For many people, Darlington just means an intermediate railway station on the East Coast mainline between London Kings Cross and Edinburgh Waverley. Passengers travelling to bigger and more exciting destinations may glance out of the coach window, see a fairly nondescript industrial town and then quickly return to their books, newspapers or i-Pads. I had visited it a couple of times to see football matches featuring my home town team of Chesterfield. But the football ground is stuck out on the ring road so I did not get a chance to see the town. I did however, wonder why the local team was nicknamed “The Quakers.” A bit of history to unearth there I had thought.
But the main reason I ever went to Darlington for many years was because of the railway. As well as being on the mainline, the route of the “Flying Scotsman”, it also has links to Bishop Auckland to the west and Redcar and Saltburn- by- the- sea to the west. Darlington is the mainline link for the much bigger town of Middlesbrough, which is stuck out on the Saltburn branch line. Although I have just referred to it disparagingly as a mere branch line, this route is actually that of the world’s first public railway: The Stockton to Darlington, opened in 1825. It, in fact, went on to Shildon, a few miles to the west. The main idea was to move coal from the south Durham mines around Darlington to the river port of Stockton on Tees, where it could then be shipped further afield. However, passengers were also carried on some trains and so it became a trailblazing world first. This is why Darlington, far from being an anonymous intermediate station, has been christened “The Cradle of the Railways”. Initially, horses pulled the waggons and coaches, preceded by a man walking with a red warning flag in his hand. Then it’s builder, George Stephenson, introduced one of his first stream locomotives, “Locomotion No 1″ to pull the trains, gaining speeds of up to 20 mph, which was frighteningly fast for the time. Stephenson is sometimes known as the “Father of the Railways” so it was very apt that he was standing proudly by the “cradle” as public railways were “born.”
The original Locomotion No 1 is still displayed at Darlington’s “Head of Steam” railway museum, which has taken over most of North Road Station, the town’s earliest rail stop. The main station now is called Bank Top, which as the name suggests, sits on a hill above the centre. Some towns are overlooked by a castle or a cathedral, Darlington has its railway station. It’s tall clock tower and long, curving glass and iron roof are impressive and can be seen from many parts of the town centre below.
It was the railway connection that brought my friend, Ian, and I to Darlington one day in March, 2013. We intended to visit the aforementioned “Head of Steam” museum, following in the footsteps( or railtracks) of the popular TV railway traveller, Michael Portillo. However we had not our research properly, and found to our dismay, that the museum was closed on the day of our planned visit. It seemed we were really stymied! We were now faced with a whole day in Darlington, a town not noted for its tourist hot spots. However, I have a theory that just about anyplace is interesting if you are willing to be interested in it. And so it proved with Darlington, or “Darlo” as the locals call it.
We walked down from the rail station and once we had negotiated one of the busy roads that encircle the centre, we entered the more tranquil environment of St Cuthbert’s churchyard, by a little river, followed by a sloping, impressively large market square. We picked up a Heritage Trail from the library and proceeded to have a very interesting potter round the town, punctuated by cafe stops.
Darlington has spent most of its history as a small, market town. It was founded in Anglo-Saxon times and was originally called Dearthington– the settlement of Dearth’s people. Much later, it became an important centre for the wool and linen industries .It specialised particularly in bleaching and material was sent from as far away as Scotland to be processed there. The wealth generated by this enterprise enabled local businessmen to invest in other industries such as: mining, iron, engineering and, most significantly of all: the fledgeling railways of the early 19th century. Many of the most notable and influential businessmen were Quakers or members of the Society of Friends. So that’s where the football team get its nickname from! At the centre of the town, next to the Victorian market hall stands a statue of Joseph Pease, the UK’s first Quaker MP. His father, Edward Pease, was the main instigater and backer of the Stockton-Darlington railway. Edward neatly personified and brought together the two things that came to symbolise the town — Quakerism and railways. It was he who employed the Tyneside engineer, George Stephenson, to build the ground-breaking railway.
The Society of Friends is a non-conformist church founded in the mid 17th century by a religious visionary, George Fox. They dressed plainly, addressed each other as “thee”, refused to swear oaths, opposed war and slavery and were strict teetotallers. They had to endure discrimination and persecution right from the start as they were seen to be subversive and challenging the foundations of society. ( ie the Establishment.) In Charles 11′s reign laws were passed stating that everyone had to swear an oath of loyalty to the crown ( which the Quakers refused to do) and that worship was illegal in any place but the Anglican Church. So Quakers got thrown into prison, had their meeting houses seized or destroyed and were generally made to feel unwelcome. Even in Darlington, up to the 1830′s, they were discriminated against and excluded from many areas of public life. Although their first meeting house in Darlington was built in 1668, they generally had to meet secretly in private houses , risking harsh penalties. I imagine this is why they formed such a close-knit and supportive community and why they developed into such strong, determined characters. Football managers use this scenario to make their teams strong in character — it’s called developing a “siege mentality.” I wonder if Alex Ferguson has Quaker roots? On second thoughts — probably not!
Successful Quaker businessmen in Darlo, such as the Pease and Backhouse families employed Quaker architects to design their business premises and modest houses. They also linked up with Quaker bankers to finance their projects. Both Barclays and Lloyds banks were founded by Quakers. Quakers became major employers in the Darlington area, and important philanthropists. Joseph Pease’s statue has on its plinth 4 panels illustrating the key causes that he and his family were heavily involved in. They were: politics, industry, education and the Abolition of Slavery. Near to the statue stands the prominant clock tower which Pease donated to the town.
