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The martyr and the Dryburn ace
Wharton Park, a 19th Century gift to the residents of Durham, has a rich and colourful history marked by saintly execution and wartime sacrifice.
ON the northern edge of Durham City stands the large green space of Wharton Park, presented to the appreciative people of the area in the 19th Century by William Lloyd Wharton, owner of Dryburn Hall, High Sheriff of Durham, from 1833 to 1836, owner of a colliery in Coundon and a director of the North-Eastern Railway.
Although the Dryburn Estate was bought from the Hutchinson family by the Whartons of Old Park, Spennymoor in about 1760, its hall was not built by William Lloyd Wharton until 1824 when he also began work on the creation of a large garden to its south.
Originally part of these gardens, in which Wharton took such pride, the park was opened to the public in 1858 and is in process of being restored to its former glory by Durham City Council.
The known history of Dryburn, then known as Driburnhouse, began in 1353 when the Bishop of Durham gave land there to Isabel, daughter of Robert de Leicester.
After having many owners, Dryburn was passed by Christopher Hutchinson and his wife, Elizabeth, to Oswald and Mary Baker, but it was returned to Nicholas Hutchinson in 1612.
In 1621, it was inherited by his son, Cuthbert, and stayed in the Hutchinson family until 1760.
The Dryburn area has for a long time been more peaceful than it was during the oftentumultuous reign of Queen Elizabeth I, when it was nothing less than a killing ground.
Elizabeth’s elder sister, the Roman Catholic Mary, had persecuted English Protestants, executing many for their refusal to give up their new church practices, but on ascending the throne, the Protestant Elizabeth did all she could to restore the Church of England as established by her father, Henry VIII.
Targeted particularly by her through her secret service were Roman Catholic priests, to whom she showed no mercy if they were caught saying the Catholic mass, an offence which was regarded as treason and punishable by death.
The gallows in Durham were at Dryburn, opposite the present County Hall, and it was here on July 24, 1594, that the Catholic priest John Boste became a martyr, dying for his faith.
Like his fellow priests, Boste was hidden in countless priest holes in houses all over England, but was eventually taken, as they used to say, hiding in the house of William Claxton, in Waterhouses, a few miles west of Durham, on July 5, 1593.
He had been betrayed by a man called Ecclesfield, or Eglesfield.
From there, Boste was taken in chains to the Tower of London in order that Queen Elizabeth could interrogate him herself and was tortured so badly on the rack that he was badly disfigured.
Through it all, Boste refused to give up his Catholic beliefs.
In time, he was returned to Durham to appear at the July assizes, where he was pronounced guilty as charged and sentenced to be hanged, drawn and quartered.
He was executed at Dryburn on a gallows, erected for the occasion, with a ladder resting against it.
Boste climbed the ladder, praying as he did so, after which the noose was placed around his neck and the ladder removed. The priest fell only a short distance and was left hanging and kicking until the executioner cut the rope and the hanged man fell on his feet, still very much alive.
His abdomen was then cut open and his intestines allowed to spill out, after which the executioner stabbed him in the chest and cut out his heart. His job still not complete and Boste lying on the ground, the executioner cut off his head and held it up to show the crowd, shouting to them: “Here is the head of a traitor.”
Finally, what was left of his body was cut into four pieces.
Boste was canonised by Pope Paul VI in 1970 and pilgrims still visit the Durham Martyrs’ memorial near the crossroads at the bottom of the Dryburn housing estate.
ANOTHER monument, in the Durham suburb of Western Hill, was set up in 1850, having been commissioned by William Lloyd Wharton to be built in what was then one of his fields.
It is a sandstone obelisk 30 metres high on a limestone base within metal fencing and a central internal staircase, a gift from the Whartons to Durham University where the theories of astronomy had been taught since 1835, its observatory built five years later.
Created as a northern meridian marker for that observatory, it is thought to have been built by local workmen during hard times.
Dryburn passed to John Thomas Wharton on the death of his brother, William Lloyd Wharton, in 1869 but he outlived him by only two years.
The next owner was John Thomas’ son, John Lloyd Wharton, but he spent most of his time at his home in Boston Spa so in the late 19th and early 20th centuries Dryburn Hall’s residents were his daughter, Mary Dorothea Wharton, and her husband, Colonel Charles Waring Darwin, who retired from the Durham Light Infantry in 1894 to run the estate.
It was also in that year that their son, Charles John Wharton Darwin, was born on December 12 and baptised in St Margaret’s Church, Durham.
He was to become a fighter pilot ace in the Royal Flying Corps during the First World War.
Educated at Winchester School and in Edinburgh, he graduated from the Royal Military College, Sandhurst, in 1912.
He served in France with the 2nd Battalion the Coldstream Guards from 1914 to 1916, seconded in 1915 as a machine- gun officer in the 1st Guards Brigade.
A subsequent wound in his right leg resulted in a period of recovery, followed by a transfer to the Royal Flying Corps.
In 1917, he was serving as a pilot with 27 Squadron where he flew a single-seat Martinsyde G100 Elephant biplane, a type delivered to the squadron in 1916.
It was actually a large and unwieldy airplane which had been deployed by 1917 to the role of a bomber.
The squadron’s commanding officer when Johnny Darwin arrived in 1917 was Major Sidney Smith, who described the Elephant’s convoluted armament:
The armament of the Martinsyde consisted of a Lewis Gun on the top of the plane with a long extension handle with which the pilot could bring the gun to a vertical position to change the ammunition drum in flight.
At first it was the small drum containing 47 rounds but later there was a double drum containing 98 rounds. Spare drums were accommodated in racks inside round the pilot’s seat and it was no easy job changing these drums, especially the big ones, against the wind pressure. In addition we fitted a Lewis Gun on a simple mounting behind the pilot’s seat to “frighten off” an enemy on our tail, but this was really of very little use as it was not possible to turn round and fire it without very much affecting the control of the aircraft.
Another pilot who joined the squadron at the same time as Johnny Darwin wrote amusingly of the Elephant that it was “a delightful machine for leisurely pleasure, but totally unsuitable for daylight bombing or indeed any kind of war mission”. It took this aeroplane, loaded with its bombs, two hours to reach its operational height of 15,000ft.
Later in 1917, Darwin returned to England from France to become a flying instructor at the Central Flying School, at Upavon, Wiltshire.
When 87 Squadron was formed there in 1918, by then promoted to captain, he took the unit to France and when its commanding officer was killed in action, Darwin succeeded him in command.
FLYING Sopwith Dolphins, he became an ace by shooting down five enemy aircraft between May and September.
The Distinguished Service Order he was awarded was given because he had proved himself “an exceptionally skilful and gallant patrol leader, conspicuous for utter fearlessness and disregard of danger”. On a recent occasion, in company with one other machine, he attacked a formation of 14 Fokker biplanes, one of which was shot down and crashed.
After the war, he stayed in the new Royal Air Force and was granted a permanent commission, serving as a major in various roles at the Central Flying School and at RAF Cranwell until his retirement from the service in 1928.
He then worked as the London manager of the Bristol Aeroplane Company until the outbreak of the Second World War, when he rejoined the RAF as a squadron leader. He died on Boxing Day 1941 having taken ill the previous April. He was cremated at Golders Green crematorium.
His son, Christopher, also served with 87 Squadron as a fighter pilot in 1939. He was killed in action over North Africa in 1942.
During the Second World War, Dryburn House was an emergency hospital for wounded servicemen of both sides and still exists as part of the University Hospital of North Durham.