IT was with great sadness that we learned that Jon Smith, the prime mover of the Barningham Local History Group on the edge of Teesdale and the creator of the extraordinarily popular Echo Quest, died last week.

Jon had an amazing, inquiring mind which adored detail.

He was chief sub-editor at The Northern Echo in the 1980s when he created an annual treasure hunt which had thousands of people careering around the North East in search of solutions and hundreds of people queuing overnight outside the Priestgate press so they could be the first to get hold of the last clues.


The Northern Echo: The queue of people in 1984 in Priestgate, Darlington, waiting to get their hands on the first edition containing the last clue The queue of people in 1984 in Priestgate, Darlington, waiting to get their hands on the first edition containing the last clue 

Echo Quest came at a time when the country was mad for treasure hunts, a craze started by a picture book called Masquerade, created in 1979 by Kit Williams, which had people from all over the world searching for a golden hare, that turned out to be buried in Bedfordshire.

Echo Quest, held in 1984 and 1985, had people driving all over the region following Jon’s convoluted – but watertight – clues which solved his riddles. The first year led people to Hamsterley Forest which caused the Forestry Commission to complain to the Echo about the hundreds of people who were digging up their land in search of buried treasure; the second year led to Seaton Carew beach, which was just as overwhelmed.

The Northern Echo: Echo Quest was a hugely popular motorised treasure hunt run by The Northern Echo on several occasions in the 1980s. Here the 1985 quest comes to an end at Seaton Carew's bus stationExtraordinary scenes at Seaton Carew in 1985 as the second Echo Quest came to an end

The hunt was revived in 2000, this time with clues on the Echo’s website as well as in the paper. There was a £5,000 treasure chest of jewellery as the top prize courtesy of F Hind in the Queen Street shopping centre in Darlington, plus a mini-cruise to Amsterdam for the runner-up and lots of spot prizes. Jon had devised “The Case of The Burgled Buckles” which featured 34 clues that led 2,000 people to the grand finale at Whitworth Hall, Spennymoor – once the home of Bobby Shafto, the well known silver buckle wearer.

The Northern Echo: Jon Smith with radio personality Goffy at Hardwick Hall, Spennymoor, at the climax of EchoQuest 2000Jon Smith with radio personality Goffy at Hardwick Hall, Spennymoor, at the climax of EchoQuest 2000

When Jon retired from lecturing about journalism at Darlington college, he devoted much of his energy to the local history of his corner of Teesdale, producing his group’s Archive newsletter, which won the British Association for Local History’s Newsletter of the Year Award in 2012. This led to several booklets, including a guide to burials in Barningham churchyard, and then to his magnum opus of 2019: Round the World, An A to Z miscellany of Barningham and its neighbours.


It is an extraordinary work containing 187,000 words, 1,815 entries and 342 photos about a village which, in 2011, had just 241 inhabitants. Even more extraordinary, it is wonderfully readable, jampacked with anecdotes about buses, ghosts, tramps, skeletons, satanic possession, a singular one-legged would-be murderer and loads of decidedly odd court cases.

Jon, who was a good friend to these Memories columns, liked the decidedly odd. For instance, he was extremely proud of Barningham’s decidedly odd and centuries old pub, the Milbank Arms, which until modernisation in 2018 was just one of eight pubs in the country not to have a bar.

The Northern Echo: Neil Turner, landlord of the Milbank Arms, didn't have a bar but served customers from a cubbyhole halfway down the cellar stairsNeil Turner, landlord of the Milbank Arms, emerges from his pub's cellar where he kept all the drinks as there was no bar. Below: Neil in the pub's main room with the dartboard behind

The Northern Echo: Neil Turner Lanlord of the Milbank Arms in Barningham.

The pub’s entry in Round the World tells how the landlord would bring the beer up from the tiny cellar, and serve in the pub’s one tiny room “in which customers risked impalement by darts players aiming at a board above the fireplace”.

That entry cross-referred to Rusty, which said: “Tame fox at the Milbank Arms in the 1960s, convinced it was a dog. See Tommy.”

