ON its 50th birthday on Wednesday, Cockerton library reopens after being locked down by the pandemic for five months.

To mark the occasion, there will be 1970s music, balloon modelling and a display of old photographs.

The Northern Echo:

Cockerton Green in 1971

Cockerton was Darlington’s first branch library when it opened on September 2, 1970, beneath its rather lovely stressed plywood circular ceiling.

"It is a wonderfully designed building," said David Dougan, director of the Northern Arts Association, as he performed the opening 50 years ago. "It is difficult to think how it could have been bettered. It is appealing and enticing."

But library work in the village goes back more than 150 years, and the branch library itself was built on the site of Cockerton’s grandest home – one that had more than its fair share of peculiarity and intrigue…


DARLINGTON and Cockerton seamlessly merge into one another today, but until 1915 Cockerton was a separate township. To enter it, a traveller crossed a humped back bridge over the Cocker Beck, and the first building on his left was Cockerton Hall – Strikes garden centre occupied much of its site in the 1970s and 1980s.

The Hall probably began in medieval times when it belonged to the Neville family of Raby Castle.

It was substantially enlarged in 1745 to become the village’s principal residence when it was bought by William Wrightson, “the squire of Cockerton”. He lived there for 61 years until his death in 1806 when his daughter, Nanny, inherited, and moved in with her husband, John Garth.

The Northern Echo:

A grand picture of Cockerton Hall in about 1866, when roads were wider

Garth, who was born in Witton-le-Wear, is south Durham’s greatest musician. He was the organist at St Edmund’s Church in Sedgefield, and during the 1750s, his fortnightly concerts in Durham and Darlington were the events to be seen at. The Duke of York was a big fan of his compositions, particularly his first sonata, which was a number one hit in the 1760s.

In later life, Garth became the Bishop of Durham’s private organist at Auckland Castle, and on July 20, 1794, he married Nanny Wrightson. He was 72 and she was 44.

Garth died in Cockerton Hall in 1810, aged 88, and is buried in St Cuthbert’s churchyard. When Nanny died 19 years later, she was buried alongside him, and a 6ft 7in stone slab was inscribed inside the north aisle of the church in their memory.

Nanny’s nephew, Richard Wrightson of Haughton-le-Skerne, inherited everything, and moved into the Hall, where he found his aunt had left him a hoard of banknotes and gold and silver coins. Delighted, he counted up more than £8,000 – that’s worth more than £880,000 in today’s values.

Richard’s imagination ran away with him: he feared a thief would break into the Hall and make off with the cash.

The Northern Echo:

Cockerton Hall, where a fortune was hoarded and a will was bitterly disputed. Two youths are on its roof, hastening its demolition

So he immediately loaded it into a large butter basket, covered it with a white sheet and ordered his manservant, George Hind, to carry it down Woodland Road to Backhouses Bank (now Barclays) in High Row.

It was a Monday. Market day. And Darlington town centre was crowded.

To ensure no one molested his manservant, Richard strolled a comfortable distance behind, armed with a gun.

In such peculiar fashion, the fortune arrived at the bank. The teller, Nathaniel Plews, counted up £3,025 – no one has explained the £5,000 discrepancy, but Richard seemed quite happy as he was the equivalent of £335,000 richer at the end of the day than when he had woken up.

And anyhow, he had the rest of Nanny’s £70,000 fortune to go at – that’s about £7.75m in today’s values.

The Northern Echo:

Cockerton bridge, under which the Cocker Beck flowed, was at the entrance to the village beside Cockerton Hall. Today's front cover shows another splendid view of the bridge looking into the village. Cockerton Hall is on the far side of the beck on the left, hidden behind the trees. The jumble of carts is on an old ford. Today the top of Woodland Road is just flat with a mini-roundabout on it - you would never know you were going over a bridge

He rewrote his will, on half a sheet of paper drawn up by the famous railway solicitor Francis Mewburn, and left the entire Wrightson fortune to his wife, Eliza Henrietta.

Then had the bad luck to die, in November 1830, just a year after gaining his fantastic inheritance.

This particularly peeved his sister, Cordellia, who would have inherited the Wrightson fortune were it not for that will. Egged on by her husband, Patrick Macgregor, she spent 10 years interviewing all the villagers of Cockerton.

Eventually, she felt she had the evidence to prove that her brother had been of unsound mind when he’d drawn up the will on which Mr Mewburn had faked the signature, and she launched her case at Durham Assizes in 1844.

This caused a sensation in Darlington – Mewburn was the town’s top solicitor – and in Cockerton, where the villagers were split into two camps. Cordellia called 33 witnesses but after three days, the case was thrown out.

Cordellia did not stop there. She appealed to the House of Lords where eventually, in 1850, Lord Brougham ruled against her and said Mr Mewburn left with “his character entirely and thoroughly unimpeached”.

The Northern Echo:

The village of Cockerton in 1960, looking towards the Travellers Rest. Soon after the picture was taken, a run of shops replaced the old properties on the left

After the smoke died down, Eliza Henrietta lived in Cockerton Hall until the 1860s when it became a young ladies’ boarding school. It reverted to be a domestic property in the late 19th Century, and in 1946 was sold to a company which wanted to build a cinema on its site.

When this fell through, it fell derelict, and – despite its medieval stonework – it was finally demolished in 1964.

Strikes Garden Centre occupied much of the site until 1998 when 55 retirement apartments were built there. They are known as Squires Court after the Wrightson who made Cockerton Hall his home for 61 years and whose fortune caused such a furore.

The Northern Echo:

Cockerton library taken around the time that it opened


WHEN Cockerton Hall’s out-buildings were demolished in 1964 on the northernmost tip of its two acre estate, they became the site of Darlington’s first branch library.

The township’s first library and reading room had been opened somewhere in the village in December 1858. It seems not to have lasted too long, and in October 1898, a reading and recreation room was opened in the Wesleyan church on Cockerton Green.

The Darlington & Stockton Times said that it was a place “where the young men may amuse themselves and the sedate elders read the day’s news and debate the affairs of the Empire”. Young women, of course, had no desire to amuse themselves and older ladies certainly did not wish to debate the affairs of the empire.

The article continued: “The room, it is hoped, will become a valued village institution, free from sectarian and party colour, and open to all who can call themselves Cockertonians and are willing to pay the necessary one shilling.

The Northern Echo:

The ceiling of Cockerton library is made from "stressed plywood skins"

“Wellwishers, and it ought to appeal particularly to temperance people, are invited to help by contributing books, newspapers, or money. A good bagatelle board, I am told, would be a most acceptable present.”

When Cockerton became part of Darlington in 1915, it had to share the town’s central library, until, on September 2, 1970, when the branch library was opened. The circular design, 57ft in diameter, had been drawn up by borough architect, Eric Tornbohm, and cost £15,500 to build.

The main feature is the ceiling made from “stressed plywood skins”, although The Northern Echo also noted: “Underfloor heating has been built in, and the individually lighted bookshelves use a new type of lighting not used in any other building in the town – phosphor-coated mercury vapour lamps.”

The library will reopen on Wednesday, its 50th anniversary, from 10am to 4pm. As well as the history display, which will be on the outside of the building, there will be live 1970s music at 10am, noon and 3.15pm, plus a balloon modeller from 2pm to 4pm.

Plus, of course, the library itself will be open for book returns and quick-pick borrowing.

The library will then open on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays from 9.30am to 1pm, and Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays from 1pm to 4pm, until we manage to shake off the dreaded virus.