On Friday night, a fine-looking Baptist chapel reopened after modernisation. Memories goes in search of its foundations.

THE Northern Echo of Thursday, June 9, 1870, told of just another day in the lives of people of the North-East. It didn’t sound special. It didn’t feel like history in the making.

“The croquet tournament at York was continued yesterday,” said one story.

“There was a gay and aristocratic attendance.”

Said another: “There was a large supply of herrings in North and South Shields yesterday, and prices ranged from 2s to 3s per hundred.”

There was some hard news, too.

A train had crashed near Blackburn. More than 700 passengers, mainly children from a congregational chapel, were aboard when a wheel came off.

“The rest of the carriages rocked in a fearful manner, and a cloud of splinters rose up from the shattered woodwork,” described the editor. “Several carriages were dragged off the rails and, upon the breaking of the coupling chains, they rolled over an embankment with their shrieking freight.”

There was some gory news, as well.

Robert Simpson, a father of two, got out of the wrong side of a carriage at Darlington Bank Top station into the path of a passing goods train.

(If you are of a nervous disposition, please look away now.) “The body was fearfully mangled, the arms being nearly taken off,” said the paper. “The wheels had passed over the chest.”

Also in Darlington, there had been a fearful dust-up between John Macdonald and his landlord, John Morden. “It appeared that the defendant and his wife occupied a bed in the same room as the complainant and his wife, and a quarrel arose in which the defendant brutally attacked the Mordens with a heavy stick, inflicting severe injuries on the head.”

Old newspapers provide a fascinating snapshot of the way life was lived. Imagine being a landlord who was so strapped for cash that he accommodated a complete stranger and his wife in his own matrimonial bedroom.

Imagine being as poor as the lodger...

But life wasn’t all grim.

“Yesterday some amusement was created at the Darlington Borough Police Court by a man having been brought up for exhibiting a bear in one of the public throroughfares,”

said a paragraph. “The bear was only separated from the man, it was stated, with difficulty. The prisoner feigned to be ignorant of the English language. He was dismissed, being told to leave the town.”

In the Darlington Centre for Local Studies’ picture collection are two undated photos of a man in Bondgate with a dancing bear.

What did the police do with the dancing bear while the dancing bear’s owner was held in a cell?

Was the bear allowed to swan around in the station waiting room, or was it cautioned, cuffed and slammed in a lock-up?

Old adverts are also worth looking at. Edward Cooper, “Champion Bill Poster”, no less, of Middlesbrough, was advertising his services. H Wilson and Co’s Chimney Tops, it was claimed, “have never failed to cure the most inveterate smoky chimney”.

Best of all is the “painless dentistry” advertised by Monsieur van Gelderen who was based in Middlesbrough, but travelled weekly to most towns for a three hour drilling session in a local pub.

“Mons van G. begs to intimate that people of known respectability can have his Artificial Teeth supplied one month on trial, and if not satisfactory, they can be returned without cost or charge,” he said. He didn’t say what he did with any teeth that were returned, and there don’t seem to be any small ads for secondhand dentures only slightly chewed.

The first advert on the front page is for the day’s ceremonies and services surrounding the formal laying of the foundation stone of a new Baptist church in Grange Road, Darlington – the reopening of which, after a 21st Century makeover, Echo Memories had the privilege to take part in on Friday evening.

And this is where that ordinary day’s newspaper finds its niche in history.The items placed in the foundation stone included a copy of The Northern Echo and “also a new shilling, of the date 1870, got expressly for the purpose from the Mint”.

The Echo records that “the day being fine, a large company assembled” to watch John Beaumont Pease use a suitably inscribed silver trowel to lay the stone and hear the history of Baptism in Darlington.

The first Baptist chapel opened on August 12, 1847, in Archer Street, with room to seat 300. Those early years had been trying, with a succession of ministers and a couple of spectacular schisms.

But they had persevered and, by 1870, were raising £4,000 for the new chapel to hold 600 worshippers.

“The chapel will be a handsome structure, built of Forcett stone,” said the Echo.

“It will be in the Italian style. The architect is Mr W Peachey, of Darlington.”

Mr William Peachey. A distinguished architect who designed two – three if you count the chapel – of Tees Valley’s finest buildings.

