Origins of Darlington

Darlington began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Skerne which is a northern tributary of the Tees. Later the town seems to have come under the influence of the Danes as there are still many place-names of Viking origin in its vicinity. Since Norman times Darlington has been a borough and the site of an important market and was arguably the capital of southern County Durham though for administrative purposes it is no longer located within that county.

The name Darlington derives from the Anglo-Saxon Dearthington, which seemingly meant `the settlement of Deornoth's people' but by Norman times its name had changed to Derlinton. Confusion does not end here however, because during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the town was generally known by the name of `Darnton' or somewhat less politely as Darnton i' the Dirt. This unfortunate name was probably due to the once unpaved streets of the town which are said to have inspired King James of Scotland to write the following uncomplimentary verses during a visit of 1603;

'Darnton has a bonny, bonny church
With a broach upon the steeple
But Darnton is a mucky, mucky town
And mair sham on the people.'

`Mucky town' is certainly not a good description of Darlington today, as like many large towns in North East England it has a pleasant and attractive appearance. It is especially well endowed with town parks and leafy suburbs although despite its long history the very centre of Darlington is now largely of a Victorian and twentieth century nature.

St Cuthbert's, the "bonny church" referred to in the rhyme is still one of the most admirable features of Darlington. Built in the twelfth century by Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham Sometimes referred to as the `Lady of the North, It is one of the largest churches in the region.


Historic view of Darlington showing the Skerne and St. Cuthbert's church


In the seventeenth century Darlington became a popular place of residence for members of the Quaker faith, who formed an influential and wealthy community in the town by the 1800s. The best known member of this Darlington fraternity was Edward Pease, the man responsible for Darlington's fame as the `Cradle of the Railways'.

It was Pease who rejected an early nineteenth century plan by local businessmen to build a canal for the shipment of coals from south Durham to the mouth of the Tees and made the innovative suggestion that steam locomotives be used instead. The suggestion was accepted.

George Stephenson, the famous engineer of Tyneside was employed by Pease to design the locomotives and develop the railway, though it was Pease who provided the financial support and he was very much in charge. On one occasion Stephenson had suggested an alternative route for the railway which would have bypassed Darlington and altered the railway history books. Pease was clear with his reply;"George thou must think of Darlington; remember it was Darlington that sent for thee"


The Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened on the 27th September 1825, and history was made, for as well as carrying coal, the train included six hundred passengers, most travelling in coal waggons, but some in a specially designed carriage called 'The Experiment'. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was thus the world's first public railway. On the historic day, the coal wagons for the journey were linked up to the locomotive called 'Locomotion Number One' at Shildon and were brought there from Witton Park Colliery by inclines at Etherley and Brussleton. From Shildon the Locomotion travelled for two hours with only minor hitches before arriving in Darlington, where coal was distributed to the poor. From Darlington the Locomotion and its train of passengers continued its journey to Stockton stopping only at Yarm Junction where more passengers, including a brass band climbed on board.

George Stephenson's original `Locomotion Number One', the locomotive that hauled the train on the historic opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway can still be seen in Darlington today on display in the town's fascinating North Road Station Museum. This is one of the oldest railway stations in the world. A full size working replica of the `Locomotion' can also be seen at the Beamish Open Air Museum near Stanley, in County Durham. The `Locomotion Number One' is of course an older engine than Stephenson's more famous `Rocket', which won the victory at Lancashire's Rainhill Trials in 1829.


Railways are not the only industry for which the town of Darlington is noted. Its engineering skills, particularly bridge building have long been important and famous bridges have been built at Darlington which span rivers as far away as the Amazon and the Nile.

Darlington also has an important publishing industry, as the headquarters of the Darlington and Stockton Times and The Northern Echo. The second of these newspapers was once edited by W.T Stead, the influential Northumbrian born social reformer who died on board the Titanic in 1912. Stead began his career as an editor with the `Northern Echo' at the age of only 22.


Although Darlington is undoubtedly in the valley of the River Tees, it is its tributary, the little River Skerne that flows through the centre of the town which is truly the Darlington river. The Skerne rises in eastern County Durham to the north of Sedgefield near the former colliery village of Trimdon and flows south before joining the River Tees at Croft near Darlington, close to the site of the famous `Hell's Kettles' at Oxen-le-Field.

These three, supposedly bottomless pits also known as `Devil's Kettles' or `Kettles of Hell', have been the subject of numerous legends and superstitions. Said to have been created by a ferocious earthquake in 1179, locals may tell you that they are full of green, boiling sulphorous water. People and animals are allegedly drowned or eaten alive by the Pikes and Eels that infest their waters.

