A small island by the River Tees was called Samphire Batts (“low lying land by a river”). This was to develop into Port Clarence.
Billingham developed around a former Anglo-Saxon village which over 1000 years ago included an ancient church of St Cuthbert and fragments of Saxon cross-shafts in the present Anglican church suggest a possible Christian presence as early as 8thC.
From Norman times to the Reformation much of the land in the area was owned by the monks of Durham whose Prior had a manor house in Beaulieu, the site of which is in the middle of the present Low Grange Estate. The manor was also believed to be a place for the sick monks needing relaxation and rest. At nearby Wolviston there was a chapel named after St Mary Magdalene in the 12thC. By 1303 the monks also owned a small timber jetty at Samphire Batts and over a 1000 sheep in Billingham
At the time of religious upheaval at the Reformation there was a rising in the North led by the Earls of Northumberland and Westmorland in 1569, to restore the ancient practices of the Catholic Faith, particularly the Mass. 22 men from Billingham, 10 from Cowpen, 19 from Wolviston and 10 from Bewley joined the uprising.
When it failed retribution by royal authority was harsh and brutal: 5 men from Billingham were executed, 2 from Cowpen, 4 from Wolviston and 3 from Bewley.
Thomas Watson, a Billingham yeoman, was questioned and claimed he knew of a priest called Hartborn who said an illegal Mass at Long Newton and Sedgefield and had re-erected altars for Mass and that the Billingham altar stone was hidden in the church choir.
By the time of James I (ascended the throne 1603) the Catholic faith in Billingham had disappeared. The chapel at Low Grange belonging to the Prior at Durham was in ruins and eventually became forgotten as it was obscured by the farm buildings of which it made part.
In 1767 it is reported that about two dozen Catholic families lived in the whole area of Billingham, Norton and Grindon.
In 1828 the Clarence Rail Company opened from Stockton to Haverton and the following year extended to the Batts. In 1830 a coal site was established.
Two events changed the area for ever- first about 1853 the establishment of ironworks along the banks of the Tees due to the discovery of iron ore in the Cleveland Hills; Middlesbrough then grew and on the north bank of the Tees in the centre of a blast furnace complex, Port Clarence; and second, the steady supply of labour made available by the effects of the famine disaster in Ireland and migration from rural areas. Irish and Polish workers arrived and then about 1860 a priest, Fr Michael Burke came to live in a small house by the river called the Sweet hills of Haverton on what came to be known as Bank Hill. He said Mass in a room, which he called St Michael Archangel chapel, above the Methodist church there and also in the library at Port Clarence. This and St Mary’s Stockton were the only two Mass centres north of the River.
A Roman Catholic parish was set up in High Clarence in 1865 (Fr. Burke moved there (about 1876) and on July 19th 1879 the foundation stones of a school-chapel and presbytery were laid. As the Catholic population grew Bishop Wilkinson advised the Parish Priest- Fr Harris (who had arrived in 1883; “who always wore a tall, silk hat, a swallow tail-coat and carried a walking stick”))- the building of a new church and its foundation stone was laid 11th October 1898, and opened 6th November 1900 by Bishop Preston.
The building was of smooth, clean, shining red bricks of a Gothic structure and bell tower standing in its own green lawns and flower beds. The interior was of Bavarian light oak- the Stations of the Cross, the side altar and the sharp pinnacle of the high altar set against three crimson and purple stained glass windows depicting incidents in the life of St Thomas of Canterbury to whom the church was dedicated. The Lady altar had a reproduction of Murillo’s Madonna. A copy of Michaelangelo’s Pieta was in memory of Miss Sargent, the school mistress. At the opposite end of the building two stained glass windows of the Baptism of Christ were in memory of the Mc Shanes. Fr Harris took charge of the choir, which always sang with gusto and devotion, and he also “drilled” the altar servers!
Every Sunday there was High Mass sung to settings of St Cecilia or St John the Baptist; Benediction every Thursday evening; October devotions every night; in May Sunday evening processions out into the grounds and once a month after High Mass Exposition of the Blessed Sacrament.
When Fr Harris died (1914) he was followed by Dr Burdis who after a year left to become an Army chaplain.
Then Mgr Cully arrived from Northumberland. As a youth he had visited all the French shrines of Our Lady and decided to become a priest. His great devotion to St Cuthbert led him to write a history of St Cuthbert’s Anglican church in Billingham. At his death, after only one year, Fr Revill succeeded as next PP. In 1920 the Mass returned to Billingham. Those who flocked to find work at the “Synthetic” found their “church” was the rented War Memorial Hall in Southview. For Benediction people walked or took the tram to Norton.. Also in 1923 St Gerard’s school-chapel was built at Howard Crescent, Haverton Hill Sixty. Mass would be celebrated there for nearly 50 years until it was closed in 1970. Fr Revill was succeeded first by Fr William Kearney(1927-1936, for one year by Fr John Thompson and then by Fr Beardsworth , who had been PP for over 30 years when he died in 1968.
