THE Earl of Darlington lived for fox-hunting. He loved fox-hunting so much that he had two packs of hounds at Raby Castle – one of big dogs, the other of small dogs – which he hunted on alternate days.

But then his earl discovered to his horror and outrage that the Darlington Quakers were planning to run their new-fangled Stockton & Darlington Railway across his land and through one of his fox coverts – an artificial earth that more or less guaranteed that there was always a fox to chase whenever his lordship fancied a hunt.

The Northern Echo: Lord Darlington of Raby CastleLord Darlington of Raby Castle

One of the earliest plans for the line went west from Darlington through Raby territory at Summerhouse, Ingleton and Hilton before heading to the edge of the Durham coalfield at West Auckland – but the Quakers, led by Edward Pease, needed Parliamentary permission before they could build their line.

On February 12, 1819, the earl wrote to the railway committee telling them that their plans were “harsh and oppressive and injurious to the interests of the country through which it is untended that the railway should pass”.

He wanted his foxes to hole up unhindered in their covert – if a nasty, noisy steam train came clattering across the land, the foxes would run away before his hounds got the chance to chase them.

The Northern Echo: Lord Darlington hunting in 1820 at Raby Castle. Picture courtesy of Michael Rudd.Lord Darlington hunting in 1820 at Raby Castle. Picture courtesy of Michael Rudd.

So his lordship began whipping up opposition to the plan in Parliament. His protestations hit home with many other landowners: if these uncouth industrial types could build their machinery across my fox-hunting estate, then every piece of countryside is under threat. Having sowed the seeds of the Quakers’ defeat, he returned to his hunting lodge, Newton House at Londonderry near Catterick, for a little relaxation chasing a few foxes.

But the pioneers were also in London. Led by Sir William Chaytor, of Witton Castle, and solicitor Francis Mewburn, of Darlington, they visited every MP in pairs and pressed the case in favour of the railway.

They did so well that on March 12, 1819, Lord Darlington’s agent sent him a letter marked “immediate” telling him he was staring defeat in the face. When the letter arrived at Newton House, his lordship was, as may be guessed, out hunting – he was following “a beautiful scent”.

His servant chased after him as he chased, caught him and handed him the letter.

His lordship exploded in a flurry of expletives aimed at the Quakers, dashed back to the lodge (which is now beneath RAF Leeming), wolfed down his evening meal, and careered down to London overnight to re-commence his lobbying.

It worked. When the Stockton & Darlington Railway came before the Commons it was defeated by 106 votes to 93 – a slim majority of 13. And as Theresa May knows to her cost, a slim majority can evaporate in instant and leave you humiliated and defeated.

His lordship’s friends warned him that the Quakers were continuing their campaign to win over the voters. They were calling in a new surveyor to change the course of the line so it didn’t run so close to Raby Castle in the hope of winning more support.

So Lord Darlington changed tack. He determined that if he couldn’t derail the railway by Parliamentary means, he would halt it with monetary measures.

In those days, you were able to take a banknote into a bank and demand pounds of gold in return – the banknote in your pocket still quotes the Governor of the Bank of England saying: “I promise to pay the bearer on demand…”

His lordship hatched a dastardly plan. The bank that was bankrolling the Stockton & Darlington Railway was the Backhouses’.

Its head office was on Darlington’s High Row, where Barclays is today. He ordered all of his tenants in Teesdale to secretly collect Backhouses’ banknotes and then one day, unannounced, he would arrive at the bank and demand that the notes be immediately converted into gold, knowing full well that there would not be enough bullion in the Darlington vaults. The bank would shut, triggering a run resulting in such a calamitous loss of confidence that Backhouses would become bankrupt, thus crashing the railway project and leaving his foxes relaxing in his coverts until he wanted to chase them…

The Northern Echo: Jonathan Backhouse Junior (1779 - 1842), the hero of the hourJonathan Backhouse Junior (1779 - 1842), the hero of the hour

In late June 1819, the header banker, Jonathan Backhouse, of Polam Hall in Darlington, got wind of the plan and dashed down the Great North Road in his carriage pulled by four horses. He went round the friendly Quaker banks, borrowing as much bullion and possible and loading in his carriage, and then he dashed back up the Great North Road.

