Once, it was the proud suburban home of the 19th Century ‘Mr Durham’. Now, intriguing Dryburn House faces the bulldozer

IT’S 1824. Having “for some time practised on the northern circuit”, as his obituary would later record, 35-year-old barrister William Lloyd Wharton yearns for a suitable place to call his own. The outcome: Dryburn House.

Fast forward 191 years and the Grade II-listed villa is facing demolition as NHS bosses seek space for a new Emergency Care Centre. A suitable time, then, to reflect on its unique place in Durham’s history.

The Northern Echo:
THE WAY: Wharton Park, currently closed for a £3m refurbishment, houses numerous curiosities including The Way sculpture, which points visitors to a gap in the trees revealing stunning views towards Durham Cathedral

“Driburnhouse” is mentioned as early as 1353, when the then Bishop of Durham, Thomas Hatfield – of Durham University college fame – gifted the land, about a mile north-west of the modern city centre, to Isabel, daughter of Robert de Leicester.

At that time, the area would have been open land – though the medieval hospital of St Leonard’s already stood nearby. The sister of St Godric of Finchale is said to have died there in the 1100s and there is a reference to it from 1292.

Dryburn more broadly became infamous as Durham’s gallows site – the final destination of criminals, Catholics and gypsies alike in those less forgiving times. In 1596, the area was sold to Richard Hutchinson, whose family held it until around 1760, when it passed to the Whartons.

They came from Old Park, near Spennymoor, having relocated from Kirby Thore, in Westmorland, in the 1600s; but it seems they quickly made themselves at home among Durham’s elite. Robert Wharton (1690-1752) served as Mayor of Durham, as did one of his sons.

A grandson, Richard (c1765-1828), achieved national standing.

Despite suffering the embarrassment of his 1802 election to Parliament being declared void less than two years later, his “payment of the travelling expenses of the non-resident freemen having been construed as bribery”, the Cambridge-educated barrister was returned to the Commons as MP for Durham in 1806, made Chairman of Ways and Means in 1808 and Secretary to the Treasury in 1809 – a post he held until 1814.

He became a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1810 and remained in Parliament until 1820.

A man of “quick talents, much literature, and most pleasing manners, hospitable and open; a man of the world, of a handsome person and benevolent expression,” judged the noted bibliographer and genealogist Sir Samuel Egerton Brydges.

The Northern Echo:
MR DURHAM: William Lloyd Wharton, whose legacy extends far and wide in his adopted home town of Durham

But back to our William Lloyd. His two-storey Dryburn House, also known as Dryburn Hall, comprises coursed sandstone with a Welsh slate roof.

Today, it is divided into the main building, a Northern Wing, Western Wing and modern extensions. Most striking, perhaps, are its two-storey bay window and porte cochere – a sure sign of William Lloyd’s wealth and standing.

Historic England has praised the hall’s “stripped down classical style” and “elegant architectural manner” and it has been compared to the Mount Oswald Manor, Western Lodge and Grey Lodge and Burn Hall, all around Durham, and Sedgefield’s Ceddesfeld Hall. Writing in 1840, Surtees described it as a “handsome modern seat”.

The Northern Echo:
GIFT: William Lloyd Wharton gifted this 30m-high obelisk sited near Wharton Park to the University of Durham in 1850 to aid its studies of the skies

It would be far from William Lloyd’s only legacy to his home city. He served as the High Sherriff from 1833 to 1836; owned a colliery in Coundon, where there remains a Wharton Street; and was chairman of the New Market Company.

A railway pioneer, he chaired the North-Eastern Railway from the 1830s and when it came to building a station for Durham in the 1850s, it was his land that was chosen for the station that remains to this day.

But although a businessman and barrister, he found plenty of time for leisure pastimes. He promoted sports: helping found the famous Durham Regatta in 1834 and the Durham Rifle Club, providing a shooting range at his own expense, and holding popular athletics contests known as the Wharton Fetes.

The Northern Echo:
MILITARY: Wharton had this mock military battery installed at Windy Hill, which became known as Wharton Park, offering commanding views across the River Wear and Durham peninsula

In 1850, he built a 30m-high obelisk as a gift to the new University of Durham, as a North Meridian Mark for its nearby observatory, constructed ten years previously. The sandstone piece still remains, in the grounds of St Leonard’s RC School, cared for by the Catholic Church.

