AT a glittering dinner on Saturday night in Darlington’s Central Hall, the town’s Rotary Club celebrated its centenary.

That’s one hundred years of fellowship and friendship, of good works at home and abroad, and of organising perhaps the most extraordinary raffle the town has ever seen to get the Memorial Hospital off the ground.

The Northern Echo: Hansgeorg Balthaus, President of the Rotary Club Mülheim an der Ruhr Schloss Broich, Darlington mayor, Cllr Jan Cossins and her daughter, Ellie, with Darlington president Michelle Thompson and her husband, Mick

Hansgeorg Balthaus, President of the Rotary Club Mülheim an der Ruhr Schloss Broich, Darlington mayor, Cllr Jan Cossins and her daughter, Ellie, with Darlington president Michelle Thompson and her husband, Mick

Rotary’s first full meeting in Darlington was on March 28, 1923, in the King’s Head Hotel, when 21 townsmen – women were not admitted until the early 1990s – paid three shillings each for dinner and elected their first chairman, LW Taylor.

Rotary was an American idea, started in Chicago in 1905 when an attorney, a coal merchant, a mines engineer and a tailor met in each other’s offices on rotation every week for lunch, networking, and, adopting the motto "service above self", a chance to think if there was anything useful they could be doing for their community.

They decided to build Chicago's first public bathroom – or toilet, as we would say – but the Rotarians in Darlington opted for something much grander.




Every other town and village in the district had opted to remember its fallen in the First World War with a piece of stone sticking out of the ground with names carved on it but Darlington, with laudable ambition, had decided to build a memorial hospital.

However, as economic conditions of the 1920s worsened, fundraising ground to a halt. Darlington’s frustration grew as every other town and village unveiled their more modest, but poignant, memorials while nothing happened on the site bought for the hospital off Hollyhurst Road.

Then the railwaymen of North Road stepped up to the plate, with their first bi-annual carnival in 1924, and Rotary stepped in, deciding that their first project should be to build – literally – the children’s ward.

The Northern Echo: 3 john fenwick latimer.

They needed £12,000 (about £700,000 in today’s values), so Rotarian John Fenwick Latimer (above), a solicitor and mayor, gave a £50 plot of land at the bottom of Latimer Road in Haughton-le-Skerne on which architect Rotarian Joshua Clayton, responsible for the majestic Majestic in Bondgate, designed a pair of semi-detached houses.

All the other rotarians went round town cadging building materials, and on March 13, 1928, they gathered at the site and watched as their president, Henry Cooper, commenced construction work using a suitably-inscribed, silver-mounted mallet. He said: “I lay this stone in honour of all who believe that life was made for friendship and service.”

The Northern Echo: The mallet which laid the foundation stone for the houses - it isn't in your attic, is it?

This mallet – well, technically, it is a maul rather than a mallet – was lost for 80 years until it was rediscovered in an attic somewhere in Darlington in 2007. Its rediscovery featured in Memories but it has since disappeared, so if you have a mallet (or a maul) with some writing on it we would love to see it again.

After the ceremony, Rotarian Joseph Blackett, who had a builder’s yard in Bondgate where his name lives on in a doctors’ surgery, started building the houses.

The Northern Echo: The houses that Rotary built: one on the left for the Queen's Nurses; the one on the right was auctioned

One was given to the Queen’s Nurses – in those pre-NHS days, nurses were supplied by charity and so the offer of a nurses’ home was very welcome.

And the house on the right was raffled off, with the draw being made on December 23, 1928.

The Northern Echo said: "All the counterfoils – about 11,000 of them – were rolled up and placed in a bed tick.”

A bed tick is the large bag in which the stuffing – or ticking – that formed a mattress is placed.

Then, said the Echo, “Mrs L Richmond, of Ipswich drew out 440." We don’t know who Mrs L Richmond of Ipswich was nor why it was felt necessary for her to draw 440 tickets out of the 11,000.

But she wasn’t finished…

The Echo continued: "She then made a second draw of 44, and in turn reduced these to five. From these, three were selected, and then the draw proper was made."

11,000 to 440 to 44 to five to three to one. Never can there have been a more complicated draw.

The Northern Echo: Echo Memories - The Northern Echo's report on the Rotary raffle which Councillor Mr R G Sugget won in 1928

The winning ticket was B1579 which just happened to belong to Councillor RG Suggett. So Rotary, an organisation jam-packed with councillors, had given the star prize in its draw to a councillor…

Everyone felt this was a very fitting outcome. Cllr Suggett, for 43 years a railwayman, was a big supporter of the hospital project.

