The general character of Durham society in the late 17th century can be summarised on the basis of the Hearth Tax returns. County Durham had an exceptionally high level of relative poverty, with around four in ten recorded households exempted from the tax in 1666 and 1674. The relative absence of families of consequence reflected the extensive estates of the Church, and few communities were dominated by the gentry or nobility. The social distance between the élite and the rest of society was exacerbated by the tendency for the wealthy to be clustered together. This was especially pronounced in the north of the county, where communities either had several households with over ten hearths or none at all. These larger households were often funded from commercial wealth, and indicate the social polarisation between coal owners and coal workers. The location of wealthier houses was also related to patterns of sociability, and ease of access to the county town.
Limitations of survival make it difficult to gauge the exact relationship of hearth numbers to forms of housing in County Durham; over 95% of the dwellings documented in the Hearth Tax no longer survive. The widespread enclosure of fields in 17th-century Durham – motivated by the market for produce presented by the waged population in industrial employment – required an increasing proportion of the rural population to become dependent on wage-labour, which in turn resulted in the greater need for relief from poverty through under-employment, especially in old age. Many migrated to find industrial employment, and settlements in the south and east of the county were contracting or deserted in the later 17th century. The remaining labouring families occupied smaller cottages, often sub-divisions of older houses or newly built in rows. These cottages were not necessarily an improvement on earlier housing, as the families occupying them in the later 17th century would often have had great grandparents in long houses, who raised their own food, a hundred years before. Indeed, housing conditions probably worsened for a majority of the poor and wage-labourers in 17th-century Durham.
The materials for County Durham provided on Hearth Tax Online are taken from volume IV of the British Record Society Hearth Tax Series; Green, A., Parkinson, E. & Spufford, M., eds., (2006), County Durham Hearth Tax Assessment Lady Day 1666. Please cite this volume if using any of these materials.