FOR nearly 140 years a building in Darlington town centre has concealed a fascinating, and historic, secret.

It was constructed in 1884 at the foot of Tubwell Row for William Dodds’ expanding picture framing business, and although it looks like a proper building, it is actually just leaning against its neighbour, which was once the end house of the street.

That end house once had a giant billboard on its gable end, advertising everything from milk to millinery to the people flocking over the Stone Bridge into the market.

The Northern Echo: The former picture framers on the corner of Tubwell Row and Crown Street

The Northern Echo:

Mr Dodds’ builders simply leaned their timberwork against the billboard and created the new picture framers’ shop. The ground floor was a shop but the first floor was a large workshop where up to 17 framers worked, and the walls on these two levels were plastered. Therefore, the posters were lost.

But up in the attic, among the beams of the roof, the posters survive, perhaps unlooked at since 1884.

Over time, they’ve torn and peeled. The glue has loosened, a little rain has run down, spiders have spun webs and the thick dust of the decades has settled upon them.

But you can still see that one advertised milk in vast letters.

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Another was for the sort of draper that no longer graces our high streets. In gold letters on a regal red background, it advertises “silks, dresses, costumes, mantles, millinery, drapery, lace, gloves, hosiery, outfitting”.

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Then there’s the remains of an advert for Kerr & Company’s cotton for sewing. Kerr & Co was based in Paisley, Glasgow, and peering down from the brickwork is a grinning face – perhaps racially insensitive today – which suggests that the cotton had been made on a plantation.

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And finally, there’s a poster for Rudge’s Cycles of Coventry, featuring a splendid fellow cycling contently away in his brown suit with a Sherlock Holmes-style deerstalker hat on his head.

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Daniel Rudge started building velocipedes in Wolverhampton in the early 1870s. He cleverly got a French cyclist drunk and examined his bicycle while he was indisposed and discovered that it used ball bearings. He copied this design and Rudge’s bikes quickly gained a reputation for being the fastest made in England.

Daniel died in 1880 and his widow sold the business to the Tangent & Coventry Tricycle Company, but such was Rudge’s reputation that the company was renamed Rudge of Coventry. It only lasted until 1894, and so this is another clue that our billboard really does date from the early 1880s.

The Northern Echo: A usually immaculately turned out Chris Lloyd dressed down for his report from the dirty attic 

THIS area of Darlington has changed immeasurably since the Peases had their woollen mill where the Sports Direct multi-storey car park is today.

Crown Street didn’t exist until the 1880s. Instead there was a large Mill Pot – a deep pond of water from the River Skerne – which drove the mill wheel and then provided water for the steam engines.

Facing onto the Mill Pot were two rows of humble cottages known as the Mill Bank, and beside was a ford by which, at low water, the Skerne could be crossed.

The Northern Echo: Crown Street in the 1930s from the top of St Cuthbert's ChurchCrown Street in the 1930s from the top of St Cuthbert's Church

On November 26, 1846, Henry Nesbit – known locally as Harry Boots – was carrying the mail in his horse and cart from Bank Top station to the Post Office in Northgate. The Skerne was in spate and so Harry, "whose sight was somewhat impaired", sensibly did not try the ford, but crossed by the bridge and turned into Mill Bank – and stumbled.

“The river was considerably swollen,” reported the Darlington historian, WHD Longstaffe in 1854, “and it would appear that the deceased must have attempted the narrow and dangerous passage called the Mill Bank, where there is no railing, and slipped off the bounding wall into the water."

The cart was found still attached to the horse going round and round in the Mill Pot a couple of hours later, but poor drowned Harry wasn’t dragged from the water until the following morning.

"He left a wife and son to bewail his hapless end, " said the Durham Advertiser.

On the plus side, the mailbags were found in “a tolerable condition” at Blackwell Mill, where Darlington rugby and football clubs have their pitches today.

Perhaps such incidents encouraged the Peases to fill in the Mill Pot in the 1860s which created a new piece of ground.

In 1866, the hovels of Mill Bank were demolished.

In 1909, Darlingtonian WJ Mountford recalled that at the Tubwell Row end of Mill Bank were some stables, which had once been used as a steam flour mill.

“The outside of the stables,” he said, “was once used as a bill posting station.”

It would seem to be that bill posting station which we have now discovered.

The Northern Echo: The ford across the River Skerne: Dodds' shop in Crown Street can be seen in the gap. Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local StudiesThe ford across the River Skerne: Dodds' shop in Crown Street can be seen in the gap. Picture courtesy of the Darlington Centre for Local Studies

THE stables would have been in the alley at the rear of Dodds’ shop. Indeed, in that alley, there is still an outbuilding which could once have been stables with a hayloft above. It was here that Timothy Donnelly was born to his Irish immigrant parents. We told his story last July – he is the only Darlington-born man that we know of to die in Custer’s Last Stand at the Battle of Little Bighorn on June 25, 1876.

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WILLIAM DODDS was a builder, joiner, undertaker, picture framer, working from his house in Kendrew Street, Darlington. In the mid-1850s, he split his business between his three sons: one became a joiner and framer, another a builder and the third a printer.

The framer did particularly well, and when Crown Street was opened out in 1884, he bought the piece of land which had once been Mill Bank from the Peases. His builder brother built him a shop against the billboard.

The shop was designed with 14ft high ceilings because the ornate mouldings, in gold, walnut and oak finishes, came from Cologne in 12ft lengths.

A steam or gas powered engine at the rear drove belts which ran around the first floor workshop, powering the machinery which cut and shaped the mouldings into picture frames.

In 1894, Dodds used 1000,000ft of mouldings and 100 cases of glass, each case containing about 300sq ft.

“One is much struck by the taste and skill displayed by Mr Dodds in harmonising the frame of the picture with its subject matter,” said an 1894 brochure.

At one time, 17 framers, including three full-time guilders, were at work there.

For four generations, Dodds picture framers were a Darlington institution, until Tony, the great-grandson of the founder, retired in 2013.

Thanks to Marcus Nimmo, who now owns the building, and to Tony Dodds. Hopefully more on this building in the future, but if you’ve got anything to add, please email