Darlington’s Covered Market could feature a “winter garden” if plans unveiled last week go ahead. But it wouldn’t be the first “winter garden” in the Tees Valley –Manchester Metropolitan University Research Associate Dr Tosh Warwick tells of a remarkable Edwardian experiment

THE idea of a Winter Garden might resonate with those familiar with the early 20th Century history of the Tees Valley and in particular Middlesbrough. For it was in the Edwardian Ironopolis that Lady Florence Bell latched on to the winter garden or winter palace idea which had proven popular across European cities since the 1870s.

Lady Florence was the wife of steel magnate Sir Hugh Bell, three times mayor of Middlesbrough, who financed the project.

It was a response to Lady Bell’s concerns at the welfare of the working class in the town, particularly the levels of gambling and drinking which not only posed problems for the moral character of citizens but also contributed to economic hardship.

The lack of outdoor winter leisure opportunities also drew her attention, as she noted that one of the few things for a workman to do was “watching football matches, a comfortless thing enough to do in a north of England winter”.

She identified the solution as being “places of resort under cover, open during the winter at an almost nominal charge, places well warmed and lighted, open to anyone and every one who chose to pay”.

The Winter Garden, in Dundas Street, would realise many of these aims by providing an “attractive place of resort to the working classes of Middlesbrough, at a charge of a penny for admission”, to draw upon Lady Bell’s description of the venue in the first annual report held in Middlesbrough Reference Library.

Opened on October 24, 1907, the Winter Garden provided games, reading, refreshments and music. With its glass ceilings and good lighting, it was in stark contrast to many of the cramped, dull slum houses that many ironworkers called home.

In its first season, from October 1907 to May 1908, there were 146,122 admissions to the People’s Palace. The annual report for that first season said: “On cold raw mornings people frequently come in to read the papers and sit by the fire as soon as the doors are open. We have, in addition to the hot water radiators all round the building, an open fire place, which is much appreciated and always surrounded. In the middle of the building are a number of tile-topped tables on which games can be played…The games available are cards, ludo, dominoes, draughts and chess.”

In the first year entertainment was provided by a range of performers including Dorman’s Silver, North Ormesby and Cleveland Steelworkers bands, as well as a harmonic orchestra and gramophone concerts. Plants and greenery were placed throughout the venue and brought “much pleasure to the people”, with bird cages containing singing canaries a later addition.

One of the notable features was Bell’s ban on those ills of alcohol and gambling. Police and staff would monitor gambling and betting at the venue with those breaking the rules asked to “discontinue their attendance at the Winter Garden”, while warning placards against the practice were on display.

On the refreshment front, tea, coffee, cocoa and Oxo were among the offerings as well as a number of “temperance drinks”.

The institution went on to play an important role at times of turmoil. During the 1912 coal strike, the Winter Garden provided shelter and 5,811 free meals for those rendered almost destitute by the dispute.

After the outbreak of the First World War, the Winter Garden admitted 200 Belgian refugees for free along with over 200 wounded soldiers from Hemlington Hospital. The women attendees also hosted war knitting parties on Tuesday afternoons with articles sent to charities like the Romanian Red Cross. This knitting continued after the war to help a Baby Welfare Centre.

The Winter Garden was subject to praise from many quarters. It was held up as an exemplar of leisure provision in newspapers across the country and hailed as a “pleasant place of resort” by The British Journal of Inebriety. Leading national figures such as Herbert Samuel MP, Sir Edward Grey and the Archbishop of York were among those who praised Lady Bell’s work and performed the ceremonial opening of the Winter Garden for new seasons.

The economic difficulties of the interwar years, the rise of new entertainment and the death of Lady Bell in 1930 all posed challenges for the venue in the lead up to the Second World War.

The decaying venue was eventually felled to make way for the Dundas Arcade shopping centre as Middlesbrough looked to reinvent itself as a commercial and retail town.

There has, however, been renewed interest in the Winter Garden in recent years and a new blue plaque has been installed as part of the interactive Tees Transporter Trail, while other projects are currently planned for celebrating this often overlooked part of Middlesbrough’s heritage.

A REMARKABLE case was unfolding at Mount Pleasant, near Stanley Crook 150 years ago this month.

The Bishop Auckland bailiff, John Pigg, called at the Cavanaghs’ house to collect goods belonging to William Cavanagh to pay off a debt and was attacked by two women. “Sarah Cavanagh got hold of him and bit his arms and hands until blood flowed profusely, while Mary, her sister, struck him several times violently with a poker and rescued some goods after they had been taken away by his men,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times.

The women were fined £2 each, but as they couldn’t pay were sent to the Durham House of Correction for two months hard labour.

The following week, the D&S Times reported that without the two women, Mr Cavanagh had been unable to cope and had moved in a new housekeeper. She had noticed an unpleasant smell coming from under a shakedown bed and, upon investigation, had found the body of a female baby wrapped in an apron.

Police said that a mark around the baby’s neck matched the strings of the apron.

Neighbours said they had noticed that the sister Mary had once been “in the family way”.

“If this be so,” said the D&S with its eyes popping with wonderment, “the women’s decisive resistance of the bailiff and rescuing the goods can easily be accounted for.”

The following week, the D&S reported an inquest in Crook police station into the baby’s death had returned a verdict of wilful murder, and that Mary Ann O’Brien, alias Cavanagh, would be appearing on this charge at the Durham Assizes in the summer.