RECENTLY we published a picture of Skinnergate in Darlington in February 1965, with a distinctive shaped dark van – one correspondent called it “mournful looking” – parked near the Mechanics Institute.

Lots of people recognised it as a Morris J van, but only George Cummings was able to boast that he had once driven the very vehicle – 336 CHN – in our picture.

George, 89, worked for five years as a trolley bus driver before in 1956 he joined Bainbridge Barker, Darlington’s very own department store on the corner of Skinnergate and Blackwellgate.

“Bainbridge Barker’s was the complete family classic outlet with nothing but top stuff,” says George. “You never had anything go wrong with Bainbridge Barker, and Binns, no disrespect, was second in hand.”

Bainbridge Barker was on a prime site, facing on to the Great North Road as it entered Darlington. The three-storey cornerpiece was built in 1898-99 by local builder Thomas I’Anson on top of a higgledy-piggledy collection of old premises.

James Bainbridge Barker and his brother, Armstrong, opened a drapery business on the Skinnergate side of Mr I’Anson’s new development.

They used a wooden pinbowl as a till, and cycled into Wensleydale, Swaledale and Teesdale on a tandem to collect orders.

When their deliveries grew too large for the bicycle basket they upgraded to a pony-and-trap and then to a new-fangled motor car.

Similarly their store grew so that within a decade the brothers occupied the whole corner building.

A 1913 advert promises that Bainbridge Barker’s could "convince you that we can make your shopping a success! Millinery, coats and costumes, an almost endless variety. Blouses the beautiful delicacy of appearance combined with durability, proves great attraction in this department.

In 1929, the store expanded onto the top floor of the cornerpiece where they opened a mock Tudor cafe. The Darlington & Stockton Times enthused: "The oak-panelled walls and antique beams and, most of all, the ingle-nook fireplace, cannot fail to conjure up scenes of England's Golden Age and take one's mind off the rush and bustle of modernity."

“Bainbridge Barker’s was well known for its immaculately dressed windows, and on market day the whole farming community descended on the restaurant

James Bainbridge Barker died in 1941 and in 1961 his son and grandson, apparently fearing death duties would wipe out their inheritance, decided to sell for £194,000 to Matthias Robinson and Son, a West Hartlepool family department store which had commenced in 1875.

Robinson's name lasted over the door for just 11 months before Debenhams took over. For a decade Darlington enjoyed a departmental dogfight as Debenhams battled with Binns until in 1973, Debenhams retreated claiming the Bainbridge Barker site was "too small".

For a while, McIlroys occupied the corner, then the Motorists Discount Centre followed by Newcastle Building Society, and now it lies scruffily empty with the paint peeling off.

George, though, remembers its heyday, when it was Bainbridge Barker’s, the number one store in town, when its deliveries were made in a Morris J van.

“It was blue, not a royal blue but a darkish blue with gold lettering on the side,” he says. “It was a marvellous van, amazing what you could get into it in terms of rolls of carpet and lino.”

The Morris J was first created in 1949 with a side valve engine and three speed gearbox. From 1957, it was powered by a British Motor Corporation B-series engine with overhead valves and a four speed gearbox, and the new model was known as a Morris JB.

Production ceased in 1961.

Maurice Henry said the van in our picture was probably supplied by CGS Buist in Coniscliffe Road, and John Biggs in Etherley Grange added: “It was one of the earliest “forward control” vans, which meant the engine in the cabin with the driver sitting alongside it, further forward than usual.”

Many people mentioned that the Post Office had hundreds of Morris Js running about the country in the 1950s and 1960s, and one of the very last survives in High Etherley, where it is owned by Stuart Macdonald.

Stuart’s is a 1961 vehicle that was allocated to the Post Office in Cardiff where it made its deliveries until 1968. It then had a succession of owners until it ended up at a paint manufacturer in Glasgow from where Stuart bought it in 2007.

“I’d always liked the look of them,” he says. “They were a bit different. When I heard about this one I thought it was just what I wanted until I got it home, cleaned the dirt off and found it needed a lot of work.”

After seven years of restoration, it was back on the road. Its next outing is likely to be to the Cumbria Easter Rally at Kirby Stephen and Brough on April 1, and then the North-East Classic Pre-War Automobiles Club rally at Hamsterley Forest on Easter Sunday.

  • Car-spotting thanks also to John Middlemiss, Mark Cooper, John Waddleton and Peter Daniels and many others.