THIS month’s exhibition in the Darlington Centre for Local Studies in Crown Street library concerns “Stivvies” – Robert Stephenson Hawthorn and Company.

The company was started by Robert, and his father George, in 1823 to build the locomotives for the Stockton and Darlington Railway in Forth Street, Newcastle. It moved lock, stock and barrel to the Springfield area of Darlington in 1902, and built engines largely for export.

In 1937, Stivvies merged with another Newcastle steam loco manufacturer, R and W Hawthorn, and together they peaked in the 1950s in employing nearly 2,000 men.

Stivvies came to the end of the line in April 1964, and now its story is being recalled in the library. JOSEPH SHEPHERD is the “miners’ champion” in the title of a new book by Sheila Crossman of Guisborough. Joseph was the first secretary of the Cleveland Miners’ Association who tried to organise the ironstone workers to get a fairer deal from their bosses, including Sir Joseph Whitwell Pease of Darlington.

The 1870s were fractious times, of strikes and lock-outs, of blacklegs and boycotts, with the men not knowing how to unite and often distrusting their own leaders as much as the mineowners. Into this volatile atmosphere came Shepherd, a man with a violent temper, a fondness for drink and a desire to be in the papers.

Yet he found the press – including The Northern Echo – to be a doubleedged sword, editors often tiring of his extreme ways and turning against him.

For example, the Guisborough Exchange in 1872 did in-depth analysis of the rudimentary union accounts that Shepherd was responsible for, and questioned how he had claimed £5 2s expenses for a visit to Castleton on the North York Moors.

“Good gracious,” said the paper.

“Who went to Castleton? And in what manner did they go? Did they make a circuit round by York for the pleasure of the thing, or did they travel as Eastern princes do, in palanquin or sedan chairs, or was there a special pneumatic tube laid down from the Secretary’s office in Brotton across the Moors, or did they go up in a balloon?” It is a shame that this journalist wasn’t around in the 21st Century when an MP was caught trying to claim for a duckhouse.

Shepherd was a clever man who could construct a decent case to take to arbitration or to court on behalf of his members, and he had a loyal following – but he fell out with nearly everybody.

In one letter to the press, he called a Cleveland mineowner “a vampire, bloodsucker and infernal scoundrel”, which cannot have eased negotiations, and Sheila Crossman’s vivid book ends in 1874 with Shepherd drunkenly falling out with one of his union adversaries in a Brotton pub. According to a local newspaper, the pair “lately fell out over their beer in a public house. Mr Shepherd hit his adversary a crack on the head and was hauled before the magistrates”.

The Northern Echo:
Inside Stivvies, in Darlington, in the late 1920s. Pictures courtesy of Darlington Centre for Local Studies

The second part of The Miners’ Champion is due out soon, and it will tell how Shepherd regained the trust of his union only to lose it in 1876 when, due to drunkeness, he left some important court documents on a train. His time in office ended with newspapers reporting that he had been incarcerated in a Lincolnshire lunatic asylum, but the editors may just have made this up to try and get rid of him.

It really is a rivetting read, with loads of detail so you can feel the shifting ground of the times, and part two is eagerly awaited.

The Miners’ Champion is available for £10 from Guisborough Bookshop, Kirkleatham Museum, Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum and Whitby Bookshop or, with £2 added for post and packing, from the author at 48 Deepdale, Guisborough TS14 8JY.