Thus it can be said that Darlo in the 19th century was as much a Quaker town as a railway town. Evidence of the Friends’ presence is still common. There is the simple Georgian Meeting House. There is the more ornate Backhouses bank which looks like a Venetian palace. ( a bit un-Quaker like.) James Backhouse and his sons were prominant Quaker bankers and commissioned the famous Quaker architect, Alfred Waterhouse, to build their impressive bank which still stands proudly in High Row, one of Darlington’s main shopping streets. Waterhouse also built the Victorian Market hall as well as more famous commissions such as Manchester Town Hall and The Natural History Museum in London. We picked up our town trail from the Edward Pease Free Library. It’s a striking red-brick building paid for by a £10,000 bequest in Peases’s will.
The most memorable Quaker location in Darlington, in my opinion, is their traquil and beautiful Burial Ground. It is hidden away down a narrow lane off Skinnergate. Neat rows of small, identical, rounded headstones sit in a quiet, grassy space shaded by trees. The spring sun shone as we entered and we were far enough away from the traffic to hear the birds singing. Lovely clumps of snowdrops decorated the areas between the graves. Along a retaining wall was a collection of graves belonging to the Pease family, including Edward and Joseph. It was a calm and peaseful place, if you’ll excuse the pun.
Another impressive place with a Quaker connection was the Imperial Centre, which was originally a Temperence Hotel from the mid-19th century. This was when the Friends dominated the town and drinking was frowned upon. The battle against the “evil drink” was lost however as it is now a restaurant and bar!
The most interesting and atmospheric streets in Darlington, in our opinion, were High Row, Skinnergate and the narrow, cobbled lanes that connect them. These are known as wynds or yards. There are 4 of them. To be corny for a moment, entering these lanes was like stepping back in time. The wynds and yards contain buildings from the 18th and 19th centuries with no modern intrusions. They have a strong medieval flavour and many buildings are listed. The upper stories were built wider than the ground floor so as to create more space which wasn’t available on the ground. Some have kinks or finkles halfway along them. “Finkle” is the Scandinavian word for “elbow” or “bend”. The name is a reminder that Darlington has a Viking heritage as well. Another clue is all the street names ending in gate, such as Skinnergate, Bondgate, Priestgate, Northgate etc. This comes from the old Danish word for street ie “gata”. In Clark’s Yard two buildings facing each other have been chamfered or scooped out at ground level to allow horse-drawn carriages to pass down the lane. It’s a nice historical scene to conjure up.
Street names often conjure up evocative images from the past. For instance Darlington’s Horsemarket and Salt Yard give us a strong clue as to what used to happen there. Similarly Bakehouse Hill reminds us of the days when towns and villages had a communal oven. The Pennyweight Pub now stands on the site of the 18th century common bakery. People would bring along their loaves and pies to put in the oven and they would pay by weight. Hence came the term: “penny weight.”
What is fun about doing these town trails is spotting buildings that have changed their functions over the years. Sadly you also hear about the ones that have been demolished, to be replaced by a modern equivalent, in the interests of “progress.” Those that have survived are not always in the best of “health” or in their original format. For instance, the 1902 Todds Brothers Drapery and Soft Furnishings with its eye-catching, large display windows and decorative external tiles, has now metamorphasised into 3 separate business premises — a clothes shop, a cafe and a barbers. This artificial division of a once fine building looked strange. We had a drink in the cafe and to our disapointment, found that the original late-Victorian decor had been buried under a false ceiling, plastic panelling and modern lights. Any sense of history had been wiped out. Still they served a nice cappaccino. I wonder whatever happened to the Todd brothers?
In numerous places, brash modern shop fronts clashed with a Georgian, Victorian or Edwardian building above. In one insensitive case, a gaudy shopping centre and amusement arcade had taken over the ground floor of a wonderful Art deco building from the early 1930′s. At least they had not knocked it down but it was sad to see a once proud building looking neglected and partly vandalised.
Of course towns cannot stand still and exist solely as historical theme parks. Darlington is no exception. The Great North Road no longer runs through its centre and horses no longer clip-clop across its cobbles. The coaching inns have had to reinvent themselves as pubs, clubs and restaurants. Great animal markets no longer feature in the centre of town. One red-striped modern water feature was supposed to remind people of the blood of the animals that used to be slaughtered there. Now the same streets are full of shoppers enjoying the relative peace and safety of the pedestrianised centre. So “progress” has banned the cars as well as the farm animals, so cannot be viewed as a wholly bad thing. Inevitably there is a Mall, the building that is now ubiquitous across the western world. OK — malls keep you warm and dry in winter and are very convenient, but it’s a shame that they often lack character and end up making every place look the same. To be fair, Darlington’s Cornwall Shopping Centre tries to blend in with the surrounding older buildings. However, when we went inside ( to use the facilities), it was the usual mix of High Street stores. franchised food-chains and bland canned music. We could have been visiting “Anytown.”
Ian and I finished back in St Cuthbert’s churchyard by the River Skerne.( a tributary of the Tees nearby.) The Grade 1 listed church itself was closed, no doubt to avoid theft or vandalism. But we did notice an interesting Boer War Memorial from 1905. I thought the helmet on the soldier looked different! Then we tracked back up the hill to Bank Top station, the building which best represents Darlington in the eyes of the outside world. Darlo was one of the World’s first railway towns but now that I’ve actually got off the train and explored it, I know there’s a lot more to it than just a stop on the east coast mainline. I realize now that all the railway pioneering and industrial success was built on a firm foundation laid by hardworking, clean living and forward thinking Quakers. Seemingly unassuming Darlington was the place where industry, entrepreneurship and religious non-conformism combined to produce a World first! Darlington’s football team may have been relegated to the lowly Conference league now, but their nickname provides a constant reminder of their town’s proud history.