He was followed by Fr Peter Starrs. In the 1960s many houses had become eyesores and were being demolished. It was difficult to survive as the population diminished in numbers. The parish school in the Port closed in 1978 and the last Mass in St Thomas of Canterbury church celebrated November 1979. The community was at first cared for from Holy Rosary and later from St John’s. For some time Mass was celebrated in the Royal Pub. The bodies of the two priests, buried outside the former church, were reinterred at Cowpen cemetery.
In 1931 Fr Eric Connell became the first post-Reformation priest resident in Billingham in the new parish of St John the Evangelist, saying Mass on weekdays in his home at 80 Station Rd. on Sundays continuing in the Memorial Hall and then the Co-op Hall, until the presbytery and school were built in 1933. When he left in 1954 the school hall still served for Mass.
It was his successor, Fr Kerwick, who was responsible for the building of the present church (architects Crawford and Spenser, builders Hudson Bros) opened and blessed by Bishop James Cunningham on June 7th ,1959. Fr Kerwick retired in 1982.
Fr Thomas McCormack arrived and over the next two years had completed the re-ordering of the sanctuary- the original altar of Connemara marble was re-fashioned and the spare marble used for the lectern, presidential chair, and the pedestal for the Blessed Sacrament. He was succeeded by Fr David Taylor who remained as PP until 2002 when he moved to St Peter’s Gateshead.
Due especially to the ICI, Billingham village had become a thriving town; new housing was built north of the railway. Mass was said in The Swan Hotel, (interestingly said to be situated “in Wolviston”) on the old A19, Wolviston Road, by the early 1940s. As new housing increased a new parish, Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary, was erected and Fr Eoghan Brady, came on 13th Nov 1949, as the first parish priest, with a birthday present of £500 to set up a temporary church in an army hut situated on the corner of Buxton Gardens and Grosvenor Road. It was blessed 14th May 1950. He purchased Greenholm, a house on Wolviston Road, as a temporary presbytery.
The original site for Our Lady of the Most Holy Rosary church was to be near the present John Whitehead Park but negotiations achieved the present site. Fr Brady died 15th October 1957 and Fr Jim Marron saw to the completion of the church building (architect Crawford, builder Keelan), costing £40,000.
Fr Deegan had arrived as the 2nd parish priest on 29th Nov 1959. The new church was opened by Bishop Cunningham 22nd September 1960 (able to seat 486), followed by the school in 1961. The former presbytery had served as a school but on the completion of the new school it became “Billingham Catholic Club”.
Further growth meant another division and the next parish of St Joseph, formed of the area east of Marsh House Avenue, was formed in 1961. Fr Wilfred Arrowsmith arrived as the first PP and lived in Beamish Road. Again the famous “hut” was moved to the site of St Michael’s School and served for Mass for about 16 years. A primary school for St Joseph’s was opened in 1969.
When Fr Arrowsmith died Fr Head moved there from Holy Rosary in 1976. Fr Keoghan arrived to be parish priest at Holy Rosary and remained as such until 1994. During his time Holy Rosary sanctuary was re-ordered and in 1977 the original stone altar was brought forward and a new crucifix placed on the rear sanctuary wall. In 1984 the altar rails were removed, the baptismal font was re-sited to the right of the altar, and a new stone lectern to the left. A second school for the parish, St Paul’s, was opened in 1969.
Fr John Butters arrived in 1994 as the fifth and present parish priest.
In 1978 St Joseph’s church was opened by Bishop Swindlehurst and when Fr Head died in 1990 he was succeeded by Fr Herbert Nicholson. When he retired (2000) Fr Kevin Dixon was PP. In 2002 Bishop Ambrose set up “cluster areas” and Fr Butters was named co-ordinating pastor with Fr Kevin as co-pastor. The latter moved to live in St John’s and St Joseph’s presbytery was demolished. Fr Kevin left the town in 2004.
Our town continues to grow with the expansion of the Wynyard housing which is to be increased by 7000 new homes (announced January 2020) and of course the Catholic community includes part of Hartlepool Borough, viz. Newton Bewley. Permission to amalgamate the three parishes into one was sought during the course of 2010 and in early 2011 Bishop Seamus Cunningham issued a canonical decree which suppressed our three parishes and erected one new one under the title of St Thomas of Canterbury, thus the circle was complete going back to the patron saint of the mother parish in Port Clarence. Fr Lee Barrett came to us immediately after ordination and stayed for about two years until he moved to Chester-le-Street,
We look forward to celebrating the 850th anniversary of the martyrdom of St Thomas, 29th December 1170, with parish, diocesan and national events.
Billingham parish has now become a member of the St Hilda Partnership which also includes Stockton and Hartlepool parishes. The aim is to work together now and to prepare for the future of the Church in the south of the diocese.
At the onset of the Covid-19 pandemic all our churches were closed. Holy Rosary opened for private prayer and spasmodically for Mass. In March 2021 this church opened for regular celebration with restricted numbers of parishioners attending. On Mothers’ Day, 4th Sunday of Lent, (2020) we began to livestream Holy Mass which has proved an immense source of comfort for our housebound during the height of the virus. We suspect this will continue when eventually former numbers will be invited to public worship.