There is history of people in the area in the late Neolithic and Bronze age. Field finds from Roman times suggest that there was a small Roman settlement at Crookton, across the Browney Valley from Witton which existed as a settlement from before the Norman Conquest until the thirteenth century. By the end of the twelfth century it was owned together with Fulforth by the Bishop of Durham. His tenant and Lord of the Manor was Gilbert de la Ley who gave his name to his village in the woods. It is believed that the soft J in Gilbert is why even today the name of the village is spoken as ‘J’ilbert.
The original parish of St Oswald’s in Durham was huge in the middle ages, stretching from Chester-le-Street to Croxdale and included Witton Gilbert. Bishop Hugh de Puist in 1175 built a Chapel with its own graveyard in the Village and about at the same time Gilbert de la Ley gave land nearby to the Priory for the building of a Leper hospital. A new grange farm, later known as Witton Farm was built alongside.
There is evidence of coal digging in the Parish from the early fourteenth century. It was mostly produced from bell pits reached by ladders and was soon worked out.
Priors Park of Beurepaire
Some parts of the Priors Park of Beurepaire were within the bounds of Witton Gilbert. Deer were kept in the park and the monks from the Priory took their holidays there. The gatehouse was at Stottgate and the keeper’s house was at Lodge Farm. The Priors estate was invaded several times during the Scottish wars. King David of Scotland camped there before the battle of Nevilles Cross in 1346.
After the Reformation Witton Gilbert became an independent parish and Kimblesworth was affiliated to it in 1593. In 1641 there were 76 men over the age of 18 and in 1666 there were 92 houses of sufficient size to pay the governments Hearth Tax.
There were some small schools in the village quite early. The vicar Robert Hawksworth ran one from his house in the early 1660’s and later there were Dames Schools where literate old ladies taught the rudiments of reading.
A school was built on Front Street in 1720 by public subscription and the first schoolmaster was the parish clerk Stephen Clark.
Changes to Witton Gilbert
By 1896, the Parish was much changed; it was reported to have 4400 inhabitants and to cover 2535 acres, the increase in population being attributed to the extension of neighbourhood collieries. Sacriston Pit employed 600 men and now dwarfed its neighbour Witton Gilbert. Langley Park Colliery opened in 1876, shortly after, Falkous Terrace and East and West Block were built together with 80 houses on Clink Field to take the overspill of pitmen from there and from Bearpark Colliery which opened in 1872. A railway station was built on the edge of the village in 1862 which was on the Browney Valley railway line to Consett. A postal service had grown up and Witton had its own Post Office on Front Street.
A prefabricated corrugated iron school at the top end of the Dene was in use until a council school replaced it in 1932.There was also an Industrial school in the Parish at Earls House, it took boys from the County who were truants, or from poor homes and taught them a trade.
The Wesleyan Methodist Chapel was built in 1875 and was the centre of a band of the Temperance Movement, no doubt with good reason as there were several public houses, namely the Black Lion, Three Tuns, Travellers Rest, Glendenning Arms, Oddfellows Arms and the Three Horseshoes. There were several shops in the village at that time including, draper, boot maker, tailor, greengrocer, blacksmith, joiner, cartwright and a photographer.
After the First World War, a small drift mine was begun by Benjamin Pescod at the Clink Bank and employed 20 men until shortly after the nationalisation of the coal industry.
In 1894 the Local Government Act removed responsibility for Parish affairs from the control of the church vestry and created a joint civil Parish of Witton Gilbert and Sacriston. After two years and quite a lot of bad feeling, a boundary was established between the two sections and the Local Government Act of 1937 saw the villages finally split with the formation of two separate parish councils.
At the beginning of the twentieth century the village started to move northward with some of the country’s first council houses being built at Hillside, Fair View and Chester Gardens. This marked a social revolution as families moved away from back to back terraces into modern spacious homes. This building programme continued into the 1960s and 1970s when the Whitehouse Farm estate and Norburn Park were built. Both private estates which saw the housing stock in the village rise to about 1100 with a population of around 2500.
Witton Gilbert Primary School opened in 1939. In the 1960’s the Workingmen’s Club moved from the Front Street and the White Tun was built as were the two present shops, trading as newsagents and general dealers. The Community Centre (Cooper Hall) was opened in 1974 and is very much the hub of village life.
By the mid 1980’s the nearby mines were all closed and now people work mainly in the service industries, retail and manufacturing, in Durham, Newcastle and Sunderland.
This century has seen a massive rise in road transport and in 1996 the Front Street which had been an accident black spot was by-passed. It is now a quiet residential area and several of the old farms are still there.
On a fine summers evening you can still walk through the Dene, passing St Michael and All Angels church, down to the river Browney and imagine that the centuries have rolled back to the village’s rural beginnings.