MAY 7, 1585, should be a date burned into Darlington’s consciousness: it was the day that the Great Fire destroyed up to three-quarters of the town.

It is a date that is currently decorated on Darlington’s pavements: the story of the Great Fire is one of the pieces of guerrilla art that were this week stencilled and chalked onto the streets as part of the NowThenDarlo project by artist Paul Murray. Exactly 273 colourful houses are on the painted on the pavings and the walls of the High Row yards to represent the 273 timber and straw homes that were lost to the flames as two-thirds of the town’s population was made homeless.

According to a pamphlet entitled “Lamentable Newes from the Towne of Darnton”, the fire took hold swiftly between the hours of midnight and 1am.

It was "a most fierce and terrible fire as (if) it had been wildfire, which burned most faire houses in the Towne. It took good holde of pitch, tar, rossen, flax, gunpowder and such like commodities, and ceased not until it had burned 273 houses".

The Northern Echo:

The "boisterous" wind seems to have been coming from the east, and so it blew the flames away from St Cuthbert’s Church, the Bishop of Durham’s Palace (which beside the church where the education department offices are today) and the Deanery (which was on the corner of the Market Place and Feethams).

These, of course, were built of stone.

The only other building that is said to have survived the fire is the wall in Church Lane – the narrow path which runs between Tubwell Row and the Market Place.

This could suggest that the seat of the fire was Bakehouse Hill, where the town’s communal ovens were always cooking, and the flames were then blown away from the sturdy religious buildings and along High Row and Skinnergate where the wooden buildings were packed tightly together.

The heat from one burning home was so intense that it set its neighbour ablaze. It is probable that townspeople began pulling down some homes in an effort to create firebreaks – a policy of sacrificing a home in a bid to save other homes that wouldn’t have been popular with the poor person who had their hovel pulled down.

These were the days before fire brigades, and so the people tried pouring water on the flames.

Unfortunately, it was a time of drought. The Skerne was running low and the wells were dry.

People became so desperate that they started flinging milk and even beer and ale onto the flames.

All to no avail.

The Northern Echo:

Ralph Eure was the borough bailiff – the town’s first citizen – and the Eures were probably Darlington’s leading family, living in the finest private home, nearly 200 years old, on the Head Row. It was one of the most notable victims of the flames.

Merchant Francis Oswell lost stock worth £1,000 in the blaze, and the total cost of the damage was estimated at £20,000.

Perhaps the most telling statistic is that 800 of the town’s population of 1,200 were made homeless. Farmers in the villages around took pity on them and allowed them temporary accommodation in their barns, but when harvest-time came around, they kicked the people out so that the grain could be safely gathered in.

The town centre properties were gradually rebuilt on the medieval lay-out of the main street with yards running off it, but it took several generations – perhaps 50 years – for the town’s economy to fully recover.

There is, though, a bit of a whiff about the Great Fire of Darlington. Despite it being a calamitous event, there are very few mentions of it in local records, whereas there are many great details of it in national publications such as “Lamentable Newes from the Towne of Darnton”. It’s almost as if someone was trying to exaggerate the extent of the blaze, perhaps to gain sympathy from outsiders and encourage them to donate to the relief fund.

The Northern Echo:

However, it is also true that, a part from St Cuthbert’s Church and a stretch of old wall in Church Lane, pictured above, there is nothing in the centre of Darlington which pre-dates 1585. It is as if the whole town was once razed to the ground, and the chalkmarks on the pavement are commemorating that event for the next couple of weeks.