen Burn and the Low Spen Burn a short distance through Sherburn Wood, through a culvert under the “green” and the A694 road near the Towneley Arms, and thence through Derwent Park to the River Derwent.

What is incorrect is Bourne’s association of that stream with the always shadowy and almost certainly fictitious “Robert Rowland”! The earliest known reference to this stream occurs in an agreement relating to the maintenance of the 1728 waggonway which came down Burnopfield Bank and then followed the line of Burnopfield Road and the A694 (Northumberland Record Office John/1 pages 198-207). This document refers (on page 204) to the raising of “batterys or Mounts in & over the several places, the one from the bridge & crossing [the] River Darwt., one other over & cross the Gill called Rowland Richardsons Gill, & one other over & cross the Gill called Fra[ncis] Proctors Gill”.

From NRO John/1 p 204, Reproduced courtesy of the North East Institute of Mining and Mechanical Engineers and Northumberlannd Record Office.

This reference alone is enough to firmly establish that the stream and village names stem from a gentleman named Rowland Richardson rather than the nebulous “Robert Rowland”. Far be it from me to suggest that Bourne invented that name, but all efforts to track down any reference to such a person in the area in 1621, let alone one owning the land in question, have failed. Perhaps Bourne was merely repeating an earlier legend.

But who was Rowland Richardson? We don’t know for certain, but there are three promising candidates.
The first was a “Rolland Richardson of Birchgate” who was buried in Ryton Parish Church on 16th March 1676/7 – he had probably died at quite an early age as he had a child buried just a year earlier. (The spelling difference need not concern us because, at that time, spelling was rarely consistent. In fact this spelling also occurred in the place-name – the 1841 census lists the Towneley Arms at “Rolland Gill”!) The fact that Rolland was buried within the church marks him out as someone of high status, one of the “gentry” in fact. This, in turn, implies that he was a landowner.

Birchgate was almost certainly at or near what is now “Pawston Birks Farm” on Barlow Fell. A map of Winlaton Lordship West in 1652 shows that the two fields immediately west of this farm were known as “Richardson Birks” at that time. (Birks and Birch were interchangeable in place-names – both come from “berc”, the Anglo-Saxon word for birch tree). And the 2nd edition OS map of around 1898 shows a “Rowland’s Well” just 200 yards north-east of Pawston Birks. The 1652 map shows that Richardsons also owned two substantial pieces of land around the present-day Sherburn Towers Farm – in other words, they were substantial landowners with holdings very close to Rowlands Gill (the stream).

The second candidate was Rowland Rychardson who married Mabell Chatt at Ryton Parish Church on 28th May 1696. This gentleman is chronologically closer to the 1728 reference to “Rowland Richardson’s Gill” and could well have been alive at that time. In fact he may have been a son of the other Rowland, but unfortunately nothing at all is known of his parentage, status or exact residence. The third candidate is likewise only known from a marriage entry in the Ryton Parish marriage register. On 20th July 1617, Rowland Rycheson married Marjorie Wilkinson. This gentleman could represent a previous generation of the same family, he could even be the same person as the first candidate, though this seems very unlikely.

Perhaps further research will cast more light on this, but we know enough to say that the stream took its name from “Rowland Richardson” who was probably one of the Richardson family who had land holdings on Barlow Fell and around what is now Sherburn Towers Farm (and apparently elsewhere too – the will of Albert Silvertop, who died in 1739, mentioned land purchased from Richardsons at “Spen or Ashtree”).

From being “Rowland Richardson’s Gill”, the stream became “Rowland’s Gill” and eventually just “Rowlands Gill”; but why did the village acquire the name too? The first known occurrence of “Rowlands Gill” as a place-name is in the Ryton burial register. An entry dated 24 July 1785 records the burial of Wilim Beezon of Rowlands Gill. The puzzle really is why did it occur at all? Most of what is now the village, including the stream, already had a name – Smailes or Smeales. This name has a very long history as it occurs in the Boldon Buke of 1183 – “Robert de Cogreesalle holds the land of Smallees for 2/- freely”. It still occurs in “Smailes Lane”, and until the 1950s two Smailes Farms stood in the village. One between Smailes Lane and the end of Strathmore Avenue, though this was latterly known as “Shotton’s Farm” and had been used as a builder’s yard for some time. The other was where the warden’s house of the Kells Way sheltered accommodation now stands; this remained a farm until 1959.

The burial register reference to “Rowlands Gill” may well have suggested the immediate vicinity of the stream rather than the wider area now occupied by the village, but in any event the name proved attractive. When the turnpike (toll) road from Derwenthaugh to Shotley Bridge (now the A694) came through the valley in 1835, it was evidently known as the “Rowlands Gill Turnpike” – at least that is how it is labelled on the First Edition Ordnance Survey Map of 1863. Rowlands Gill Toll House was erected where Maguire’s Fish and Chip shop now stands – it was only yards from the stream, so it is understandable that it should be given this name – but it does seem strange that an eight mile turnpike should take its name from an obscure stream which it happened to cross. Perhaps this had something to do with the popularity of the Towneley Arms which was built across the road from Rowlands Gill Toll House to serve the needs of thirsty travellers and their horses – the early equivalent of the motorway service station.

The census of 1841 shows that the name “Rowlands Gill” (or rather Rolland Gill) was already well established at that early date despite the fact that the only buildings in what is now the village were the Toll House, the Towneley Arms and the farms up at Smailes. Little had changed by the time of the 1851 and 1861 censuses – but the spelling was then standardised in its present form.

When the railway came through the Derwent Valley in 1867 and a station was built just yards from Rowlands Gill Toll House; it is not surprisingly that the station too was named “Rowlands Gill”. And with stop-off points for both the turnpike and the railway, not to mention a public house, Rowlands Gill was in fact a much frequented place several years before the village existed. Then came the Lilley Drift Colliery and “The Rows” and “The Bottoms” and the village of Rowlands Gill was born.