IN January 1938, 2,200 people turned out of Darlington’s biggest religious meeting to find the sky illuminated by pulsating pencils of light.

Visible all across the North- East, and as far south as Spain, it was probably the most vivid show of Northern Lights in modern times.

“From east to west there was a great arc of diffused red which later changed to pale blue, and stretched across the sky like a nocturnal rainbow,”

said the Darlington and Stockton Times.

The thousands of people leaving the centenary celebrations of the Darlington Town Mission must have thought the celestial fireworks were God’s way of commemorating the anniversary.

Therefore, look to the skies on Tuesday night, because the Town Mission is holding a thanksgiving service to mark its 175th anniversary, which the Lord will obviously want to recognise.

The Town Mission was formed as a Christian Visiting Society in 1838 by “the three Johns” – John Beaumont Pease, John Backhouse and John Castell Hopkins. The first two were Quakers; Mr Hopkins was an Anglican.

The Society – the third of its kind in the country – was founded to cross Christian boundaries and to reach out to the people living in overcrowded hovels and unsanitary slums, and to try to improve their daily lives, to try to wean them from the demon drink, and to try to spread the word of God.

Missioners were employed to do the donkey work. The first was Christopher Johnson, who had previously been employed by the Pease family as their “police court missioner”

– Mr Johnson sought out people in trouble at court and tried to ease their problems.

An early missioner described a visit: “A woman in my district pays 12s 6d for the use of a room in which to sleep with her 17-year-old daughter and 14-year-old son. The privileges enjoyed are that the three have a hearthrug for a bed laid alongside a wet wall.

“No fire is allowed.

“The woman sleeps near the wall, her son next and the girl next. They are covered with three thin blankets.

“They must leave the room by 9am and are not allowed to return until 8pm. The previous Sunday had been spent at Bank Top Station. They are not allowed any cooking facilities.

“I promised to see if anything could be done to improve their condition.”

Today, there isn’t such grinding poverty because the world has moved on. For some, though, it has moved on too fast, and they are left isolated and lonely.

A late 20th Century Missioner’s report reads: “A lady I visit is housebound in central Darlington. She has no close relatives and for 20 years has never been outside. She looks out onto a backyard.

Though physically weak, she is really alert and loves to chat.”

The Northern Echo: A STORY TO TELL: Centenary headline
Centenary headline

This is exactly the spirit of the keynote address at the centenary celebrations in 1938. More than 1,700 people crammed into Baths Hall, in Gladstone Street, and a further 500 overflowed into the Salvation Army citadel.

Through loudspeakers, they heard Lord Daryngton, formerly Herbert Pike Pease, the Darlington MP, finish with a Town Mission poem: It’s the human touch in the world that counts, The touch of your hand and mine May mean more to a fainting soul Than shelter or bread or wine, For shelter is gone when the night is passed And bread lasts only the day But the touch of the hand and the sound of the voice May live in the soul alway.

And then everyone went outside and looked up into the skies with awe and wonder.

  • All are welcome to the Service of Thanksgiving at St Cuthbert’s Church on Tuesday, April 30, at 7pm.