Founded in 1948, the County Durham town of Peterlee is named after the famed miners’ leader of the same name, that is, Peter Lee. But who was this man who had the unusual distinction of having a brand new settlement bear his name?
Lee was born in 1864 in Trimdon Grange, in the delightfully-named Duff Heap Row. He was one of eight children and, naturally, found himself thrown down the Durham pits from an early age. By the time he was 21 he had worked at 15 different collieries.
Despite having little schooling, his mother’s love of reading gave Lee a lifelong drive towards self-education – though he didn’t learn to read and write until his early 20s. Seeking wider horizons, he emigrated to the USA in 1886, where he worked the mines of Ohio, Pennsylvania and Kentucky. He returned to County Durham in 1888, and became a delegate to the Miners’ Conference for Wingate Pit. He married, too, in 1888, and continued to develop his various interests and career for the next few years.
A trip to South Africa in 1896 proved a turning point in his life. He became a born-again Christian and, on his return to his homeland, added Methodist preaching to his spare-time obsessions. From 1900, he found himself working at Wheatley Hill as a checkweighman, and moved onto the parish council – eventually becoming its chairman. He was now responsible for much of the necessities of everyday life: sanitation, new roads, cemeteries, etc.; and as chairman, too, of the local Co-operative, he was becoming highly influential in local affairs.
He was elected chairman of the Durham County Water Board, then joined the County Council itself in 1909 – eventually becoming its chairman in 1919 (England's first Labour county council). In the meantime, he continued to campaign vigourously for improvements to the welfare of miners, rising through the ranks of, firstly, local organisations, then the Miners’ Federation of Great Britain (the forerunner of the National Union of Mineworkers) – becoming its president in 1932.
He died in 1935, having very much established himself as a local hero, and was interred in Wheatley Hill Cemetery.