IN the middle of the main street in Barnard Castle is a grand, classical building that gives just one clue as to what goes on inside it. It is a big clue up near the roofline where large capital letters spell out the word “Witham.” – complete with a square full stop at the end.

It is the Witham Testimonial Hall which is now Barnard Castle’s village hall, with a national reputation for its comedy shows, but it began as a place from which to dispense medicines. The man whose name is in the stone was its principal benefactor – although he was probably most generous to bookmakers.

It is named after Henry Witham, of Lartington Hall, whose surname at birth had been Silvertop. His family had made its money in coalmining, but he changed his surname when he married the heiress Eliza Witham, which allowed him to acquire her estates of Cliffe, near Piercebridge, and Headlam, near Gainford.

However, Henry loved fox-hunting and horse-racing, and he had to sell Cliffe and Headlam, plus Hutton Henry and Hardwick over near Sedgefield, to cover his £105,000 debts – that, according to the Bank of England Inflation Calculator, is worth £10m in today’s prices, which is a hell of a flutter. It is said that in the early 1820s, he arranged a lavish ball at Lartington to celebrate the victory of a horse he’d backed, Doctor Syntax, but midway through the ball news came through that Doctor Syntax had lost, and Henry had to bolt mid-ball to John O’Groats to escape creditors.

He settled in Edinburgh, which sobered him up. He became interested in fossils and pioneered the examination of thin cross-sections of fossilised plants under a microscope. He wrote a couple of highly regarded books about his techniques and discoveries, although it later transpired that most of the pioneering work had been done by his partner, William McNichol, whom he had written out.

In 1833, Henry’s mother died, and he inherited the Lartington estate, which made him solvent. He returned to Teesdale in triumph. Cheering crowds awaited him, and a band led his procession to Lartington which had been decorated with “welcome home” banners.

He immediately set about enlarging the hall to cater for his fossil collection, and he also spoke about being a friend of the people. He founded two charities, the Barnard Castle Dispensary for the Relief of the Sick Poor, which provided free advice and medicine to poor people, and the Barnard Castle Mechanics’ Institute, which was a working man’s educational centre based on a concept popular in Edinburgh.

Both ideas took root. In 1835, the dispensary helped 175 patients, and in 1839, the institute had 450 books – the largest library in Barney – plus a collection of mineral specimens, ten working models of industrial processes and a working model of the solar system.

The societies were in rented accommodation until Henry died in 1844 and his friend, John Bowes of Streatlam Castle – the founder of the Bowes Museum who had had to spend a couple of years in Paris to escape his horse-racing debts – suggested they be brought together under the umbrella of the Witham Testimonial Hall.

Land was acquired on the curve where Horsemarket meets the Market Place, and 2,000 people made donations to the cause.

Newcastle father-and-son architects, John and Benjamin Green, were employed. They were the masters of classical design, best known locally for building Whorlton suspension bridge in 1831 as well as Blackwell bridge and Harewood Grove in Darlington. Their biggest contracts regionally include the Newcastle Theatre Royal and Grey’s Monument of the late 1830s, and Penshaw Monument of 1844.

The Witham opened in April 1846 with four days of festivities, including a bazaar and an exhibition of paintings lent by the local nobility.

It is hard to see how the façade looking onto Horsemarket has changed in the intervening 170 years – although the use inside has. In 1846, you went through the main entrance and on the right, where there’s now a shop, was the dispensary. There was a room for consultations and for small surgical procedures, and there was a room for people to recuperate in after their operations.

On the left, where there is now an art gallery, was the Mechanics’ Institute library – by the 1860s, it had 2,878 volumes.

A grand staircase then led to the upper floor where there were rooms for lectures, reading and civic functions.

It quickly became clear that the rooms were not large enough for the growing number of users, and so a new mechanics’ hall was planned to go directly behind the Witham, through which it would be accessed.

The Darlington & Stockton Times reported that when the new hall opened on December 6, 1860, it had cost £907 8s, and it described it as “a spacious and lofty building…an exceedingly creditable specimen, internally, of architectural achievements” – presumably this is a reference to the hall’s plain exterior, as it could not be seen from any road.

The dignitaries were led by the Duke of Cleveland and Henry Pease, the South Durham MP, and much of the speaking was done by the Reverend Thomas Witham, son of the original benefactor, who liked to torture an analogy. “They had planted a tree of knowledge and left sufficient space for its expansions,” the D&S reported him as saying. “He trusted branches would shoot and that abundant fruit would be reaped from them. It was intended that this tree of knowledge should bear all kinds of fruit. And what he most particularly wished to insist upon was that the inhabitants of Barnard Castle should pluck those fruits.”

Mr Pease pointed out that very few towns with a population of only 5,000 would have a self-funded hall like this, and he was right that this was a major addition to the small market town.

The Sacred Harmonic Association then performed selections from Handel and Haydn which were “vociferously applauded”, and then 1,000 people sat down for tea, “the trays being given by the ladies of Barnard Castle”. The D&S presents the day as a great success, although reports say that it was marred by the great crush of people in the hall generating an excessive heat.

The hall was a great success: as well as lectures, concerts, dances, operas, magic lantern shows and, later, films were all staged there.

The Witham became Barnard Castle’s de facto town hall, certainly at times of election. The music hall was the polling station and the result was announced to the masses from the first floor windows at the front.

On January 26, 1903, 3,000 people gathered outside the Witham to hear the result of the by-election caused by the death of the Liberal MP, Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease. Mr Pease’s agent, the former Darlington mayor Arthur Henderson, had accepted an invitation to stand in the town with everyone presuming he would be on the Liberal ticket, yet he put himself forward as a Labour candidate.

The Liberals rustled up their own man; the Tories fielded a member of the Vane, and Henderson’s campaign was assisted by women suffragists, whose cause he supported. In terrifically exciting scenes, Henderson was victorious by just 47 votes – the first time a Labour candidate had beaten both a Liberal and a Tory as Henderson became only the fifth Labour MP.

During the Second World War, soldiers were billeted in the Witham, and the Dispensary became a rations office, dishing out orange juice and cod liver oil to children.

In 1948, the town's first public lending library opened on the premises, but as other venues were built, it struggled to carve out its own niche from the 1950s onwards.

However, in the recent years, it has been restored and now a rescue plan is in place to stabilise its finances. It acts as an arts venue, putting on a wide range of shows, as well as having a café and retail and office space, so that the name of Teesdale’s lovable rogue still shouts loudly from the stonework in the centre of the town.