Diocese of

Hexham and Newcastle

Bishop Robert Byrne CO

History – Penshaw Monument

No one coming to Penshaw for the first time can fail to be impressed by the sight of the Greek Temple which dominates the skyline above the entrance to the Herrington Country Park. For Wearsiders in particular and to many living in Tyneside and Durham, Penshaw Monument is the sign of home. However, this is not Greece and this is no ordinary temple. The monument was built in 1844 in honour of John George Lambton, the first Earl of Durham.

The Monument stands 136 metres above sea level. It was designed to be a copy of the Theseion, the Temple of Hephaestus, in Athens. It has also been linked with the Temple of Diana at Ephesus. It is built twice the size of the original. It was designed by Newcastle architects, John and Benjamin Green and built by Thomas Pratt of Sunderland. The Monument is the best preserved model of a Doric Hexastyle temple in Britain. The Marquess of Londonderry presented Penshaw Hill as a suitable site.

The foundation stone was laid by the Marquess of Zetland on 28 August 1844, four years after the death of the Earl. An inscription which has since been erased read as follows:

This stone was laid by Thomas, Earl of Zetland, Grandmaster of the Free and Accepted Masons of England, assisted by the Brethren of the Provinces of Durham and Northumberland, on August 28th 1844 being the Foundation Stone of a memorial to be erected to the memory of John George, Earl of Durham, who after representing the County of Durham in Parliament for 15 years was raised to the Peerage, and subsequently held the offices of Lord Privy Seal, Ambassador-Extraordinary and Minister of the Court of Petersburg and Governor-General of Canada. He died July 28th 1840, in the 49th year of his age. This monument will be erected by the private subscriptions of his fellow countrymen, admirers of his distinguished talents and exemplary private virtues.

The structure consists of four major parts. The stylobate is the base and foundation that supports the rest of the structure. The smooth columns, of which there are eighteen in a four by seven arrangement, are known as Doric columns. This was the first and oldest order of Greek architecture characterised by massive columns without ornament at the base or top. The columns are solid except one which contains a spiral staircase providing access to the upper walkways. This was originally open to the public but was permanently closed after a fifteen year old boy fell to his death.

Resting on the columns is the entablature which itself can be split into three main parts. The architrave, the main spanning beam across the tops of the pillars. Above the architrave is the frieze, the central patterned section. Then the cornice is the upper part which projects outwards. Finally, the pediments are the triangular facings at each end of the Monument.

It is 100 feet (30 metres) long, 53 feet (16 metres) wide and 70 feet (20 metres) high. The columns are each 6 feet and 6 inches (2 metres) in diameter.

The staircase which led to the top of the monument was closed after the tragic death of a fifteen year old boy on Easter Monday 1926. The Sunderland Echo reported the proceedings of the Inquest held on 7 April 1926.The boy, Temperley Arthur Scott of Castle Street, Fatfield, was killed after falling 70 feet (20 metres) to the ground.

The boy was with three of his friends. There were about twenty other people at the top of the Monument at the time. Witnesses said that the boys went round the walkway twice and then decided to go around a third time.

In order to pass from one side of the Monument to the other, they had to pass round the ends where there was no protecting wall.

‘Hind, and a boy named Mitchell, were sitting down watching Scott and another boy following. Scott, while walking, appeared to stumble forward, witness and Mitchell, who were then sitting in the middle of the peak, thought he had caught his foot on the masonry. Scott was hurrying to reach his companions, when he stumbled and fell, he rolled over once and then disappeared over the edge of the monument.’

‘It was quite an ordinary thing for people to go to the top at holiday times. There was nothing to prevent a person slipping off the peak and rolling off the end of the monument, and from the worn appearance of the stonework on the top of the peak quite a number of people had crossed from one side to the other. Although not called as a witness, Mr. J. Colpitts, who has the charge of the keys of the monument, informed the Deputy-Coroner that the monument had been erected 82 years and it was the first fatal accident that had occurred.’

‘In returning a verdict of Accidental Death, Deputy Coroner Boulton said that it was a terrible accident to have occurred and they must have the greatest sympathy with the parents of the boy. He suggested that iron railings with spikes should be put up at the sides to prevent people getting round and if that could not be done then he could only suggest that the place be locked up and the public not admitted.’

To this day the door leading up to the top of the monument has been securely locked.

The Monument is made of gritstone from the quarries of the then Marquess of Londonderry, on the east coast. Steel pins and brackets held the gritstone blocks together but over the years these deteriorated. Due to this and settlement as a result of mining beneath the hill the Monument was underpinned in 1978. In 1979 the entire western end of the Monument was dismantled block by block in order that damaged lintels could be replaced by new reinforced concrete ones. These have artificial stone facings and are recognisable by their buff–yellow colour. Surveys in the 1990s showed that the Monument was now stable.

Penshaw Monument was acquired by the National Trust as a gift from the Fifth Earl of Durham in 1939.

Grant aid from the Countryside Commission in 1982 allowed the addition of the hill itself and the adjacent woodland to the north–west.

Although strictly not within the Country Park, its significance to the area cannot be ignored. From the summit of Penshaw Hill the view across Tyneside, Wearside and much of Durham is magnificent. On a clear day it is possible to see as far north as the Cheviot Hills over fifty miles away.

Much closer is the River Wear in its narrow gorge–like valley. Nearby, to the north–west, the river is spanned by the Victoria Viaduct which was completed on the day of Queen Victoria’s Coronation in 1838. The bridge is based on a Roman viaduct at Alacantra in Spain. It was built to carry the first rail link between London and the North–East which was completed by the middle of the 19th Century. Although no longer carrying rail traffic, there are tentative plans to bring it into use again in the future for more modern suburban transport.


Many thanks to Bernadette and Michael Leckenby for this information and photos