TAKING a tour of Darlington town centre more than a century ago, WJ Mountford walked off High Row and up Clark’s Yard.

“The old houses and workshops that crowded this picturesque and narrow way have nearly all become warehouses,” he wrote in his unpublished memoires in 1908.

Then he, like Memories 510, looked up. “There is an interesting old leaden spout at the south side of the yard which bears the initials ‘IP 1767’,” he noted, referring to the drainheader on the top of John Pease’s old house.

And then he looked down, and said: “A wooden gate bearing iron spikes stops the way to a dozen stone steps leading to some dark, damp, ancient chambers beneath.”

A couple of weeks ago, Memories was privileged to be allowed down those stone steps into the ancient chambers beneath, the first time in 30 years that they had been opened up.

The three subterranean rooms are damp and very cobwebby – not the thin gossamer threads that appear in everyone’s room corners above ground, but thick, dark strands that have been spun to ensnare any living thing that moves down there.

They are not spooky cellars, even though we know that during their construction more than 250 years ago, two men – William Robson and George Waters – were crushed to death when an arch collapsed on them.

The cellars have barrel vaulted brick ceilings, and a little light sneaks in through bricked-up basement windows. The floors are brick-lined, and seem to drop to the east as they run towards High Row and the River Skerne.

An old wooden staircase has decayed into nothingness in the middle of the central cellar floor; on a wall, a set of shelves has sagged and collapsed under the weight of the damp and the passing of time.

The narrow cellars are about 30 yards long and are beneath a barber’s and the Cheese and Wine Shop. It seems likely that they run out onto High Row, where there is now a brow bar, and it feels that they continue under the pavement beyond the Cheese and Wine Shop.

A part from a little builders’ detritus, they are empty, except for an old iron stove made by Smith and Wellstood, at their famous stoveworks in Bonnybridge, Glasgow.

But they are full of the stories of the years.

According to legend, in the 1750s, a fabulously wealthy heiress died in Hull, leaving a £10,000 fortune – in cash (that’s about £2.2m in today’s values). It was placed in a wagon, heaped over with straw, and “accompanied by two stout fellows at the side, who were equipped with flails, and pretended that they had been thrashing”, it made its journey to Whitby.

It was clear that the two stout men would continue their thrashing if anyone tried to interrupt their progress.

In Whitby, the fortune was shared among the heiress’ beneficiaries, one of whom was grocer John Pease, a distant relative of the Darlington wool merchants of the same name.

He rode over the moors to the Quaker town with 400 guineas (just over £400, but worth about £90,000 today) in cash in the pillion bag attached to his saddle.

With it, John bought Bull Wynd, next to the Dolphin Centre, and a grand, three storey house on High Row. With a little imagination, you can still make out that early 18th Century house even though it is divided into three quite different shops: the brow bar, which is covered in render; Rowlands chemist, and Just a Fiver which has an ornate, rounded 1890s window on its first floor.

John’s front door must have been where the chemist is today.

He celebrated by marrying Hannah Haigh at the Friends Meeting House on December 29, 1757, and, with their first child soon on the way, began extending their High Row home – which was when disaster struck.

The town records say: “1758, William Robson, senior, of Darlington, bricklayer, George Waters, of Darlington, carpenter, both kill’d by the fall of an arch in building a cellar for Mr John Pease.”

That must have been the very cellar, with the barrel vaulted roof, that we were standing in.

He persevered, even through the death of Hannah in 1766 after nine years of marriage and five children, and completed his extension in 1767, which he commemorated with the drain header. He put a more ornamental version of the header above his front door on High Row and it, too, can still be seen (although it has a buddleia growing out of it, obscuring the date).

The Cheese and Wine Shop is at the west end of his extension, facing Skinnergate. In fact, it could have been his cart store, with easy access straight out on to Skinnergate.

One of grocer John’s lines was wine, and it is believed that he used his dark, damp cellars to store his bottles.

However, John went bankrupt and so was disowned by the Quaker community, and he died in Ravensworth in 1794, aged 67.

The age of prosperous merchants living in grand houses on High Row was coming to an end. Shops were taking over the most visible premises while in the yards behind, poor people were crammed by the dozen into unhygienic housing alongside workshops and warehouses.

John’s cool and damp cellars, though, were nearly always used by wine and spirit merchants: WJ Clark WJ Clark – who gives his name to the yard – was in business there in the 1850s. He was taken over by W and T Forster in 1880 and in 1894, they sold out to James Swenden. He diversified into bottling mineral water which it was said was drawn out of a well in the cellars.

Sadly, as we stumbled around in the dark, cloaked in cobwebs, there was no sign of the well.

But there was a strange, coffin-shaped hole in the floor, which was filled with remarkably dry sand. What was it? The last resting place of the two unlucky workmen? The site of an even older staircase down to whatever was there before Mr Pease built his extension? Who knows? The Clark’s Yard cellars retain their secrets…

IN 1988, the Clark’s Yard property was bought from Darlington council in a semi-derelict state by Barbara and Rolf Winroth – Barbara’s name can still be seen above the hairdressing saloon on the opposite side of the yard.

It required a radical rebuild, which revealed several surprises, like a doorway on the top floor which appeared to lead to a building on its south side which no longer exists.

The building now houses at a tattoo parlour on the first floor, and a barber’s shop plus the Cheese and Wine Shop on the ground floor, with a very interesting-sounding culinary experience due to open in the near future.

The last time the cellars were open was during the 1988 restoration and, inspired by the article in Memories 510, we are very grateful to Barbara for opening them – and her photoalbums – to us once again.

As Memories 510 reported, the yards of Darlington, including Clark’s, are to benefit from the £3m the council has received from the Government’s Town’s Fund to help the high street.

AS we can still see John Pease’s house, cellars and his initials on his drain header, we’re almost close enough to touch him, but he lived in a very different time.

He was the eldest of 21 children who were born alive to his parents, John and Elizabeth who were Whitby grocers. Only 17 of those children lived long enough to be baptised, but reaching the font was no guarantee of a long life.

Only two of his ten brothers made adulthood. Brother Robert died within three hours, William two days, Ralph two hours, a second Robert 24 hours, Edward two weeks and George a year, while a second William died “young” and a third Robert lasted three years.

Of his six sisters, only Isabella made it to adulthood. Mary died aged seven months, Elizabeth aged three-and-a-half, a second Mary aged two-and-a-half, Margaret reached nine years and Dorothea just two-and-a-half months.

So in 19 years between 1728 and 1747, John and Elizabeth lost 13 babies.

If that wasn’t bad enough, Elizabeth and the second Mary died on the same day – June 19, 1737 – of smallpox and were buried in the same coffin in Whitby church. Ten years later, smallpox revisited the family and carried off the third Robert and Margaret within three April days of each other.

Of the survivors, James died unmarried aged 32. The youngest brother Bristowe (named after his godfather) moved to Darlington where in 1770 he married Susannah Allan, whose father owned Blackwell Grange.

The only surviving sister, Isabella, also made a good Darlington match, marrying Lt Ralph Robson, the son of the town’s borough bailiff. Isabella and Ralph were the witnesses to John’s marriage in 1757 to Hannah.