Descent of the estates The estates of the Dean and Chapter of Durham were inherited, after some trimming, from those amassed by the priory of Durham. The Dean and Chapter and the bishop of Durham were by far the largest landowners in the Palatinate of Durham (which included parts of Northumberland as well as the historic county of Durham). Land was the prime source of wealth for such institutions, who could rent it out for agricultural use (with a growing revenue from the mineral rights as quarrying and mining expanded) and as tenements in the larger villages and towns. By the nineteenth century the wealth of Durham was a prime target for the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, who had been established with the aim of making a more equitable division of the Church of England's income amongst its priests. Some of this wealth had been diverted to fund the founding of the University of Durham in the 1830s, but large areas of land and its income, as well as rights to minerals and tithes, were transferred to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in the 1850s, amid an accompanying flurry of legal disputes.
This division means that the collection complements both the Durham Dean and Chapter Muniments, where it is possible to trace the earlier history of some properties, and some property records of the University of Durham. Although the Ecclesiastical Commissioners were administering the property only from the mid-nineteenth century, there is often a bundle of earlier material (usually referred to as “old deeds”) filed with the records, and sequences of eighteenth century leases, which would have been required to prove rightful ownership.
Location of the estates The property concerned nearly all relates to the former Palatinate of Durham. Most of the material relating to North Durham (part of Northumberland since the nineteenth century) concerns places where the priory had held the advowson, and concerns tithes, fisheries and similar rights in the parishes and neighbouring hamlets of Berwick-upon-Tweed, Norham, Holy Island and the Farne Islands in the north, and Edlingham and Ellingham near Alnwick. On the banks of the Tyne in Northumberland there were similar holdings surrounding the rectory at Bywell. To the south of Co. Durham, similar property at Bossall, Fishlake, and Brantingham in Yorkshire was a relic of priory holdings north of the Humber.
The Dean and Chapter held property throughout Co. Durham, particularly on the south bank of the Tyne, the north bank of the mouth of the Wear, the upper Derwent valley, Weardale, Durham City and the villages to the south and east of it, the villages around Aycliffe and those on the north bank of the Tees, near its mouth and inland.
On the Tyne the township of South Shields was divided between the Commissioners and the nascent University of Durham: South Shields itself is heavily represented in the deposit, charting the growth of housing estates in the area, as well as the nearby villages of Westoe and Harton. Moving up the Tyne, Jarrow also contained significant amounts of property held by the Commissioners, as did its neighbours Monkton, Simonside, Hedworth and Hebburn. Between there and Gateshead, where some houses were owned, there was Commission property at Felling and Heworth. At the mouth of the Wear, the Commissioners held land on the north of the river, at Monkwearmouth, Roker, Southwick, Fulwell and Hilton.
Within the city of Durham the Commissioners owned residential property in all districts and land in most of the surrounding area; West Rainton and East Rainton, Houghton-le-Spring, Pittington, Dalton-le-Dale, Shincliffe, Croxdale, Hett, Aldingrange, Relly, Broom, Lanchester and Sacriston. To the south, was property at Spennymoor, Ferryhill, Aycliffe, Coatsay Moor, Westerton, Middlestone, Kirk Merrington, Nunstainton, Chilton and Auckland St Andrew. Near the mouth of the Tees was land at Hartlepool, Billingham, Cowpen Bewley, Wolviston and Newton Bewley.
Land held in the Derwent valley around Edmundbyers, and in Weardale near Muggleswick, would have complemented the far larger property of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in that vicinity derived from the bishopric of Durham. Here they were able to exploit the mineral royalties in the form of limestone, lead, ganister and fluorspar. Their major mineral rights, however, related to coal, which they exploited throughout Co. Durham, and at Wallsend on the north bank of the Tyne, the Commissioners usually renting the royalty and taking a revenue indirectly. These were the most extensive industrial enterprises undertaken on Commission property, although there are indications of other activity taking place, notably salt pans at South Shields and negotiations for wayleaves, as well as wind and water mills.