THE “preferred location” for the Treasury headquarters in Darlington, it was revealed this week, is “Brunswick”.

“Brunswick” sounds very grand but is, in fact, a derelict car park which for centuries has had a foul whiff wafting across it.

The “Brunswick” site, a new name, is beside the inner ring road and next to Brunswick Street. It has been empty since 2009 when a 1960s’ garage was pulled down, but originally this surprisingly large piece of land was the home of one of Darlington’s largest industries: tanning.

The Treasury offices for more than 1,000 civil servants would be a splendid use for “Brunswick” and an unlikely new chapter in the story of this corner of town.

The Northern Echo:

Looking up Brunswick Street in the early 1960s towards the power station. John Neasham has acquired the land on the right to build his garage. It is now called the "Brunswick" site and is the Treasury's "preferred location"

Early 17th Century

LEATHER was probably the second biggest industry in Darlington after textiles, with the town famed for its chamois.

It was a deeply unpleasant process. First of all, bark was cut from oak trees and stored in a bark heap near St Hilda’s Church. Women would split the bark by hand and then it would be ground in a horse-powered barkmill. The powder was diluted with water from the Skerne, which released the tannin from the bark, and the solution was poured into a three-metre deep tanpit.

Then animal skins would be bought at market – in Skinnergate, in Darlington. They would be cleaned of hair and tissue by being scrubbed with stale urine and lime, and then they were “bated”, or softened, by being pounded with dung. Next they were immersed in the tanpit, where the tannin preserved them. They would stay in the tanpit for months, sometimes years.

Once tanned, the hide was given a last wash beside the Stone Bridge in the Skerne – a practice that was banned in 1901 as a health hazard – before going to the curriers. They stretched it over frames, dried it over fires, finished it with their knives, and rubbed fats and oils – such as beef tallow and cod liver oil – into it until it was strong and supple enough for the next craftsman in the chain.

The thicker leather went to the saddler; the flexible leather went to the cordwainer (shoemaker); the soft, thin leather went to the glover.

But the smell from the stagnant pits washed over everyone – it was regarded as the most noxious of industries.

18th Century

Initially, there were tanpits dotted all over town, but gradually they became concentrated off Clay Row, a road which ran along the eastern bank of the Skerne, at the edge of the “Brunswick” site.

In 1753, tanner John Middleton had a "small thatched cottage with a mud floor" in Clay Row where, on Whit Tuesday, John Wesley held Darlington’s first Methodist meeting.

The Northern Echo: Echo memories - In 1966, a service was held to rededicate the Methodist Church commemorative plaque when it was attached to John Neasham's newly built garage in Darlington. Now the plaque has disappeared

A plaque being unveiled at John Neasham's garage in 1966 to mark the spot where John Wesley preached in 1753. The plaque has since been lost

The Northern Echo: brunswick street jefferson darlington.

Brunswick Street in the 1940s. The pub, we think, on the left was the Golden Lion

19th Century

In the early 1830s, Brunswick Street was built along the north side of the Treasury site. It would be tempting to suggest it was named after Her Serene Highness Caroline of Brunswick who in 1795 married George, Prince of Wales. The marriage bitterly broke down, and when the prince became George IV in 1820, Caroline was locked out of the ceremony in Westminster Abbey. She took laudanum and died three weeks later.

There were many people who believed Caroline had been badly wronged, and this corner of Darlington might have been named as a tribute to her. However, just off Brunswick Street is Coburg Street, so they could both have been built by someone with Germanic connections.

The Brunswick site was covered with tanneries. In 1848, James Dove advertised that he was selling his tannery which included "four lime pits, two soak pits, five bate pits, 15 cisterns and ten bark letches".

The Middleton family had the largest tannery on the site – hence Middleton Street was built behind the Hippodrome – and the Mosleys and the Childs were also big players. However, as the century wore on, they didn’t invest in machinery that meant leather imports from the continent were cheaper. New products, like rubber, as well as the decline in horse transport – overtaken by the railways – reduced the demand for leather, and the last tannery closed in the 1880s. Because of its noxiousness, no one mourned its passing.

In July 1881, "a little girl named Maria Mosley" drowned in a disused tanpit on the Brunswick site.

