MANY more than a hundred people joined the Darlington Historical Society walk around the town’s South Park last weekend and so many of them had personal connections to the place.

The Northern Echo: South Park, Darlington

The Northern Echo's Chris Lloyd leads last week's walk around South Park


For example, John Peak, from Hartlepool, brought with him a picture of a municipal gathering in the park in the 1950s beneath its famed carpet bedding (below).

The Northern Echo: South Park, Darlington

During the war, John’s father, Arthur, had been the parks and cemeteries superintendent in Hull, and much of his cemetery work involved burying his fellow citizens who had been killed in air raids – coastal Hull suffered 82 air raids between 1940 and 1945, with 400 people dying in the “Hull Blitz” of May 7 to 9, 1941.

Pearson Park was also in his charge. It has many similarities to the Darlington park: it was opened in 1860, 10 years later than South Park, for working class people to exercise in and was known, as was South Park, as “the People’s Park”. Hull’s first ceremonial planting was of a sequoiadendron giganteum (giant redwood trees) in 1860; South Park’s first ceremonial planting was of a pair of sequoias in 1863.

Towards the end of the war, Arthur got the more peaceful job of being Darlington’s park and cemeteries superintendent which meant that the family moved to the lodge in West Cemetery. There, the grass was cut by scythes, a horse called Paddy assisted with burials, and those poor people who couldn’t afford headstones were encouraged to plant a tree instead.

In South Park, Arthur’s work included the famed carpet bedding in which pictures were created in plants on the slope to the river.

The Northern Echo: South Park, Darlington

The first pictures-in-plants celebrated Victoria's Diamond Jubilee and spread along the length of the slope in 1897

This custom was started by Arthur’s predecessor, the first park superintendent James Morrison, in 1897 to commemorate Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee. We think he used photographs to create a lifelike image of Her Majesty. It was so good that when Victoria received pictures of it, “she graciously acknowledged their receipt”!

After that, James followed it up with more portraits of members of the royal family until 1905 when he celebrated the centenary of Horatio Nelson’s victory over Napoleon at the Battle of Trafalgar.

For all of the 20th Century, the grassy bank featured at least one large, round bed with a display commemorating a local anniversary, organisation or event. The round bed was complimented by ornamental swags, like curtain bannerets, cut into the grass and filled with flowers.

The carpet bedding was a victim of council cutbacks in the early 21st Century, but you can still see the outlines in the grass where, for more than a century, Darlington had famed floral displays.

But what is the anniversary, organisation or event being celebrated in John’s picture. Does anyone have any clues about that distinctive coat of arms?


The Northern Echo: The boating lake that was dug in the early 1920s opposite Blackwell Grange. This picture is taken

The boating lake that was dug in the early 1920s opposite Blackwell Grange. This picture is taken from Parkside looking south towards where the rugby club is today. The trees on the island still stand, surrounded by grass as the lake was filled in in 1945. Picture courtesy of Darlington Centre for Local Studies

A MAJOR feature of South Park between the wars was a large boating lake opposite Blackwell Grange.

It was dug out during the early 1920s as a job creation scheme by 250 unemployed men. It covered 10 acres from Parkside down to where Darlington Rugby Club is today, and contained 12m gallons of water, with the River Skerne running through it.

It was opened on April 22, 1924, by the mayor, Cllr George Loraine, when, according to the Darlington & Stockton Times, “in the sunshine, it sparkled with almost Venetian splendour”.

Ian Waller, formerly of the estate agents Dollery Waller, believes his grandfather, Francis Theakston Waller, was one of those who dug the lake out. He was the last of seven generations of butchers in the town and during the Great Depression was on “pancrack”, as the basic benefit available to unemployed men was then known.

The Northern Echo: Francis Theakston Waller attends Darlington Railwaymen's Carnival in South Park dressed as the

Ian has a fabulous picture of Francis attending the bi-annual Railwaymen’s Carnival (above), a fancy dress parade that wound its way through the streets of Darlington collecting money to build the Memorial Hospital. It always finished in South Park for an afternoon of sports and an evening of dancing and illuminations. Francis is dressed as “the Woodbine King” in a suit made entirely of cigarette packets.

The Northern Echo: Edwin Waller on the South Park boating lake

Then in the Waller family album are photos of Ian’s father, Edwin (above), and a friend (below) in rowing boats on the lake that his grandfather dug. Boats were hired from a large wooden jetty just beneath Parkside.

The Northern Echo: Edwin Waller's friend on the South Park boating lake

Inconveniently, the Skerne flushed out the coalmines of south Durham and dumped all of their debris in the boating lake so that it regularly and rapidly filled up with a coally sludge – some people collected handfuls of it and dried them out to burn on their fires, but one unfortunate fellow, James Stephenson, was sucked down to his death in it.

The lake was dredged annually by unemployed men but during the Second World War it became so full it was impossible to sail a boat on it, and it was filled in in 1954.

Like many Darlingtonians, South Park played a key part in Ian’s childhood. “I grew up in Greenbank Road,” he says, “and we would regularly go down to the park for an orange juice, a picnic and a look at the aviaries.”


The Northern Echo: The South Park bandstand, with its original striped roof

From the Waller album: the South Park bandstand with its original striped roof

If you have any park related memories or stories, we’d love to hear them. Please email Many thanks to everyone who attended last week’s walk