His greatest and most obvious gift, however, was that of a piece of land then known as Windy Hill – now more recognisable as Wharton Park. Originally part of his gardens, it opened to the public in 1858 – making it one of the region’s earliest public parks.

The Durham Advertiser gushed: “The genius of the age shows itself in nothing more gratifying than the various attempts which are now making to provide wholesome places of exercise and recreation for the great bulk of the working classes.”

The Northern Echo:
DAYS NUMBERED: Dryburn Hall, now in the grounds of the University Hospital of North Durham. Durham County Council has granted permission for its demolition

Renowned for its mock military battery built by Wharton in the 1850s and stunning views over the Wear to Durham Castle and Cathedral – described the philosopher John Ruskin as the “eighth wonder of the world”, it is currently undergoing a £3m Lottery-funded upgrade, due to be completed early next year.

William Lloyd died in the late 1860s, shortly before Wharton Park hosted the first Durham Miners’ Gala. An obituary recalled he “always took the lead in public merry-makings... The sums he expended in demonstrations of loyalty, and in public rejoicing were very large”.

Dryburn House passed to his brother John Thomas and then John Thomas’ son John Lloyd (1837-1912), a barrister, JP, Deputy Lieutenant, Conservative MP for Durham and later Ripon and Privy Counsellor.

The Northern Echo:
DURHAM MP: John Lloyd Wharton (1837-1912), briefly MP for Durham, lived mostly at Boston Spa, allowing his daughter Mary Dorothea Wharton and her husband Colonel Charles Waring Darwin to occupy Dryburn House

But he lived much of his life at Boston Spa, so Dryburn was occupied by his daughter Mary Dorothea Wharton and her husband Colonel Charles Waring Darwin, a distant relative of Charles Darwin and a military man who commanded the 3rd Battalion of the Durham Light Infantry and chaired the County Durham Territorial Force Association and served as a JP and Deputy Lieutenant.

One of their sons, Squadron Leader Charles John Wharton Darwin, would follow his father into the forces and become a First World War flying ace, credited with five aerial victories.

Wharton ownership of Dryburn ended around 1914, when the House was sold to Colonel Cuthbert Vaux, of Vaux Breweries; though it was acquired by Durham County Council for use as a public assistance hospital during the inter-war years and during the Second World War became an emergency hospital for wounded servicemen from both sides. Children with orthopaedic difficulties evacuated from London during the Blitz were also sent there, creating the odd scenario of youngsters forced 250 miles from home sleeping under the same roof as the Nazi combatants that had caused the relocation.

After the war, it became a doctors’ house, then nurses’ accommodation and then offices before finally becoming disused. Though Grade II-listed since 1970, it fell into a poor state of repair – with the roof suffering particularly. Its original garden setting was lost as the hospital developed around it, most notably with the opening of the new-build University Hospital of North Durham (UHND) in 2001.

So when the County Durham and Darlington NHS Foundation Trust, the hospital’s operators, decided more A&E facilities were needed, their preferred option became to demolish Dryburn and build in its place. A new £20m Emergency Care Centre was proposed. UHND is currently receiving 60,000 A&E patients a year, they said – twice the number the unit was meant for – and demand is growing by three per cent every year.

Not all were satisfied. The Georgian Group praised Dryburn’s design as unusual and inventive; the Ancient Monuments Society commended its condition; and the City of Durham Trust’s chairman Roger Cornwell talked of an irreplaceable asset of considerable value.

But planning consultants Nathaniel Lichfield and Partners said it was a “typical country house of its period” and others remain which are less altered and retain greater architectural and aesthetic value. There is also “no intelligible link” between the building and its creator, they argued.

A suggestion emerged to move the hall to Beamish but it came to nought; Bill Headley, the Trust’s director of estates and facilities, saying the museum had shown no interest in accepting it.

Historic England raised no objection, subject to a legal agreement ensuring it is replaced with such a medical facility as is proposed, and consent for demolition was granted by a Durham County Council planning committee in June.

Detailed designs for the new Emergency Care Centre are in the pipeline and the Trust hopes the facility will be ready for 2017, so demolition could be a matter of months away.

LINKED to the refurbishment of Wharton Park, a group led by local historian Dorothy Hamilton has been researching the history of the Wharton family. A history and memories session will be held at County Hall on Thursday, August 13 from 6pm to 8pm. To book a place, email: whartonpark@durham.gov.uk