The pits once aroused the curiosity of people the length and breadth of Britain and were even visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as `old coal pits'. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area.


Croft on Tees, an attractive village just to the south of Darlington was the place where Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known to us as Lewis Carroll, grew up as a young boy. His father was the rector at Croft and the rectory gardens are thought to be one of the most likely settings for famous scenes in `Alice in Wonderland'.

Lewis Carroll always considered Croft his home and it was here in the company of his large family that his unequalled talent for composing nonsense verse developed on this pleasant spot by the Tees. His earliest pieces were written in a little home made magazine which he wrote for his family at Croft.

Fair stands the ancient Rectory
The Rectory of Croft
The sun shines bright upon it,
The breezes whisper soft.

Lewis Carroll

Pieces written at Croft by Lewis Carroll include the first verse of one his best known poems, the `Jabberwocky', which was written in 1855 though not published until a number of years later. The rest of the poem was written further north during visits to relations at Whitburn near Sunderland where he is also said to have composed the Walrus and the Carpenter. The gravestone of Lewis Carroll's mother and father can be seen in the churchyard at Croft.


A mile to the east of Croft, the River Tees makes a large and unexpected meander which penetrates deep into North Yorkshire to form the most southerly portion of County Durham called the `Sockburn Peninsula'. In local legend this area was once the domain of a notorious creature called the Sockburn Worm'.

This terrible beast, a kind of winged serpent or wyvern terrorised the local neighbourhood until it was eventually slain by a certain young man called John Conyers, a member of a wealthy local family.

From that day on each new Prince-Bishop of Durham was presented with the sword that killed the worm upon entering their new Bishopric for the first time at at Croft on Tees. The recently revived ceremony includes the following presentation speech, traditionally made by the Lord of Sockburn;

"My Lord Bishop. I hereby present you with the falchion wherewith the champion Conyers slew the worm, dragon or fiery flying serpent which destroyed man, woman and child; in memory of which the king then reigning gave him the manor of Sockburn, to hold by this tenure, that upon the first entrance of every bishop into the county the falchion should be presented."

The Durham historian Hutchinson was of the opinion that the legend of the Sockburn worm is a reference to some long since forgotten Viking rover who sacked and plundered this part of the Tees valley.The sword used in the presentation known as the `Conyers Falchion' can still be seen today on display in Durham Cathedral. The Sockburn worm itself is almost certainly immortalised by Lewis Carroll in his brilliant piece of nonsense rhyme, `Jabberwocky'

`Twas brillig, and the slithy toves
Did gyre and gimble in the wabe:
All mimsy were the borogroves
And the mome raths outgrabe.
"Beware the Jabberwock, my son!
The jaws that bite, the claws that catch!
Beware the Jubjub bird and shun
The frumious Bandersnatch!"
He took his vorpal sword in hand:
Long time the manxome foe he sought-
So rested he by the Tumtum tree,
And stood a while in thought.
And as in uffish thought he stood,
The Jabberwock
with eyes of flame,
Came whiffling through
the tulgey wood
And burbled as it came!
One two! One two!
And through and through
The vorpal blade went
snicker snack!
He left it dead, and with its head
He went galumphing back.
"And hast thou slain
the Jabberwock
Come to me my breamish boy !
O' frabjuous day
Callooh ! Callay !"
He chortled in his joy.

Worm legends are a feature of both Anglo-Saxon and Viking mythology, where `worms' usually take the form of ferrocious Dragons or serpents. There are a number of other `worm' legends associated with the North East of England, most notable of which are the `Laidley worm' of Bamburgh, Northumberland and the famous `Lambton worm' of the River Wear.

Today Sockburn is little more than a farmstead but in Anglo-Saxon times it was a place of importance as it was here that Higbald, Bishop of Lindisfarne and Eanbald, Archbishop of York were consecrated in the 8th century A.D. In later years the Sockburn area was settled by the Vikings and like the Teesdale village of Gainford, Sockburn was an important centre of Viking age sculpture. Viking settlement in the area is also indicated by local place names such as the nearby hamlets of Hornby, Girsby and further south Birkby. Girsby derives from `Grisa by' - `the village where pigs were reared'.


From the southern tip of the Sockburn peninsula, the Tees flows three miles north, before reaching the villages of Dinsdale and Middleton St George. Dinsdale is the site of a manor owned in Norman times by a family called Siward.