He told the Echo: "It is a very pleasant surprise. It is the first time I have ever won anything in a draw."

The raffle made a major dent in Rotary’s £12,000 target, and on February 2, 1931, the foundation stone of the children’s ward was ceremonially laid by 12-year-old Raymond Featham, of Park Street. Raymond’s father had been a prisoner of war in Germany when he had been born, and Raymond had been unable to walk for the first five years of his life.

The Northern Echo: "Boy cripple" Raymond Featham lays the foundation stone of the Darlington Memorial Hospital's children's ward on February 7

"Boy cripple" Raymond Featham lays the foundation stone of the Darlington Memorial Hospital's children's ward

"That he can now walk is due to the surgical skill that has been used on his behalf and the careful nursing at Greenbank Hospital, which has given him the use of his legs, " said the Echo’s sister paper, the Northern Despatch. Cruelly, it ran Raymond’s picture beneath the headline: “Boy cripple lays foundation stone at Darlington.”

On the left of the picture, you can see how the round Rotary Club logo was being used to show how much money had been raised.

The Northern Echo: J D SINCLAIR

After the ceremony, for a second time Rotarian Blackett the builder got to work, this time constructing the ward. He was directed by Rotarian JD Sinclair, a GP at the Chesterfield surgery in the town who became one of the first physicians at the hospital. Indeed, the ward was named in Dr Sinclair’s honour.

The Northern Echo: PLAQUE LAID: The Children's Ward was named after Rotarian Dr JD Sinclair, who had led the fundraising campaign

It was complete by October 14, 1932, when the rotarians formally handed it to the hospital committee, whose chairman hailed it a “magnificent gift”.

He added: “It is a great achievement to put up a building that has cost £12,000 in these times.”

The Echo’s editor, Albert Clayton, who, of course, was a rotarian, wrote poetically of the occasion: "Old and young, rich and poor, men, women and children, townfolk and countryfolk, by their gifts of time, service and money, have achieved swiftly a noble object.

"May their reward be that within this new wing, suffering children of this generation and of generations yet unborn, shall be nursed with loving tenderness and imbued with health and strength of body and mind."

The Northern Echo: The tall figure of Prince George, centre, opening Darlington Memorial

Hospital on May 5, 1933. The mayor of Darlington beside him was Sir Charles Starmer, leading

Rotarian and managing director of The Northern Echo

Rotarian and mayor, Sir Charles Starmer, leads Prince George past the children's ward on the opening day of Darlington Memorial Hospital

The hospital was officially opened seven months later, on May 5, 1933, by Prince George, the youngest son of the king.

It is no exaggeration to say that without the new rotarians adopting the children’s ward as their first project, Darlington would have struggled to get its Memorial Hospital – which is still at the heart of the town – up and running before the Second World War.

The Northern Echo: Hansgeorg Balthaus, President of the Rotary Club Mülheim an der Ruhr Schloss Broich, presents Michelle Thompson with centenary gifts

Hansgeorg Balthaus, President of the Rotary Club Mülheim an der Ruhr Schloss Broich, presents Michelle Thompson with centenary gifts

Last weekend’s centenary dinner, attended by representatives of rotary clubs from across the north and from Darlington’s twin town of Mulheim in Germany, heard these stories from the past and, more importantly, how the club today raises an average of £26,000-a-year.#

The Northern Echo: Darlington Rotary 100 logo

It has two long-standing international projects: the Vingujini School in Kenya, which it has helped with buildings and learning materials including shipping out 20,000 books collected in Darlington, and the Kumi Project in Uganda, which is a hospital for children with disabilities and suffering malnourishment.

Closer to home, Rotary supports St Teresa’s Hospice, has a hit squad that helps community associations and isolated people with their gardens, and gives lots of small grants to local people to help them pursue their dreams. Plus in five of the town’s primary schools, it has Mini Rotary Clubs in which the children raise £5,000-a-year for their own neighbourhoods.

The Northern Echo: Darlington Memorial Hospital postcard

And there is also the small matter of Rotary’s global aim of eradicating polio from the world, which is slowly being reached. Last year, there were no new cases of “wild” polio with the only cases being in the disease’s last fingerholds of Afghanistan and Pakistan. On October 24, Darlington town clock will be lit up for the annual Purple4Polio day, as purple is the colour of dye that children in the Third World have on their fingers to show they have been vaccinated.

Not bad for a century of “service above self”.