COCKERTON Methodist Church is celebrating its 140th anniversary next weekend with an open day on Saturday.

When the foundation stone was laid on November 19, 1874, The Northern Echo noted: “The style will be geometrical Gothic. The principle feature in the front will be the double entrance doorway.”

The Echo was right, because from the pillar between the two doors, a dragon roars from the stonework at all who enter. The dragon was placed there by the architect, John Ross, who must have been a dragon fan – his other church in Darlington is St George’s Presbyterian Church in Northgate, which he completed in 1869, and it, too, has a fierce dragon roaring from the double entrance doorway.

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The Northern Echo: LOUD ROAR: A dragon in the stonework at Cockerton Methodist Church, Darlington
LOUD ROAR: A dragon in the stonework at Cockerton Methodist Church, Darlington

However, Methodism in Cockerton goes back much further than the days of the dragon to a time when the village was entirely separate from Darlington and occupied by a few hundred weavers and agricultural labourers. The first Methodist meetings were held in 1809, and were inspired by Jonathan Baker, the village spinning wheel maker, who had heard John Wesley preach in Stockton (Wesley regularly visited Stockton until his death in 1791).

In 1822, the Methodists bought a house and 1,400sq yards of land for £75 where the current church is, on Cockerton Green. They then spent £102 building a chapel to seat 98 worshippers.

According to the 1821 census, the population of Cockerton was only 469, so such a chapel would have been adequate. But when the 1871 census was taken, the village’s population had suddenly exploded to 2,176 – many of whom worked in the railway-related heavy industries of Hopetown. The chapel needed to expand.

Mr Ross, a Darlington architect who also build Northallerton Town Hall and the extravagant Grey Towers mansion in Nunthorpe, was called in to design a £1,250 chapel with room for 330 worshippers and a Sunday school behind for 160 scholars.

Mary Pease, of the nearby Pierremont mansion, was called upon to lay the foundation stone, although she was not invited to speak – that honour, of course, went to her husband, the industrialist Henry. Inside the foundation stone were placed some coins of the day, a copy of that week’s Methodist Recorder magazine and two copies of The Northern Echo which contained an advert for the stone-laying ceremony on its front page.

The church took a year to construct – it is built with stone from Gatherley Moor, through which the A66 now runs above Melsonby – and was ready for opening on November 30, 1875, by which time it was well over budget: £2,117 was the final bill.

There were two dedication services on opening day conducted by the Reverend Joseph Bush of Edinburgh, and inbetween, 340 people crammed themselves inside for a Public Tea Meeting. This was a fine turnout considering the snowy weather which had suddenly taken an icy grip on the area.

The Northern Echo: STONE CEREMONY: This front page advert caused The Northern Echo of November 19, 1874, to be placed inside the foundation stone
STONE CEREMONY: This front page advert caused The Northern Echo of November 19, 1874, to be placed inside the foundation stone

In fact, there was so much weather to report – the snow had been preceded by a flood in which the Skerne seems to have inundated scores of houses in the centre of Darlington – that the Echo managed to miss the church opening.

Let’s hope we are putting that right 140 years later. The church has undergone many changes since then – electric light in 1920, a £2,815 Sunday school in 1930, stained glass windows in 1950, even the ladies group celebrating its 50th anniversary with a radio appearance in 2015 – which will be reflected in next Saturday’s open day.

The Northern Echo: ANNIVERSARY APPROACHES: 140-year-old Cockerton Methodist Church seen here in 1950
ANNIVERSARY APPROACHES: 140-year-old Cockerton Methodist Church seen here in 1950

It runs from 10am to 5pm, with refreshments and afternoon teas available to musical accompaniments. The following Sunday, there will be two celebration services, at 10.30am and 6pm. Everyone is invited, especially people who have past family ties to the church. For further information, contact Cllr Jan Cossins on 01325-241124.

Are there any other churches in our area with dragons roaring at the worshippers?