IN the early hours of Saturday, October 2, 1847, on a hand-turned printing press in a cramped out-building behind Costa Coffee in Barnard Castle, the Darlington & Stockton Times was born.

With its parents, editor George Brown and printer Henry Atkinson, cranking furiously on the press’ handle, it came into this world – like so many babies – late.

So late was it that they had time to insert an apology. “Unforeseen occurrences have caused a few hours delay in getting out our first number,” they wrote in a footnote on the back page. “We will take care that the strictest punctuality be observed in future in the transmission of the paper.”

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Perhaps that initial shock was character-forming and made the D&S what it is to this day: accurate, reliable, reputable and even, of course, punctual, coming out every week on a Friday.

But like so many proud parents, Brown and Atkinson gave their baby a ridiculously long name. For as well as being the Darlington & Stockton Times, they called it the Barnard-Castle, Richmond, Auckland, Middlesbrough, Hartlepool, Teesdale and Swaledale Journal. In the 1850s, it added the title “South Durham and North Yorkshire Advertiser” to its front page, and in 1894, its name became longer still, as the Ripon and Richmond Chronicle was merged into it.

That first edition 170 years ago this week consisted of four, picture-free broadsheet pages. It was priced “threepence halfpenny”, which put it in the hands of the middle and upper classes, and its front page was filled with adverts.

"On sale: a quantity of LARD GREASE suitable for Sheep Smearing," advertised Thomas Bradley of Newgate Street, Barnard Castle, at the top of the second column, alongside Hugh Railton “confectioner, gingerbread maker and fruiterer” of Horsemarket, Barnard Castle, in column three. Mr Railton “begs to announce that he is receiving regularly NEW FOREIGN FRUITS according to the season”.

Christopher J Spence wished it to be known that he had set himself up as a bone crusher in Stockton, and Smith's Improved Vauxhall Sherbert sounded refreshingly mouth-watering: "A most wholesome, cooling and delicious beverage, perfectly free from all alcohol and every deleterious ingredient and possessing at the same time genial and enlivening properties." It was manufactured in Silver Street, Stockton, and available from chemists and inns in every one of the towns named on the D&S’ titlepiece.

But the D&S was far more than just an advertising sheet. It was formed because the other main papers in the district – the Durham Chronicle and the Yorkshire Gazette – were Tory. The D&S’ prospectus – a document issued to potential backers a few weeks before publication – explained: “In politics, it will labour to promote the diffusion of liberal principles, and the progress of peaceful and enlightened measures for the removal of national abuses.” The first editorial called for party politics to be put aside so that everyone could support policies to improve the lot of the working man.

The man leading the venture was Mr Brown, 37, from Staindrop, who had entered a solicitor’s office at the age of 13 and become a lawyer. He was well-respected in the dale – he was the first clerk to the Teesdale Board of Guardians, for instance – although he had such a tempestuous relationship with his son, George, that he ran away to become a Methodist missionary in the most remote part of Papua New Guinea.

Mr Brown, who also ran a printing business, had produced a two-page broadsheet monthly newspaper the previous year, The Barnard Castle, South Durham and Richmondshire Advertiser, but the key to the success of the D&S was his involvement with the printer Mr Atkinson, who had a stationery and bookbinding business in the Market Place.

But having got over the difficulties that caused the first edition to be late, the printing pair found geography an insurmountable problem. From Barney, the freshly printed paper was carried by a “special horsedrawn conveyance” into Darlington from where it went by train to Stockton. During the winter of 1847-48, what is now the A67 was blocked with snow, so in February 1848, Mr Brown and his printers moved into a basement in Central Buildings, Darlington – what is today known as Bennet House.

Mr Brown was a Teesdale chap at heart, and after about 18 months as proprietor/editor, he sold out and went back to Barney to concentrate on his legal and community work.

The new owners were brothers Robert and William Thompson. They were successful stockbrokers and property developers until the London Quaker bank of Overend & Gurney collapsed in 1866, dragging them down. They were forced to sell the D&S to its former compositor, Henry King Spark, the maverick megalomaniac who used it, as we told recently, as his mouthpiece in his bids to become Darlington’s first mayor and MP.

He moved the D&S to Salt Yard in Bondgate, grandly renaming it Printing House Square, which was to be its base for the next 66 years.

When Mr Spark became the second successive proprietor to become bankrupt, a group of Liberal-minded directors was formed to bring some stability. They were headed by J Hyslop Bell, who had founded The Northern Echo in 1870, and included three members of the Pease family. One of the group’s earliest initiatives was to cut the paper’s price to a penny, which broadened its appeal.

In the mid-1880s, there was a split in the Liberal Party. Leader WE Gladstone favoured home rule for the Irish, but some in the party wanted the union between Britain and Ireland to remain intact. Two of the D&S’ directors, Arthur Pease and John Hardcastle Bowman, were committed Unionists and, along with general manager William Sewell, they bought out the Gladstonian Liberals on the board, and the colour of the paper’s politics began to change.

In 1895, the paper unsurprisingly backed Mr Pease as he successfully challenged Darlington’s Liberal MP, Theodore Fry, to become the town’s first Unionist MP – the Liberal Unionists, of course, being in an alliance with the Conservative Party. This political change broadened the D&S’ appeal among more conservative-minded rural communities, which is where its core audience remains today.

This political outlook survived even after early 1930s when the D&S was taken into the stable of newspapers in Priestgate which was centred around the traditionally Liberal Echo.

In fact, the D&S’ conservatism has been one of its defining strengths. Resolutely and steadfastly, it has refused to bow its noble head to the passing whims of fashion and fancy, and so it was front page news when, on February 25, 1989, it replaced its front page adverts with breaking news. “Tories scrape home” was the headline, as it reported the result of the Richmond by-election in which William Hague was first elected, although the Conservatives’ share of the vote plummeted by 24 per cent as the SDLP made its fleeting challenge.

That was a one-off, and the D&S reverted to being one of only two papers in the country which persisted in publishing front page adverts. However, for the D&S’ 150th birthday in 1997, editor Malcolm Warne put news on the front on a permanent basis, leaving the Westmoreland Gazette to plough a lone, advert-led furrow. Mr Warne also oversaw the radical reshaping of the D&S on March 13, 2009, which saw it lose the enormity of its broadsheet and come out as a more convenient compact.

Sadly, only poor copies of the D&S from 170 years ago survive. It is believed that during the Second World War, the first seven years of papers from 1847 were sent to London to be preserved – only for a German bomb to destroy them. But the D&S itself, of course, soldiers on as a reliable, dependable, reputable digest of all the local news – even if there is no call these days for lard grease as the art of sheep smearing has been lost.