The village of Greatham stands on a low ridge on the northern banks of the Tees estuary. To the north, and rapidly encroaching on its boundaries, stands the conurbation of Hartlepool, originally a small fishing and farming community, but with increasing industrialisation expanded to become a ‘new town’ of the 1850s. Two miles to the south is Billingham, also destined to become a ‘new town’, but in this instance, dating from the 1950s.
Greatham still remains a largely unspoiled rural retreat by-passed by not just the main road from Billingham to Hartlepool, but seemingly by history in general. The village does have however, in addition to a sword dance, two other pointers to a long and continuous history – a ‘hospital’ founded in the late 13th Century and a village feast dating from the 15th Century held in late June.
The Hospital is not a hospital in the medical sense but was established to provide food and shelter for “40 needy of the manors of the Bishop of Durham”. A sister hospice, Parkhurst’s Almshouses, was founded in 1761 for “6 poor widows or spinsters”. Both are still in operation today.
The Feast today comprises of children’s sports, darts and domino tournaments, a fancy dress competition and fete on the village green.
The population of the village more than doubled in the 19th Century, showing a growth from 442 in 1801 to 909 in 1901. The years between 1871 and 1881 were a period of stagnation with a population of fewer than 750 people throughout.
The village had always depended for part of its economy on the saltpans of the nearby Tees estuary, but in 1882 new hydraulic techniques enabled the exploitation of underground beds of salt and the area became a centre for the salt industry. The result was a significant influx of people; by 1911 the population had exceeded 1,000 for the first time.
The current population is in the region of 2,300 inhabitants and the village is typical of many that are situated on the outskirts of a large town. Amenities include three public houses, two churches, a post office, a number of small shops, the village hall and a primary school.