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The Cocken Hall Project

The Cocken Hall Project is an archaeological and research investigation being run by No-Man's-Land: the European Group for Great War Archaeology in partnership with Durham University's Archives and Special Collections, the Durham County Record Office and the Northumbria Gardens Trust. It is supported by a generous grant of £10,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund as well as support from local firms and organisations including Interserve, Turner and Townsend, Aldi, Framwellgate School and Framwellgate Scouts.

Concrete pads from the bases of huts in the training camp

The project is in two phases; the first will be an excavation of the site of the camp used during the Great War by battalions of the Durham Light Infantry at the now demolished Cocken Hall, between Durham and Chester-le-Street, excavation will begin on Sunday 21st June 2015 and will continue until Saturday 27th June.

The second phase will comprise research using collections throughout the north east but principally at ASC and the DCRO until June 2016.

Shortly after war broke out in 1914, Lord Kitchener launched an appeal to recruit more men for the British Army. In Durham, Colonel Burdon and a local commitee set out to raise the Durham Pals Battalion. The battalion was offered the use of Cocken Hall, a rather run down and unoccupied country house between Durham and Chester-le-Street. Initially the troops were accommodated in the house and its outbuildings but such was the pace of recruitment that the site quickly became overcrowded and contracts were let for the construction of huts. The landscape around the hall, with it's wooded areas, open fields and steep slopes down to the River Wear were ideal to accomodate training needs.

In 2011 one of NML's members, Alastair Fraser, catalogued the papers of William Douglas Lowe, a classics lecturer at Durham University. Lowe was a keen rower and also active in the Durham University Officers' Training Corps in the years before the Great War. On the outbreak of war Lowe joined the newly formed 18th Durham Light Infantry, the Durham Pals and was soon the Adjutant.

Lowe was a collector of all kinds of paperwork that does not survive in most collections. He kept training pamphlets, rough drafts for the battalion war diary, company commanders' twelve hourly reports, signal forms stained with mud and candle grease, aerial photographs, lecture notes, plans for training schemes and all sorts of other material. These enable us to see the battalion not only in action but under training both in the United Kingdom and in France. Training in the British Expeditionary Force was a huge undertaking and very much more sophisticated than the popular view would suggest. Lowe was sent to the Senior Officers' School in Aldershot in 1917. This was intended to train promising junior officers as potential battalion commanders. Lowe kept all the duplicated course handouts as well as his test papers with the assessors' marks, a very rare survival indeed. Attendees were given a printed book of lecture notes but Lowe's copy does not survive amongst his papers. However the University Library has that of Lowe's friend and colleague Alec MacFarlane-Grieve and a copy of the book from the Third Course which Lowe attended is owned by Alastair Fraser.

It was clear from the abundant material in the Lowe Collection that No-Man's-Land might be able to conduct an investigation similar to the Plugstreet Project, using archaeology and archive to throw light on how a British Pals Battalion trained and fought the Great War. Unusually much of the material related to training, much of it in the countryside around Cocken Hall. The Battalion is well documented and is the subject of two histories by W. D. Lowe and John Sheen and the Durham County Record Office has many memoirs and diaries of men who served in it. Additionally the Record Office has a superb set of photographs of the battalion under training at Cocken Hall, mostly taken by a press photographer from the Newcastle Evening Chronicle. Paradoxically Cocken Hall itself is not well known and excavation would be very useful to enhance understanding of the site.

We invite participation in our project via our website, you can join in the discussion on our forum and share any photos, documents or memorabilia in the gallery.

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No-Man's-Land Archaeology Group, specialise in the study of the First World War though archaeological excavations, historical research, map work and aerial photography. Working with academic departments, local and international partners, cutting edge techniques are being employed to gain a greater understanding of life in the trenches and the effect of the war on the local population.

No-Man's-Land have been excavating the old Western Front in France and Belgium for about 15 years. We have also looked at a number of training facilities in Great Britain, in particular the Silloans trenches on the Otterburn Training Area, the Messines Ridge model on Cannock Chase and the Bustard trenches on Salisbury Plain. The last of these were used by 3rd Australian Division before they went to France in late 1916 and formed part of our "Plugstreet Project" which has looked at both the Salisbury Plain trenches and those around Ultimo Crater, the site of one of the mines blown on the morning of 7th June 1917 at the start of the Battle of Messines in southern Belgium. Training was realistic and appropriate to the task, which was to seize and hold a mine crater. The battalion under examination, 33rd Battalion, Australian Imperial Force carried out a difficult mission of both advancing eastwards as well as forming a flank to the south to prevent the Germans rolling up the entire advance from that direction. In 2008 the team discovered the remains of a soldier from 33 AIF who has since been identified as Private Alan Mather of D Company. Mather was killed by shellfire about 10.30 in the morning of 7th June and his body was lost. He now rests in Prowse Point Cemetery nearby. Since the project began in 2007 the investigations have expanded outwards from the initial site to look at the landscape of the whole area around Ploegsteert and St. Yvon.

The funeral of Alan Mather, Prowse Point Cemetery 2010

Ultimo Crater consolidation trench, St Yvon 2009

NML Finds Lab, Messines 2011

The Tactical Model of Messines, Cannock Chase 2013

Funding & Supporters

Supported by the Heritage Lottery Fund


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