IN an attic in the West End of Darlington, a little Victorian pocketbook full of swirly ink handwriting has been discovered, telling the tale of the short-lived Darlington Literary Club.

The club was formed by five earnest young men in Horsemarket on February 1, 1855, “for mutual improvement in general literature”. Their seven rules were neatly written in the hardback notebook, closed with a metal clasp, by the honorary secretary, William Horner.

The other members of the club signed themselves CJ Cundell, WH Chambers, Wm Lear and John Jordan, and they were joined a little later by JE MacNay. They were in their early twenties and just beginning to find their way in business: Mr Cundell was an accountant, Mr Horner may have been a butcher, and Mr Lear would one day taken over his family’s ironmongery business in Horsemarket.

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At their first of their weekly meetings above the ironmongery, they read Macbeth. Next week, they ploughed through Hamlet before turning their attention to Comedy of Errors and Othello. Then they gave Shakespeare a rest and read Samson Agonistes by John Milton.

They took a break over the summer before reconvening in October 1855 to have a go at The Tempest and other Shakespeare classics. Then they turned to Thomas Babington Macaulay’s essays on William Pitt.

In early 1856, they began writing their own essays. Mr Cundell was given the topic “on railways”, Mr Horner “characters of the French Revolution of 1789”, Mr Chambers “three lives from Plutarch”, Mr Jordan “the ballad poetry of Germany” and Mr Lear was to write about Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Next month they read their essays out loud. Sadly, the minute book doesn’t record whose was the best, but at the final meeting of their season, May 1, 1856, Mr Horner noted: “On taking a retrospect of our meetings, we were agreed that they were not only beneficial to the to the improvement of our minds, but were the means of cementing a friendship, the basis of which is pleasing to reflect on.”

He also minuted that “Mr Jordan, by request, favoured us with an original song”.

1857 brought the Darlington Literary Club great joy and deep sorrow. They embarked on a tour of the Lake District, which gave them plenty to write about, and the minutes recorded “the marriage of one of our worthy members, CJ Cundell with Miss Nightingale” at Guisborough.

In stark contrast to that happy occasion was the entry for June 25, 1857.

“On this day we for the first time met at the grave of a member, Mr John Jordan, having died after a short illness on the 22nd to our great and lasting sorrow,” wrote Mr Horner. “We here record the fact, desiring to express our love and brotherly esteem for the deceased.”

Between them, the members of the club composed an appreciation of Mr Jordan, which was printed in the Darlington & Stockton Times. They told how he was only 23, that he was the last of eight siblings that his parents had buried, and that he was an active member of the Choral Society. In fact, singing might have contributed to his demise.

They said: “Two days after the oratorio he was too weak to leave the house, and in two days more he took to what proved to be his deathbed, for the attack of bronchitis under which he suffered thoroughly prostrated him and so terminated the short earthly career of a young man whose ability would have fitted him for much public usefulness.”

When they reconvened for their winter season on October 6, 1857, at Mr Lear’s family home of 3, Mount Pleasant, they again paid tribute to their late friend. They also noted that their president, WH Chambers, had resigned to go to Durham University.

The four remaining members ploughed on, improving their minds and reading through Love’s Labour Lost and Henry VIII.

But, according to the minute book, the meetings were becoming less regular, and then it was recorded that on July 15, 1858, William Lear MDLC (which can only stand for “Member of Darlington Literary Club”) had married Emily Watson in Manchester.

There were only a couple of meetings the following winter. The last one was on November 17, 1858, when Mr Horner’s inky nib recorded that the four read the first three acts of Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar.

After that, there were no more entries. We can only assume that with university, business and matrimonial matters taking precedence, the club met no more. That means they never got to read act four of Julius Caesar which includes the famous lines about there being “a tide in the affairs of men”.

As the tide of time washed through the men’s lives, Mr Lear put the pocketbook to one side in his house in Mount Pleasant where, many years later, he died. Restoration of the property in Coniscliffe Road a few years ago rediscovered it and it sheds a fascinating shaft of light on the very different lives of young men more than 160 years ago.

  • With thanks to David Liddle, for the loan of the pocketbook, and Tom Peacock.

MOUNT PLEASANT used to be the stretch of Coniscliffe Road which runs from the delightfully rounded house on the corner of Cleveland Terrace up to the mansion Belle Vue, which is today the home of Clive Owen accountants but is best known as the headquarters of the shipping firm of Ropners.

The homes of Mount Pleasant were built in the 1820s. In 1939, Darlington council bought six houses in the centre of Mount Pleasant which jutted out into Coniscliffe Road. Various municipal officials lived in them until 1960 when the Ministry of Transport gave the council £14,000 for road widening. It pulled down the houses, removed a bottleneck, and in 1964 a block of flats was built set back from the streetline.

OF the six members of Darlington Literary Club, the only one we can find much information on is the driving force, William Lear.

That’s because his great-grandfather, John Lear, founded an ironmongery in 1760 in Horsemarket, where Pizza Hut is today. He sold such essential things as candle snuffers, powder horns, waffle irons and spring guns.

In 1832, another generation of Lears was selling items like spittoons (starting at 9s a dozen), coffin nails and sad irons – a sad iron is not an iron that is miserable about its lot but a solid, or sad, iron made entirely of iron. It also sold mole traps, fox traps, wolf traps and “humane man traps” (18s to 38s each). The man traps were humane because they had iron bars which broke a poacher’s leg cleanly rather than having iron teeth which just tore his flesh, but what were the wolf traps for – wolves became extinct in England in about 1500.

In 1851, Lear’s expanded further by buying a neighbouring brushmaking business. Brushmaking was in fact business – four men and one apprentice were employed in the brushmaking whereas the ironmongery only employed three men and one apprentice. Brushmaking at Lear’s continued until 1956 when brushmaker Mr Palphramand retired. He’d been brushmaking in an upstairs room for 50 years, pouring tar into holes on the brush-head and inserting boar's hair from Russia.

The Literary Club Lear died in Mount Pleasant in 1914, aged 81. The ironmongery passed onto a fifth generation, and then a sixth, John. He celebrated the business’ bicentenary in 1960 but as he neared retirement, in 1965, the shop was sold and after 205 years the name “J Lear & Sons” disappeared from Horsemarket.