ONE of Darlington’s most unusual lost buildings was mentioned in Memories 350: the Victorian office of the Board of Guardians in East Street. The back end of the Wilko’s supermarket is on its site today.

It was designed by Darlington’s finest architect, GG Hoskins, who was also responsible for the King’s Head Hotel, the library, the technical college, the sixth form college, various branches of Backhouses’ Bank and Middlesbrough Town Hall. The board office was completed in February 1897 in grey brick and buff terracotta, and featured an interesting domed turret cornerpiece, six lions’ heads and a weathervane.

Formed in 1837, the Guardians looked after the poor and ran the workhouse. Unfortunates must have come to the office to plead for assistance and have their affairs thoroughly probed by the Guardians to ensure they were genuinely poor.

The Guardians were disbanded in 1930 and the office became the home of the Darlington Public Assistance Department which in 1971 evolved into social services.

“I came to work for Darlington council in 1971 and joined the old Welfare Department based in this building as we awaited the establishment of the new Social Services Department whose offices in Regent House were being fitted out,” says Cllr Veronica Copeland. “Inside the building was rather gloomy and the offices were heated by coal fires which the caretaker lit every morning before we arrived.

“There was a very magnificent boardroom where the Board of Guardians had met with a beautiful, large mahogany table around which they must have sat. It had a dock-like structure at one end into which the individual hoping for Parish Relief would climb in order to plead his or her case. I could imagine what an ordeal this must have been especially as on the walls were portraits of the former chairmen of the Board of Guardians looking down disapprovingly on these poor individuals.”

Charles Dickens vividly described workhouse life in Oliver Twist, especially how the Guardians looked after the poor and at the same time looked after the local ratepayers who wanted to pay the absolute minimum to keep beggars off the streets. Whenever the 1968 musical of Oliver is shown at Christmastime, we look in amazement at the hard-heartedness of Harry Secombe’s character – although in our own time, more people than ever are using foodbanks.

With social services moving to Regent House, the last occupant of the East Street building was the Register Office, which Cllr Jimmy Whelan condemned in 1973 as being a “pokey hole”. He said: “It is miserable for newly-weds to come out of the ugly office after getting married.”

The council spent £20,000 converting 11 Houndgate into “a luxury panelled marriage hall” and East Street fell derelict. There was talk of the board office going to Beamish Museum but, after successive redevelopment plans came and went, in it was eventually demolished at the end of the 1970s.