“There are upwards of 40 disused tanpits, which were both offensive and dangerous to life and health," reported the Darlington and Stockton Times. "In recovering the body of this girl, the stench was awful.

"Some years ago, another child was drowned in one of the pits, and at that time a strong opinion was expressed that they ought to be fenced off or filled up."

The coroner at Maria's inquest said: "It is scandalous that such a place should be allowed to exist; and, in a town like Darlington, it is quite unaccountable."

The council ordered that the tanpits should be filled in within 14 days.

The Northern Echo:

A VE Day party being held in Brunswick Street in 1945

20th Century

THE area was one of the poorest in town with derelict bits of the old industry surviving – in 1960, the Evening Despatch newspaper said there were "deep fosses of abomination" on the site. The slums around the edges were to make way for the inner ring road which was to be lined with new buildings…

The Northern Echo:

John Neasham, when mayor of Darlington, 1955-56

May 20, 1966

“THE sun rose behind the completed building, the flags fluttering in the slight breeze,” said the narrator of an early corporate promotional video which captured the opening of the new garage which had been built on the Brunswick site. “It is a happy day for the Neasham family.”

John Neasham was born in Norton-on-Tees in 1901 and arrived in Darlington as an apprentice mechanic at WE Dove's garage in Bondgate.

In 1926, he started his own business near St Hilda's Church, in Parkgate. By 1938, he had a smart showroom on the site, a filling station in Yarm Road and a huge workshop on the Brunswick site.

He had a finger in every pie that was baking in town. He was a councillor, a magistrate, a freemason, an alderman, a mayor; he was chairman of the aero club at Croft Circuit; he was a leading member of the Rotary Club, cricket club, motor club, St John Ambulance Brigade, and the chrysanthemum society; and he had Ford dealerships in Northallerton and Richmond, as well as in Parkgate. He was probably best known as a director of Darlington Football Club from 1936 to 1964, and as chairman from 1951.

His £135,000 showroom on the Brunswick site was opened by Lady Starmer, who was Darlington’s equivalent of royalty. It was a classic 1960s square palace of concrete and glass, with the first floor held up on stilts so there could be a petrol filling station underneath. Here are scenes from a shaky video made to record the opening for posterity:

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

Neasham's first headquarters was in Parkgate in the shadow of St Hilda's Church with workshops sprawling in the old tannery buildings behind. Below: Neasham's Yarm Road filling station

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

The Brunswick site is cleared as work on the garage begins. That's Peases Mill on the right and the town clock in the centre

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

The Clay Row roundabout, looking up Parkgate, with Neasham's garage being built on Brunswick to the left of the picture

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

The garage takes shape in the shadow of the power station's cooling towers

The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966


The Northern Echo: Scenes from the opening video of John Neasham's garage in 1966

Neasham's garage on opening day

The Northern Echo: John Neasham and Lady Starmer in the new garage's reception area on opening day in the company's Model T Ford

John Neasham and Lady Starmer in the new garage's reception area on opening day in the company's Model T Ford

The garage was not successful. Mr Neasham's health declined, and he died on October 6, 1969 –the day that Skipper of Burnley completed the takeover of the garage.

Skipper sold it on to Sanderson Ford in 1994, and from 2000, it was owned by CD Bramall.

The Northern Echo:

The Northern Echo: The car park on the site of Skippers old garage on the ring road in Darlington.

The cleared Brunswick site - all signs of Neasham's garage are gone

May 2009

WHEN Bramall left the town centre, Neasham’s garage was demolished. As it came down, it opened up to view au unusual louvre-roofed old building that is believed to be the last survivor of the tannery – it looks like a currying factory, where the hides were finished at the end of the tanning (below).

The Northern Echo: The strange building that has come into view as the demolition of the former Skippers garage in Darlington  gets under way.

Something else cropped up, too: the mayor, Cllr Ian Haszeldine, said that a foul, stale whiff had once again be reported at the rear of the theatre. It was strong enough for actors to remark on its pungency, as they had done in decades past.

Will the Treasury civil servants in their new offices be fortunate enough to get a blast from the past when the stinking pits of the tannery occupied the Brunswick site?