THE building that has been destroyed on Skinnergate is still known locally as “Wildsmith’s” after the high class grocery shop that occupied it for more than 100 years.

It was run by the family of the incoming managing director of Darlington council, Paul Wildsmith, until it was sold in March 1979.

George Wildsmith moved his business into the shop exactly 150 years ago this month. The three-storey building was already standing – it is a late 18th Century construction – and he lived on the first floor with his wife Elizabeth.

The Northern Echo:

Skinnergate in the 1950s, with Wildsmith’s on the left – the name in capital letters can be seen on the large nameboard which has survived the fire

His grocery apprentices lived on the top floor where he could keep an eye on them.

Chauffeurs would pull up outside Wildsmith’s door allowing ladies in large whalebone skirts and corsets to waddle into the shop. The ladies would park themselves on high-legged stools, which had tiny seats so as not to damage the customers’ attire, and then bark out their orders. The apprentices would dash about the store, collecting the choicest foods, placing them in baskets and then carry them out to the waiting cars.

Children were given a biscuit when they entered the shop, and the money whizzed from the sales counter to the accounts department in a “trolley-pulley” system which used to knock off gentlemen’s top hats.

Wildsmith’s prided itself on its 19th Century feel – which was good for business until a large Lipton’s self-service supermarket opened nearby in the 1960s and the ladies with chauffeurs and corsets died out.

Wildsmith’s closed on February 24, 1979, when the third generation of grocers retired.

“Wildsmith’s is an Aladdin’s Cave of gastronomic delights,” said the Evening Despatch newspaper when the shop closed. “Its treasures, tucked away in wooden boxes and old tins, can be smelt before they are seen. The refreshing aromas of freshly-ground coffee, spices and fresh bacon greet you as soon as you walk through the narrow door into the old world shop.”

It concluded: “The tiny bastion of the 19th Century is at the end of the road. Perhaps a fitting epitaph is that it survived, without compromising with the 20th Century.”

In more recent years, the building has been used as a St Teresa’s Hospice furniture shop, but that shut about 18 months ago and it has been empty since.

So although the name “Wildsmith” has been gone for nearly 40 years, one of the distinguishing features of this once proud building was the huge board on which the name “Wildsmith” once appeared. It can still be seen, but the windows and brickwork around it are blackened and broken.