He was born in Cheltenham in 1826 into a Baptist family and was married in the Baptist chapel there in 1849. In 1852, Cheltenham’s Baptist minister, John Lewis, was despatched to Archer Street, Darlington, and less than two years later, young Peachey followed him. He was a carpenter with grand designs. In Darlington, he set up as an architect.

He certainly had an eye for detail and for the times, and his designs pleased many eyes. When Grange Road opened on June 8, 1871, the Echo enthused: “The handsome new chapel is much more imposing in appearance than the majority of Nonconformist places of worship, and is another indication of the growing feeling in favour of the introduction of high art and superior skill into buildings which formerly were intentionally divested of everything that could appeal to the outward senses.”

Mr Peachey was at his peak – the North Eastern Railway made him its principal architect, and his railway works still stand, from Redcar to Barnard Castle, from Beamish Museum to Guisborough.

But his career careered off track in January 1877 when, shrouded in scandal, he was required to resign overnight.

No regard was given to his period of notice. There was no payment in lieu. His team of draughtsmen and clerks were told to “leave forthwith”.

Next week, we’ll look at his grandest buildings and the great scandal.

This week, we’ll simply marvel in his “high art and superior skill”, which created such a splendid chapel that still, 138 years after its foundation stone was laid, does such a valuable job in Darlington.

Was Wackford Squeers really so terrible?

LET’S try, as promised a fortnight ago, to defend the indefensible.

William Shaw, aka Wackford Squeers, was the brutal headmaster at Dotheboys Hall, in Bowes, immortalised by Charles Dickens in his novel Nicholas Nickleby.

“Boy farms” were a lucrative business in Teesdale from 1750 until Dickens’ exposé forced them to cease educating and flogging in 1840.

As well as being dumping grounds for inconvenient and unwanted boys, the “Yorkshire schools”

served civil servants who ran the British Empire. Much was made of the cruel boast in Shaw’s adverts that there were no holidays from his academy – but civil servants on longterm overseas contracts wouldn’t have been able to manage if their children had had holidays.

These were very different times – part of a boarding school’s job was to toughen up a young man to prepare him for the privations of life as a colonialist.

Dickens took much information from an 1823 court case in which Shaw was fined a hefty £600 for neglecting two of his pupils so badly that they went blind.

The descriptions of maggot-infested food, flea-ridden beds and only two towels for the whole school – the blinded boys shared towels and infection – sound dreadful for Shaw. Yet the court also heard that after local doctors had been unable to treat the contagion, Shaw “employed the most eminent oculist in the metropolis, Sir W Adams, and gave him 300 guineas to leave London and go to Bowes”.

Adams gave evidence on Shaw’s behalf. If the headmaster had been as cruel as Dickens suggested, would he have wasted so much on one of the country’s leading doctors?

Indeed, an acclaimed Victorian actor, HF Lloyd, was an old boy of Shaw’s. In his memoirs, he says Shaw was “a most worthy and kindhearted, if somewhat peculiar, gentleman”

who would sit with ill boys for hours on end, playing the flute.

“And this was the man whom Dickens transformed into the illiterate, tyrannical, brutal pedagogue Squeers!” says Lloyd with indignation.

In the 24 years to 1840 that Shaw ran his academy, 12 boys died.

At any one time, he had about 300 pupils. In Bowes churchyard, there are 75 burials of Teesdale pupils in 100 years. At any one time, there were 800 boys being farmed in the district.

Academics have worked out that this high juvenile death rate was normal for the time.

Boys did not die in Bowes any more frequently than anywhere else.

Shaw paid for two of his late pupils to have headstones erected over their last resting places.

One of those headstones belongs to 19-year-old George Ashton Taylor, who died in 1823.

Standing in front of it, Dickens conceived the character Smike, who was most terribly abused by Squeers.

But would Shaw really have wasted his money on a headstone for a boy he despised?

Dickens stayed for three nights in Teesdale researching his book while dining sumptuously.

He visited Bowes for a handful of hours – several of which he spent refreshing himself in the Unicorn hotel.

Was the great novelist chasing hard facts or just soft colour?

Shaw’s business was destroyed by Dickens but locally, Shaw’s reputation seems not to have been diminished.

He died in 1850 and was buried as close to the church as any other fine, upstanding, community figure.

■ By coincidence, Charles Dickens died on Thursday, June 9, 1870 – the day the foundation stone was laid at William Peachey’s Baptist chapel in Darlington.