The entry for Tommy said: “Tommy – cat at the Milbank Arms in the 1960s who slept in a box below the dartboard, even when matches were going on. ‘I don’t think anybody ever hit him,’ says the then-landlord Neil Turner.”


Round the World – which literally did go round the world because the history group was regularly approached by people from all corners of the globe with Barningham connections – took its name from a popular two-mile walk which went past plantations named Canada and Ladysmith.

Under the heading “Snowden”, the A to Z tells of Ralph Snowden, the police superintendent for the Greta Bridge district in the 1840s, who provoked a mass riot at Barnard Castle races by shutting the beer tent. He was badly injured by the thirsty mob and only escaped by threatening to shoot them.

The following year, in 1845, a young couple disappeared in Barney. Everyone thought they had eloped, but the detective suspected foul play and, amid national press interest, found himself “unravelling the dark mystery that so long enveloped the Barnard Castle murders”.

This story so piqued Jon’s interest that he researched it fully and then turned it into a novel, entitled Snowden, which he published last November.

The Northern Echo: Jon Smith last year with his novel, Snowden, based on true murders in Victorian Barnard CastleJon Smith last year with his novel, Snowden, based on true murders in Victorian Barnard Castle

He died at the age of 77, and he leaves Barningham as one of the best recorded villages in the country, with all of its quirks and characters saved for all time.

The Northern Echo:

His funeral is on Thursday, September 21, at 10.30am at Barningham church followed by a celebration of his life at the village hall.

And so it seems appropriate to look up the entry in Round the World headed “church”, which tells how the restoration of 1890 was partly funded by a £3 17s 6d donation from a mid-Atlantic collection aboard the steamship Majestic, captained by Edward Smith, who was also at the helm of the Titanic when it sank.

The entry concludes by saying “See Cat-whipping”, which is an invitation no one could possibly refuse.

On turning to “Cat-whipping”, the reader discovers a paragraph that Jon had found in Edmund Bogg’s 1909 book The Wild Borderland of Richmondshire which said that the sexton at Barningham was “paid a certain sum yearly for cat whipping, that is to say, for chasing them out of the churchyard wherein, cat-like, they were wont to congregate for anything but purposes of worship”.

For any cats wishing to attend Jon’s funeral, his final instructions were “do not dress up and no black”.

The Northern Echo: Jon Smith interviewing Martin Luther KingJon Smith interviewing Martin Luther King

IN Round the World, we learn that “Smith, Jon” was born in 1945, and his “career highlight was being the last reporter to interview Martin Luther King in Britain before his assassination”.

After studying at the London School of Economics, Jon had got a reporting job with the Shields Gazette on Tyneside which meant he was present on November 13, 1967, when MLK received an honorary degree from Newcastle university.

This extraordinary day nearly didn’t happen because two weeks before, the civil rights leader and Nobel Peace Prize winner, had been thrown in jail in Alabama for contempt of court.

He was released just in time, flew to London and took the 1am sleeper out of King’s Cross which arrived in Newcastle at 6am.

After accepting his honour, he gave an impromptu and electrifying speech which urged his listeners to work towards racial fairness and reminded them that all the peoples of the world were “tied together in an inextricable network of mutuality”.

He just had time to give a few media interviews, including one with Jon, before he caught the 16.08 train back to London.

The Northern Echo: SIGNING: Martin Luther King Jr accepting an honorary degree from Newcastle University.Martin Luther King Jr accepting an honorary degree from Newcastle University

Six months later, on April 4, 1968, MLK was assassinated in Memphis.

London and Newcastle are the only places in Britain that he visited; Newcastle is the only British institution to have awarded him an honorary degree, and Jon Smith had his own place in that history.

Jon added to his own entry in his A to Z: “He also once quizzed a Miss World in bed (her, not him) at London’s Waldorf Hotel.” On this one occasion, though, he didn’t go in to the detail…



The Northern Echo: Some fast moving geese on Barningham village green in the 1890s. Picture courtesy of Jon SmithBarningham village green, from Jon's collection