IN the early hours of January 1, 1870, while the first-footers and the last carollers from the “watch-night” church services were still on the streets, a secondhand press installed in a former shoe thread factory clattered into life in Darlington town centre.

Standing over it in Priestgate, like expectant fathers watching over the birth of their first child, were the proprietor of the business, John Hyslop Bell, the editor of the new newspaper, John Copleston, and the printer who had bought the press cheaply from Otley, John Boyd.

The Northern Echo: John Hyslop Bell, the founding proprietor of The Northern EchoJohn Hyslop Bell, the founding proprietor of The Northern Echo

Out of the cacophony of metal and machinery was born that happy morning the first edition of The Northern Echo.

It was billed as the “first halfpenny morning” newspaper – deliberately low priced so that it would appeal to the working man and promote “advanced Liberal” politics.

The front page was covered in adverts for a printer, a hat manufacturer, a tobacconist, an India rubber depot and a surgeon-dentist operating in Saltburn.

Inside there was news of a death in the snow at Spennymoor, an alleged watch theft at Langbaurgh, an assault on a commercial traveller in Middlesbrough, and details of the thaw which was causing the swollen rivers Skerne and Tees to break their banks.

The men must have looked at their new-born tabloid with pride – the printer, Mr Boyd, kept the very first copy under the cushion of his fireside cane chair in the ED Walker Homes in Coniscliffe Road until he died there aged 83 in the mid-1930s.

For proprietor Bell, the first edition marked the end of a successful project. He was probably the most experienced newspaperman in the North-East, having been proprietor of the Darlington & Richmond Herald and of the Hartlepool-based South Durham & Cleveland Mercury.

He had recruited the Mercury’s printer, Mr Boyd, and the Echo’s first editor, Mr Copleston, about whom we know very little, except that he soon fell out with Mr Bell and sailed to America to work on the New York Times.

Mr Bell, who later became the Cleveland coroner and held the inquests into the deaths of the 123 Hartlepudlians killed by the naval bombardment in December 1914, was the one who rented the former shoelace factory in Priestgate. He was an early advocate of telegraphy, and had soon connected the shoelace factory with a pneumatic system into the Northgate post office so telegrams from battlezone correspondents could bring the latest news from across Europe direct to the editor’s desk.

And so Mr Bell had successfully fulfilled the brief of his bosses, the great Quaker Liberal families of the North-East, who had just narrowly escaped political humiliation by a rival newspaper owner.

He was Henry King Spark, a maverick megalomaniac who was also a Liberal. He had fluked a fortune on a coal deal, bought himself a couple of collieries near Durham City and a mansion, Greenbank, in Darlington where he set up a rival political camp to the Pease family, who dominated the Tees Valley in Victorian times.

The Northern Echo: Henry King Spark, who used his Darlington & Stockton Times as his mouthpiece – until the Peases drowned him out by forming The Northern EchoHenry King Spark, who used his Darlington & Stockton Times as his mouthpiece – until the Peases drowned him out by forming The Northern Echo

Mr Spark had started as a printer on the weekly Darlington & Stockton Times, which he had bought and which he used to trumpet his great achievements and to advance his political ambitions.

The Peases and their acolytes dominated Darlington’s Board of Health, so Mr Spark and the D&S Times campaigned for it to be replaced by a town council, elected by one man one vote. The government agreed, and in the first election in 1867, Mr Spark stood his own candidates against “the Pease party”.

The Pease party won. Then the first council had to choose the town’s first mayor.

Mr Spark put himself forward, modestly campaigning under the slogan that he was about to become “king Henry the ninth”, but even his own councillors voted for Joseph Pease.

His ambition undimmed, Mr Spark and the D&S Times then campaigned for Darlington to become a Parliamentary seat in its own right. The Government agreed, and when the first election was held in November 1868, Mr Spark stood as the independent Liberal candidate against the official Liberal candidate chosen by the Peases – banker Edmund Backhouse.

With the D&S championing his cause, Mr Spark pushed the Peases close, and when he lost, he filled his columns with venom, accusing the Peases of the most outrageous corruption and coercion to ensure that their man was elected.

It seems no coincidence that just a few months after this brush with humiliation in their own back yard, the Peases had joined forces with the Liberal Rowntree family of chocolatiers from York to employ the most experienced newspaperman in the North-East – Mr Bell – to set up a Darlington, halfpenny morning newspaper, with mass working class appeal, which would blow Mr Spark’s weekly local rag out of the water.

And so on that early New Year’s morning 150 years ago, the first edition of The Northern Echo was brought to life on a secondhand press by a magical mix of man and machinery and paper and ink.

The Northern Echo: January 1, 1870, the first edition of The Northern EchoJanuary 1, 1870, the first edition of The Northern Echo

It took a decade for Mr Spark to be fully extinguished, by which time the Echo had established itself as much more than Darlington’s own morning newspaper – it had become the Durham miner’s bible which would stand the test of 150 years and more…