On the trail of a carpet weaver and bigamist – an otherwise upright figure who founded the Conservative Party in south Durham.

NICHOLAS BRAGG was a perennial pimple on the Peases’ backside. He was a radical, a campaigner, a criminal, and an irritant who made an extraordinary political journey: he started as a street insurrectionist and ended up as “the founder of modern Conservatism” in south Durham.

The bones of his story appeared on the Echo Memories blog in January.

On there, Google revealed them to a lady in Middlesex who was searching for details of her family tree and she realised that Nicholas was probably in a bigamous marriage with her greatgreat- grandmother.

And so the flesh grows back on the bones of the man buried beneath two large yew trees in Darlington’s West Cemetery.

Nicholas Bragg was born in 1813 in Barnard Castle.

His father, Sergeant Bragg, was among the Scots Greys who fought at Waterloo.

As his hometown was the carpet capital of the north, Nicholas became a carpetweaver.

In 1827, Barney had five carpet factories whereas Darlington – a much bigger town – had only two.

Something, though, drew Nicholas to Darlington and he found work in Francis Kipling and Son’s carpet factory on the banks of the Skerne, in Northgate.

Something had also drawn Elizabeth Alton to Darlington. She is the greatgreat- grandmother of Andrea McPhillips, in Middlesex, and she was born in the North Yorkshire village of Ainderby Steeple in 1809.

By 1827, she was in the textile town of Bradford, where she married Christopher Boynton. The last of their three children, Alton John Boynton, was born in the textile town of Darlington in 1833.

Then Elizabeth fell under the spell of the carpetweaver Bragg. They appear to have eloped to Bloomsbury, in London, where they married on September 9, 1835.

In the church records, Elizabeth is listed as a spinster, but as her first husband and her two eldest sons had mysteriously vanished within a few months, she had either suffered great grief or was trying to put as much distance between her first and second husbands as possible.

Nicholas and Elizabeth arrived back in Darlington in the late 1830s, and he became the manager of the Chartist Store Shop, which was run “on a sort of co-operative principle in Priestgate” in a town that was a hotbed of Chartist agitation.

Chartism was a political reform movement. It had a six-point charter which, with real echoes of the 2010 General Election campaign, demanded a cleaner politics:

● A vote for every man of sound mind 21-years-old;
● A secret ballot;
● MPs should no longer have to own property to be elected, allowing working-class men to stand;
● MPs should be paid, so ordinary people could afford to be MPs;
● Equal constituencies, so every vote counted the same;
● Annual parliaments, because even the richest toff could not afford to bribe every voter every year.

The first five points were law by 1918, but in 1839 they were revolutionary.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of Chartists protested in Darlington using the “most improper and inflammable language” and reading newspapers of the most “turbulent and dangerous tendency”.

The Government expected a riot at any moment and moved a company of infantrymen into Northgate to quell it. Special constables in divisions of 12 patrolled the streets every three hours, cracking down on the Chartist leaders.

In May 1840, Nicholas was one of four leading Chartists to be sentenced to three months in prison for causing a public nuisance and an obstruction in the Market Place, and he played a rabble-rousing role in the General Election of 1841.

Yet, Nicholas was respected as a “moral force”.

As his working class movement fizzled out, he found himself on a committee with Henry Pease, the owner of the textile mills, and the Peases’ solicitor, Francis Mewburn, looking at the local unemployment problem.

This may have been the establishment’s attempt to bring him on board, but Nicholas was incorruptible.

He despised the way the Peases and their lackeys controlled the town and set about singeing their beards whenever the opportunity, however trivial, arose.

In 1856, he formed the Darlington Ratepayers Association, and in 1864, he noticed that Joseph Pease – the dominant force in the district – had committed an administrative misdemeanour during the Local Board of Health election.

The oversight had no effect on the result yet it rendered the whole proceedings illegal. Mr Bragg’s annoyance was no doubt magnified by the fact that he had come eighth in the poll and had failed to be elected, whereas all six of Mr Pease’s men had been returned.

