AT the end of the First World War, Joseph Jackson Middleton and his wife, Mary, began forging a new life in peacetime by taking on a corner shop in the terraces that used to be where the police and fire stations are today in Darlington.

Their shop, which featured in a photographic exhibition held recently in the town’s library, was on the corner of Park Place and Swan Street.

The shop therefore has a part in one of the saddest, and strangest, stories in the 175-year history of the nearby South Park.

The Northern Echo:

Mr Middleton, who also worked as a chimneysweep, is believed to have served in the war, and was never the same afterwards, complaining of headaches.

On October 25, 1934, he left Mary and their four children at their home in the shop, and disappeared.

A month later, “a Darlington woman who claims spiritualistic powers” approached the family, and said “she had received a message from him that his body was lodged against a pillar of a bridge by South Park”.

The Echo’s sister paper, the Northern Despatch, said the spiritualistic woman had successfully found other drowned people via messages from beyond the grave.

So the council and the police immediately investigated around the Parkside bridge over the River Skerne, and they dragged the large boating lake that used to be opposite Blackwell Grange.

The Northern Echo:

Nothing was found.

A week later, at the beginning of December, Mr R Brotton, a water diviner from Richmond, arrived in the park.

“He affirmed that the body was not in the river or the boating lake,” reported The Northern Echo, “but the twig he used indicated that it was somewhere in the direction of the ornamental lake.”

Mr Brotton said that dragging the lake would not be successful because the body was in the mud at the bottom.

So, because of evidence from a twitchy twig, the lake was drained.

The lake had been dug in 1880, and this was probably the first time it had ever been drained – the Victorians had constructed a metal sluice gate so that the water could run out into the Skerne. The only other times the lake has been drained were 1950 and 2005.

“The ornamental lake in South Park was drained yesterday, “ reported the Echo on November 4, 1934. “There was no sign of a body among the weeds and slime.”

The Northern Echo:

The lake was refilled. A week later, following heavy rainfall, a body was discovered tangled in overhanging branches at Bowe Hole, on the River Tees at Newsham, near Yarm. A fishing licence in a pocket showed it to be that of Mr Middleton.

At the inquest the following day, Mr Middleton’s brother-in-law said: “I only know that ever since the end of the war he has been a different man physically and during the latter end he had been mentally depressed and had severe pain in the head.”

The coroner returned a verdict of “found drowned”

Of course, the discovery of the body in the Tees does mean that the woman “who claims spiritualistic powers” could have been correct when she saw it lodged against a bridge on the Skerne as the Skerne flows into the Tees at Hurworth Place.

The man with the twig, though, was probably barking up the wrong tree.

After Mr Middleton’s death, the corner shop in Swan Street was run by his wife, Mary, and one of their daughters, Eveline. Like many such shops, it made its own soft drinks, notably sarsaparilla.

Sarsaparilla was a kind of root beer, popular with cowboys who believed it had healthy side effects: it cured joint problems, skin conditions and syphilis (useful for cowboys), and it purified the blood. It was popular among the temperance community as an alternative alcoholic beer.

It would arrive in the corner shop in a dry powered form – a mixture of boiled South American roots and bark coupled with herbs and spices. The shopkeeper would add sugar, yeast and water, and get a tasty soft drink.

Middleton’s shop lasted until the whole area was compulsorily purchased in the early 1960s ahead of clearance for the construction of the inner ring road.

l We are grateful to Eveline and Gordon Middleton and to Michael Franks for their help.