When the Siwards settled at Dinsdale in the eleventh century they changed their name to Sur Tees which in Norman French meant `on the Tees'. Descendants of this Dinsdale family later included Robert Smith Surtees, the author, Bessie Surtees, the famous eloper of Newcastle upon Tyne and Robert Surtees the great historian of County Durham.

Under the entry for Dinsdale in `the History of the County Palatine of Durham' Robert Surtees compares this sleepy place of his ancestors to the `Border Country' of the north

"The knights of the Tees might mingle in the border warfare; but the bugle horn of an assailant would seldom startle the inmates of their quiet halls. Their mansions stood without tower or peel"

An important Roman road once crossed the Tees near Dinsdale on its way to the Roman forts at Chester le Street and Newcastle. The road sometimes named Cade's Road after an old Gainford historian, can be traced near the villages of Middleton St George and Middleton One Row. Here the old road is known by the name of Pountey's Lane and is probably named after a Roman bridge which crossed the Tees here called Pons Tesie- `Bridge of the Tees'. The bridge has long since disappeared with some of its foundation stones used in the construction of buildings at Middleton St George. The Roman road from Middleton St George passes through the village of Sadberge a few miles to the north. This was a place of considerable importance in Viking times.


The village of Sadberge half way between Stockton and Darlington was once the capital or Wappentake of the Viking settled area north of the Tees known as the Earldom of Sadberge which stretched from Hartlepool to Teesdale. Wappentakes were found in those parts of England settled by the Danes and continued to be important administrative centres in medieval times. There were neighbouring Wappentakes to Sadberge at Northallerton in Yorkshire and at Langbaurgh in Cleveland. The word wappentake literally means `Weapon Taking' and refers to the way in which land was held in return for military service to a chief.

Sadberge is a name of Viking origin deriving from Setberg, meaning `flat topped hill', - an accurate description of the location of the village from where good views of the surrounding countryside can be obtained. The place name Setberg from which Sadberge derives also occurs in Norway and in Viking settled Iceland. Closer to home in Norse settled Cumbria we may find the village of Sedbergh near Kendal which has the same meaning.

Northumberland, Durham, Scotland, Sadberge ?

The history of Sadberge can be confusing because in early Norman times the Earldom of Sadberge, though north of the River Tees, was not part of Durham and was not initially under the rule of Durham's Prince Bishops. Instead, the district formed an outlying part of the county of Northmberland by virtue of the fact that it had been part of the old Earldom of Northumbria.

To further add to confusion Northumberland was given to Scotland by King Stephen of England in 1139 so that the Tees actually became the southern boundary of the kingdom of Scotland !. This situation continued for eighteen years until Northumberland was repossessed for England by King Henry II in 1157.

Hugh Pudsey, Prince Bishop of Durham (1153-1195) was the man largely responsible for the decline in importance of the Sadberge district. He added the `earldom' to Durham in 1189 and from then on Sadberge was ruled by Durham's Prince Bishops.

The Earldom of Sadberge included the old parishes of Hart, Hartlepool, Greatham, Stranton, Elwick, Stainton (near Sedgefield), Elton, Long Newton, Egglescliffe, Middleton St George, Low Dinsdale, Coatham Mundeville, Coniscliffe and the baronry of Gainford in Teesdale.

Despite its fall in status, Sadberge retained a degree of independence and continued to be administered as an almost separate county until 1576. Even as late as the nineteenth century there were still occasionally references to `the Counties of Durham and Sadberge'. In 1836 the revenues of the Bishopric of Durham including Sadberge passed to the Crown. A plaque attached to a large ice age stone on the village green reminds us how important Sadberge once was;

"This stone was placed here to commemorate the Golden Jubilee of Victoria, Queen of the United Kingdom, Empress of India, and Countess of Sadberge 1867"


Brafferton on the northern outskirts of Darlington is where the famous Durham Ox was bred. It was developed by the brothers Charles and Robert Colling, of nearby Ketton farm in 1796 and achieved such great fame that it was exhibited throughout England and Scotland in an especially designed carriage. Over a period of five years, the ox journeyed more than 3000 miles before the unfortunate beast dislocated its hip while on show at Oxford in February 1807. It was slaughtered two months later and weighed in at 189 stones. During its lifetime, it reached an incredible maximum weight of 270 stones. The Collings achieved far reaching fame for their development and throughout the country there are many inns named after the Durham Ox of Ketton Farm.


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