The poll was topped by Alfred Backhouse of Pilmore Hall, Hurworth (now the Rockliffe Hall hotel and spa), whom Mr Bragg labelled “the illegal member”. He pursued him vigorously through the London courts for a couple of years, the case rolling inconclusively from court to court like a Dickensian sub-plot.

Mr Bragg moved his radical bookshop into High Row, on the corner of Post House Wynd where Northern Rock is today. He augmented it with a grocers shop, and lived above with Elizabeth, her son, Alton, and their son, Nicholas.

His campaigning for democracy forced the creation of the first proper council in Darlington, in 1867, and gained the town its own MP in 1868.

But his victories were Pyrrhic. Although his enemies in the Pease and Backhouse old guard stood down, they merely passed their Liberal Quaker baton to their next generation.

Everything changed, but everything stayed the same.

Perhaps in desperation, Nicholas became a “Conservative plumper”, drumming up support for the only party that could break the Pease party’s domination.

In 1868 he formed the Darlington Working Men’s Conservative Association – the first formal political party in the town.

He died in 1873. “He had been seated at tea, and rose to go nearer the fire, and then dropped instantly dead,” said the Echo.

The Echo’s obituary continued: “His firmness made him many enemies, but those who knew him best acknowledge his singleminded devotion to what he believed to be the best interests of Darlington.

“He was a bold, outspoken, generous-hearted man – a notability and a marked character in Darlington, and one of its most worthy men.”

The most glowing tribute, though, was paid in 1885 by William Wooler, a stalwart Conservative. Reviewing the party’s history, Wooler said: “At one time, this locality and district were wholly dominated by a self-seeking insatiable, power-loving band. The only person who made any efforts to stem their grasping action was that Chartist, the late Mr Nicholas Bragg, who was too truthful to his tolerant principles to abide in the then false abode of Liberalism and who under the conviction, arrived at by experience, came to the determination that the Conservative Party were the real friends of the working classes.”

From Chartist carpetweaver to Conservative is a long political journey even in an age when Liberal Democrats can end up in a Tory government.

■ With thanks to Andrea McPhillips, and Katherine Williamson in Darlington Centre for Local Studies.

DES GRAVES, from Escomb, was particularly taken by the 1933 pictures of his home village that appeared in this column at the beginning of April.

One showed the Primitive Methodist Chapel.

Methodist meetings were originally held in an orchard in Escomb at the back of the Old Hall with the preacher standing on the stone steps leading to a barn.

The first chapel was built in 1838, the second in 1860, but the Primitive chapel – Methodists enjoyed a good schism, splitting into Wesleyan, Primitive and New Connexion and probably more – was later still.

“It was taken over by the Salvation Army sometime after the First World War,” says Mr Graves. “During the 1926 strike it had a great following, having farthing breakfasts and at night pies and peas.

“After the Second World War it was closed. A farmer from Hamsterly bought it, demolished it and used the bricks and timbers to build a cow byre.”

TALKING of Primitive Methodists, Jillian Gibson Stephenson of the Friends of County Durham Record Office has just come into possession of a magnificent picture (Picture Three). It was among a collection of other County Durham pictures, and the partially obscured poster on the left is advertising a meeting of the Darlington and Stockton Synod.

Although the rest of the picture is brilliantly sharp, the board that is being held by the kerbside is frustratingly faded.

Its middle line says in capitals “Centenary” and then beneath that it again says “Darlington and Stockton”, but the other lines are impossible to make out.

So where in the Darlington and Stockton area was the picture taken?

The Primitives were founded in Staffordshire in 1811 – suggesting this centenary photograph was taken in 1911. They wanted to capture more of John Wesley’s original evangelical spirit, and they became perhaps the most working class of all the branches of Methodism.

The picture holds a couple of tantalising clues. There’s an obscured advert for an upholsterer, but much easier to make out is the name of “Marshall WS France, builder and contractor, joiner and undertaker”.

Curiously, the chapel has two enamel plaques screwed to it saying: “The Waverley pen is a treasure”.

Can you identify its location?