AT about 11.30pm on Saturday, January 30, 1869, rail puncher Philip Trainer was shot at point blank range in the left eye amid a crowd of Irishmen gathered outside a public house on Darlington’s Albert Hill.

The bullet lodged deep in his brain. He fell to the floor, dead instantaneously, and the cry went wrong the crowd: “Ho, here’s a man shot.”

In those days – 150 years ago – a murder was very rare and a shooting was unheard of. The whole town convulsed with fear.

“Darlington has just been startled into horror and indignation by the commission of a crime, though at present shrouded in mystery, bears on it the unmistakeable impress of murder,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times (The Northern Echo was founded 11 months later).

The D&S noted that only minutes earlier there had been another shooting in the same area of town, and although no one was hurt, “the offences have come to be regarded as connected by some stronger link than coincidence”.

So intrigued, and indeed worried, was the D&S by the murder that it relegated the extraordinary, fox-hunting tragedy at Newby Hall to just a long paragraph while it went to the trouble to produce a rare special second edition – a single-sided sheet slipped into the main paper – to bring the latest developments in the murder (we reproduce that special page over the page).

Albert Hill 150 years ago was a boom town. There were gold rush fortunes to be made in the new iron industry, and the men who worked in it were often hard drinking and lawless. And Irish.

They worked in William Barningham’s ironworks. Barningham escaped his poverty-stricken childhood in Arkengarthdale by establishing the Darlington Iron Company on Albert Hill in 1858 and by the time he sold out in 1872 he had amassed a fortune bigger than the wealthiest Pease.

In 1864, his ironworks was the biggest in the north of England. On the hill, he produced 800 tons of wrought iron a week in 73 furnaces. He employed 300 puddlers in a workforce of 1,000 – and many of them were Irish immigrants who lodged in the poor quality terraces which had sprung up around the works.

The fatal events that evening 150 years ago began to unfold at 8.30pm in James Costello’s beerhouse, which was somewhere on Haughton Lane (now Haughton Road, on the edge of Albert Hill). Irish ironworkers John McConville and Thomas Finnigan were seen talking, and then Finnigan went into the yard and fired a gun at headheight. Puddler Thomas Young ducked to avoid death and ran away, but word reached the police.

At 11.10pm, Sgt Hewitt caught up with Finnigan in the Havelock Arms (which was demolished at the start of the 21st Century having closed in 1998).

As the policeman approached, Finnigan tried to remove the revolver from his jacket pocket, but the hammer snagged on the lining.

He was arrested but never charged with any offence – he said he was just minding the gun for a friend he did not know and he had discharged it in the pub yard without intending to harm anyone.

At about the same time, McConville was in the Allan Arms in the heart of Albert Hill – it was on the corner of Nestfield Street and Killinghall Street and was demolished in the mid-1970s when the ironworkers’ terraces were cleared.

Landlord George Turnbull was struggling to keep the peace among the feuding, drinking Irishmen, although McConville – known as “Gentleman John” because of his peaceable ways – was separate from the main altercations. He was at the bar with puddler James Quinn and Owen Hanlan – who six years later would die in police custody in Darlington. They’d spotted a notorious fellow named Burns, “a fighting man”, in their midst, and, joshingly, Quinn had asked if Hanlan could stop him.

McConville then touched his breast pocket and said enigmatically: “I’ve something here that would stop him.”

Minutes later, the melee spilled outside into the streets, and Quinn saw McConville walk through the crowd, pull the pistol from his breast pocket, and shoot Trainer from four yards. Trainer, aged about 28 and lodging in Prescott Street, had only been working at Barningham’s for three weeks or so.

As the cry – “Ho, here’s a man shot” – went up, the crowd melted mysteriously away, leaving only Quinn and Hanlan to carry the body into the Allan Arms. Both were arrested, but the following day, police traced Gentleman John to his lodgings in Lowson Street, Harrowgate Hill, and arrested him. They found a pistol case – but no pistol – beside his bed.

The inquest was opened just days later. Quinn had been released and, in a climate of almost complete secrecy, was the only witness who could provide a complete story of the night’s events.

Extra evidence came from William Benson’s ironmonger’s in Albion Terrace, where shop assistant George Harrison said that a week earlier, a man named “James Jackson”, who looked like McConville, had ordered 100 pistol cartridges.

Mr Benson himself had been behind the counter when the order was collected a few days later by, he thought, Hanlan.

Mr Benson was shown the bullet which had fallen out of the dead man’s eye socket during the post mortem and he said it was definitely from the batch of 100 (it was also probably larger than the ones in Finnigan’s pistol).

The inquest jury decided that Hanlan should be released due to lack of evidence, and that McConville should stand trial at Durham Assizes for wilful murder.

No motive was put forward about why Gentleman John McConville should act so out of character and murder a fellow Irishman.

However, the D&S speculated: “The motive for the perpetration of the act remains yet a subject of surmise and it is not unlikely that Trainer’s habit of retirement from the company of his fellow countrymen is in some degree connected with his fate.”

The case was to make history in Durham, and would be concluded – violently – within two months. We’ll follow its progress in this space, because for Darlington, it was the start of a decade of Fenian trouble that would lead to more murder and unaccountable killings.

THE HAVELOCK ARMS – also known as “the round house” – was a very distinctive building at the gateway to Albert Hill. Like the Allan Arms, it took its name from the Havelock-Allan family which sold most of the hill to industrialists in the 1850s.

And like the Allan Arms, it was first built in the 1860s to quench the thirsts of those immigrant ironworkers.

However, in the 1880s, the South Durham Brewery was established behind the Havelock. It thrived, was renamed Haughton Road Brewery, and in 1894 the whole premises was rebuilt. The brewery gained a 260ft artesian well so it could draw water from the centre of the earth to convert into beer, and the Havelock acquired its distinctive rounded look from which it gained its nickname.

The brewery shut in 1933, but the Havelock remained a smart house – in the 1940s and 1950s, its brass spittoons in the sawdust gulley around the foot of the bar were always immaculately polished.

Intriguingly, the cellar of the Havelock appeared to be the starting point of three brick-lined tunnels in which a 6ft man could easily stand up. One tunnel could well have been a direct connection from the brewery down which barrels were rolled. Another went under Barton Street towards St James the Great church, and the third disappeared beneath Haughton Road and would now be under the throughabout.

Before the Havelock closed in 1998, Memories inspected the entrance to these three tunnels, but even though we were promised that one of them still extended at least 30 yards, we declined to venture inside – well, they were definitely inhabited by scurrying rodents of noted viciousness and probably haunted by a ghost which regularly turned off gas taps.

The round house came down a couple of years later. It site became a filling station which is now largely derelict – do the tunnels and the ghost survive? Any stories of the Havelock, or Albert Hill, would be greatly appreciated…