“SHILDON is one of the ugliest places on the earth’s fair surface,” said The Northern Echo on November 8, 1875, with a turn of phrase that will not have endeared it to many living in the paper’s heartlands.

“It was once a swamp, the malaria from which laid many of its early inhabitants low with fever.

“It is now a hideous congerie of houses, growing like fungus on either side of a network of rails.

“A huge colliery rears its ungainly head close to the rails, and the noises of its working cease not for ever. Engines are plying about with restless activity, like spiders running along the threads of their nets seeking for hapless flies. There is a ceaseless rattle of wagon wheels and snorting and puffing of the engines fills the air with dismal noises.”

The article is one of the many fascinations to be found in a new book, A Railway History of New Shildon by George Turner Smith, which was launched at the Locomotion museum in the town on Friday.

The book looks at how the railway came to Shildon and, through Timothy Hackworth’s works, effectively created what we see today. The book charts the rise and fall of the wagonworks and notes that with the museum in its midst and Hitachi on its doorstep, railways are still central to Shildon.

The author has also, fortunately, looked up the word “congerie” which means “a disorderly mass or heap”.

The article was written to promote a celebration of the 50th anniversary of the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway which was to be held in the Railway Institute – a campaign has just been launched to save the ’Stute, the world’s first railway institute, as Memories 424 told.

The article – perhaps by the then editor WT Stead, who cropped up in a TV programme about spiritualism on BBC4 on Wednesday evening – performs a hatchet job on Shildon’s history.

Mr Smith in his book tells how in 1827 Daniel Adamson, landlord of the Grey Horse, seized the opportunity presented by the new railway to run pioneering horse-drawn passenger services along it. Mr Smith says that as Mr Adamson’s coach ran from the coach-house opposite the pub, where tickets were sold, “this building can therefore claim to be the world’s first dedicated public railway station”.

But the Echo of 1875 prefers to dish the dirt on this great railway pioneer. “Dan, the man who may be regarded as the sole aboriginal inhabitant of New Shildon, was a daring character who might in happier times have made his way upwards into a sphere in which he could have benefitted his contemporaries,” it said, “but belonging to the pre-railway era, he dedicated his energies to smuggling, and made his grey mare almost as famous in south Durham as Dick Turpin’s Black Bess.”

So it appears that the Grey Horse pub, recently converted into apartments, was named after Mr Adamson’s mule.

The Echo doesn’t stop there. When in 1826 Timothy Hackworth opened up his railway works in this remote location, workers came from all over the country.

“The feelings of the newcomers who settled in this out-of-the-world place were anything but pleasurable,” it said. “At that time Shildon bore a strong resemblance to what Riccarton Junction is now – a dreary waste, only relieved from being a total solitude by a line of rails, some engine shops and a few miserable cottages.

“Wild west countrymen, speaking unintelligible dialects, roosted on each side of the track.”

Riccarton Junction is in a forest in the Scottish borders, just north of Kielder Water. Its railway opened in 1862, and soon it had 30 houses, a school, post office and shop – but there was no road built to it until 1963. Everyone relied in every way upon the railway.

Shildon in its early days didn’t even have a decent shop, said the Echo, so all the newcomers had to travel into Bishop Auckland to stock up.

“The agricultural produce sold in the streets, between the queer little thatched houses which nestled in the shade of the episcopal place, was cheap,” said the Echo, in a rare moment of positivity. “Eggs were 26 for a shilling, meat only fourpence-halfpenny a pound, fresh butter only sevenpence.”

But then it was back to Shildon where the author tore in another vital piece of railway infrastructure.

“Shildon station is a disgrace to Durham, to the Stockton and Darlington, and to the railway system,” it said. “The booking office is a shanty perched on the top of a high bank entirely disconnected from the low-lying, draughty sheds, which are supposed to shelter the passengers who have the ill luck to alight on its platforms.

“Perhaps this wretched apology for a station is continued in existence as a memento of the past.”

So much for talking up the local area!

However, the Echo did have a few warm words for John Glass, president of the Railway Institute, and then, as an afterthought, it concluded by saying: “The people of Shildon are much better than the place they live in.

“They are an honest, pleasant, canny folk, with a character of their own. They all believe ‘there’s nae place like Shildon’.”

George Turner Smith’s book proves there really is nae place like Shildon, although far more positively than the dear old Northern Echo of 1875.

A Railway History of New Shildon: From George Stephenson to the Present Day by George Turner Smith (Pen and Sword, £25)