But having driven day and night, having been away from home for 96 hours, when he reached Croft bridge – just three miles from Darlington – one of the four wheels came crashing off his wagon, and he ground to an agonising halt, unable to move his heavy carriage.

The Northern Echo: Croft Bridge, where the drama took place, in the 1960sCroft Bridge, where the drama took place, in the 1960s

And the earl’s agent was in Darlington, with months and months of banknotes in his bag, on his way to “break Backhouses”.

Jonathan, who gave up banking ten years later and became a Quaker missionary in the US, was a resourceful fellow. He took all the bullion off the broken front axle and piled onto the good rear wheels, causing the broken axle to lift up off the ground.

And so, pulling a wheelie, he dashed the remaining miles into High Row – apparently welcomed into town by cheering people.

Breathless, he was at his counter when the earl’s agent arrived, and he calmly cashed all of the notes.

The Northern Echo: How Jonathan Backhouse balanced the cash on Croft Bridge - that's the tollkeeper's cottage on the left, and the broken wheel is lying on the ground at the bottom right. It was painted by Darlington artist Samuel Tuke Richardson in 1874 to mark the 100th anniversary of the bank's founding. Picture courtesy of Barclays Archives.How Jonathan Backhouse balanced the cash on Croft Bridge - that's the tollkeeper's cottage on the left, and the broken wheel is lying on the ground at the bottom right. It was painted by Darlington artist Samuel Tuke Richardson in 1874 to mark the 100th anniversary of the bank's founding. Picture courtesy of Barclays Archives.

He even had a pile of gold leftover, and as the agent departed, he politely added: “Now, tell thy master that if he will sell Raby, I will pay for it in the same metal.”

And so the dastardly lord was thwarted. The railway was kept on track, and the foxes were given notice to move out of the Raby coverts because the noise of the future was heading their way.

There is more than a smidgeon of truth to this story. For example, there is a wonderful painting of the incident, created 60 years later by Backhouses employee and renowned Darlington artist, Samuel Tuke Richardson. The painting hung for decades in the Darlington branch and, since Backhouses merged with other Quaker banks in 1899 to form Barclays, it is now in Barclays’ archives.

Also in Barclays’ archives are Backhouses’ books from 200 years ago. The entries are written in the simple Quaker style which calls months by their numbers rather than their names (which are usually derived from ancient, false gods):

“1819, 6th month, 25th. To bank and cash to London £32,000”

According to the Bank of England’s Inflation Calculator, in today’s values, Jonathan had about £2.75m of gold in his carriage as he dashed up the Great North Road, dodging the highwaymen of the day.

The next entry in the bank’s loss account reads:

“1819, 7th month, 31st. Wheel demolished. £2 3s 0d.”

So for a couple of quid, the fox-hunting Lord Darlington was foiled, and the Stockton & Darlington Railway was saved.

And the worst pun in local history was born. Because, on Croft bridge, the way the gold was moved off the broken front axle onto the good rear one causing the broken axle to be lifted off the ground is known as how Jonathan Backhouse balanced the cash!


From 1792 to 1827, William Harry Vane was known as the 3rd Earl of Darlington. In 1827, he became the Marquess of Cleveland, and in 1833, having successfully acted as the Bearer of The Third Sword at William IV’s coronation on September 8, 1831, he became Baron Raby of Raby Castle and the 1st Duke of Cleveland.

Banker Jonathan Backhouse also prospered. Primarily because of the bank’s involvement in the railway, its share price rose from £80 in 1823 to £315 in 1832 – which is presumably why Jonathan could afford to buy Polam Hall in 1824 and spend a fortune sprucing it up and developing the gardens. In 1830, with his wife, Hannah, he left his children, aged between six and 16, at Polam and went for 18 months as travelling missionaries in the US.