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Ushaw House: A Jewel in Durham’s Crown

An enlightening photo essay by Ivor Robinson

Ushaw House came to my attention a couple of years ago when a good friend pointed out an article in a magazine. I decided there and then that one day I would try to visit and this week, I did.

It is described as a “hidden gem” by one web site report and I would totally agree with that statement. 

Ushaw College now known as “Ushaw Historic House, Chapels & Gardens” is a former Catholic Seminary near the village of Ushaw Moor, Durham. It was founded in 1808 by scholars from the English College Douai, who had fled France during the French Revolution. 

Ushaw House

Ushaw College was affiliated with the University of Durham from 1968 and was the principal Roman Catholic Seminary for training Catholic priests in the north of England. It finally closed in 2011. The buildings and grounds re-opened to the public in late 2014 are maintained by a charitable trust. 

The main college buildings are Grade II listed however the College Chapel is grade II and the Chapel of St Michael is grade I.  Ushaw has 14 chapels.

Some History

The English College at Douai in French Flanders was founded in 1568 when Queen Elizabeth I outlawed traditional Roman Catholicism. Those caught practising the old religion could be fined, imprisoned or even sentenced to death. 

Despite all this, some people secretly followed their faith but they needed priests to help them. 

Lancashire priest William Allen opened a college to train young Englishmen in the Flanders town of Douai. Once trained, the priests quietly slipped back into the country to minister to worshippers. By the time Elizabeth died in 1603, Douai had sent over about 500 priests.

But it was a dangerous occupation, from 1577 to 1680, 158 Douai priests had been executed. The last, a Thomas Thwing was hung, drawn and quartered at York.

Attitudes in Britain to Catholics gradually softened, but when the French Revolution broke out in 1789, the Douai students suddenly found themselves victims of a new kind of persecution: they were persecuted for being English, so many fled back across the channel. 

Ushaw House

French revolutionary troops eventually entered the college, imprisoned staff and students, and sealed the libraries. The staff and students were able to depart two years later, but it would be another forty years before the fate of the library’s books was known; under the orders of magistrates, ‘waggon loads’ of books had been taken from the library to the arsenal to be made into military cartridges. 

Although in 1790, Catholicism might have been tolerated but it was still viewed by the authorities with suspicion. The new college built on land sold by Sir Edward Smythe, of Esh, who had Catholic sympathies, was designed to look like a traditional Georgian country house, the chapel being tucked away at the back. 

The Roman Catholic Relief Act of 1829 formally ended the centuries of discrimination, and Ushaw responded by making a big, statement. With student numbers growing, Augustus Pugin – the hottest architect in the country because of his success with the Houses of Parliament and Big Ben was engaged to build a proper place of worship on the front of the building. 

Pugin created a remarkably grand, richly decorated peaceful chapel. He also did other works, such as turning the refectory, into an opulent, elegant dining hall, which is today the Divines café. 

Ushaw House

The college continued to expand with a junior school being added, so boys as young as 11 could begin their education there, many of them not emerging back into the wider world until they were 24 as a newly qualified priest. (This whole part of the complex is now derelict and rapidly falling into a state of decay. We have seen the Urbex web site and there are some nice bits in there just slowly disappearing.) 

By the early 1880s, the student population was nearly 500, Pugin’s main 140-seat chapel was too small. The college demolished it and got Newcastle architects Archibald Dunn and Edward Hansom to rebuild it on a bigger scale using all of Pugin’s original fixtures, fittings, tracery and windows. The chapel, dedicated to St Cuthbert is now the highlight of Ushaw. 

As the call for Catholic priests diminished the seminary closed in 2011. Ushaw’s future was uncertain, the decision was taken to see if it could sustain itself without students. 

Durham University has taken over its east wing as the headquarters of the Durham Music Service and home to 15,000 musical instruments. Start-up businesses (a shoemaker, a life coach, a book illustrator, an architect) have moved in, and its main historic buildings are being opened to the public and a series of musical and cultural events held.

Ushaw House

Life at Ushaw

A new display giving an insight into the day to day life of the different people living here when Ushaw was a seminary and boarding school. Visitors can find out more about the lessons that were taught, the sports that were played and the army of domestic workers that were needed to keep such a vast estate running.

Throughout the exhibition visitors can listen to the stories, experiences and recollections of the people who worked or studied at Ushaw from the College professors to the housemaids who worked in the laundry. These have been collected as part of our oral history project Divine Voices which has been supported by the National Lottery Heritage Fund.

Ushaw House

Check out “The New Exhibition – Life at Ushaw – now showing!”  

By Jonathan Ward on Vimeo.

Please click the link to see the Vimeo at: HERE

To find out more or to book tickets go to: USHAW HOUSE

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