Chris Lloyd investigates the diggings going on behind Darlington Town Hall

AMID the mud behind Darlington Town Hall, the remains of the 12th Century Bishop’s Manor House are being revealed for the first time in more than 200 years.

Archaeologists are digging into the past before work on the future Department for Education offices begins in a month’s time. The tarmac of the old car park has been peeled off and six feet under lie the remains of the Bishop of Durham’s palace.

In his heyday, the Prince Bishop had residences all over his diocese: Bishop Middleham, Easington, Stockton and Evenwood, as well as Darlington and had outlying manor houses to go with his main palaces in Auckland Castle and Durham Castle.

Bishop Hugh le Puiset began building his manor house on the banks of the Skerne at the end of the 12th Century at the same time as he was upgrading the neighbouring simple stone church into the grand St Cuthbert’s. His manor house was made of stone and it rose until it was three storeys high – it must have looked very impressive to the ordinary people of the town who lived on High Row in their single-storey timberframed shacks.

But, of course, the Bishop didn’t need a palace in every place, and very soon his Skerneside residence was relegated to the status of an estate office, where his officials did their business. It was also a lodging house for members of royalty and aristocracy when they were passing through the district – kings and princesses stayed there.

The house was damaged in the English Civil War of the mid-17th Century, and restored by Bishop John Cosin, but by 1703, the Bishop realised he had no reasonable use for it, and had allowed it to be converted into a workhouse.

In 1808, the south half of the house was demolished and a proper, grim workhouse was built, with separate areas for girls, boys, females and males to sleep and exercise in.

In 1870, a new, Gothic workhouse was built off Yarm Road, and so Alderman Richard Luck – who had a shop on High Row which in its day was as famous as Dressers – bought the old buildings by the Skerne. He pulled them all down, including the little chapel dedicated to St James, which was the last remaining wing of the manor house, and built a residential terrace and square.

The Northern Echo:
A similar view from the south with the church in the background, only with archaeologists working in the mud to reveal the 1808 foundations of the workhouse

LUCKS Terrace was swept away in the 1960s when the town hall was built, and perhaps the most obvious part of the archaeological discoveries are the reinforced piles that were sunk when a second brutalist concrete-and-glass office block was planned to complement the town hall.

But most eye-catching amid the mud is the foundations of the 1808 workhouse. They were built using 12th Century stones from Bishop Hugh’s manor house. You can clearly see dressed pieces that once formed the reverend gentleman’s archways and windowframes. In a week’s time, the foundations are going to be dismantled because the new office block will destroy them, but it is hoped that they will be worked into the future landscaping. In truth, the archaeologists haven’t uncovered anything unexpected, although they are being entertained by the remains of a bread oven and a strange, three-sided, woodlined pond-type thing which has appeared directly in the shadow of the town hall.

They hope, though, to get the go-ahead to dig some trial trenches outside the footprint of the new DfE office block which may reveal much more about the manor house.

PERHAPS most disappointingly, they have failed to discover anything connected to Lady Jarrett. She was the daughter of the bishop who was murdered in the manor house, it is said, during the civil war. Two soldiers took a fancy to the large ruby ring on her finger, and when she refused to hand it over, they sliced off her arm.

As they made off with their booty, she slumped dying down a whitewashed archway in the palace, the red blood from her stump leaving an indelible trail.

Her one-armed ghostly form has often been seen on misty nights flitting across the town hall car park, and her piteous moans and the rustling of her dress have regularly been heard.

The Northern Echo:
The 12th Century Bishop’s manor house as it would have looked from today’s town hall

But although the archaeologists have found a horse’s head, their modern, analytical scientific methods have unearthed no trace of Lady Jarrett – so we’ll just have to make do with the medieval stones, and their fascinating stories, instead.

  • With many thanks to archaeologists Niall Hammond and Matthew Claydon