IN Shildon, when the working man triumphed over the nasty capitalists and landowners who wanted to thwart his ambitions, there was a day of rejoicing as the public park was finally opened.

“It has been one of the most wonderful events in the history of Shildon," said County Councillor John Davison at the end of the opening day of Hackworth Park in 1912.

But the best was yet to come: two years later, the park’s most glorious feature, an elaborate cast iron drinking fountain topped by eight red dragons the size of cats was installed.

The Northern Echo: The splendid, and splendidly restored, Macfarlane & Co fountain, made in 1914 is one of the outstanding features of Hackworth Park

Hackworth Park is really a bridge between the two communities that make up the town of Shildon. Old Shildon, or Scylfdun, is an agricultural settlement that sits on top of the hill which gives the place its name – in Anglo-Saxon, a scylf was a plateau, or shelf, and a dun was a hill. In 1821, this Shildon had a population of just 115.


But then in 1825, the Stockton & Darlington Railway came along and its resident engineer, Timothy Hackworth (below), decided to build his house and workshops at the foot of the hill on "a wet swampy field…a likely place to find a snipe or a flock of peewits".

The Northern Echo: Timothy Hackworth

This was the birth of New Shildon, which gained a reputation as a very damp place. When a colliery opened near the railway works in 1866, it was regarded as the wettest in the Durham coalfield and it was nicknamed “dabble duck”.

All this industry in New Shildon caused an explosion of workmen's terraces, and at the end of the 19th Century, there was a demand for a green space where the railwaymen's children could let off steam.

Then the class battle began on Shildon Urban Council. On one side was the pro-park party – the representatives of the working men – and on the other was the Ratepayers and Property Owners Association, who were the large landowners and coalowners of the district who feared their rates would rise to pay for the people to play in a park.

Matters were further complicated in 1910 when the council was on the verge of buying Jubilee Fields, near the railway line, to turn it into a park, only for an election to return a new batch of councillors who immediately withdrew from the deal (today a housing estate covers much of these fields but there is still the Jubilee Fields Community Centre surrounded by plenty of grassland).

These new councillors decided to buy nine acres of land – "a veritable quagmire and eyesore" – stretching up the hill from the New settlement to the Old.

The council surveyor, Middleton Turnbull, spent £3,000 building a new road around the edge of the land and turning the rest of it into a park.

The Northern Echo: The park opening day parade departs the Market Place on September 28, 1912The park opening day parade departs the Market Place on September 28, 1912

Opening day was Saturday, September 28, 1912, and it featured a “massed assemblance” of some 6,000 people, including 3,200 schoolchildren, who gathered in the Old Shildon Market Place along with two bands, fancy dress cyclists, traders, horses, pit ponies, the fire brigade, ambulance parties, military men, Scouts, miners’ with their banners and lots of councillors, one of whom was the wonderfully-named Councillor Zebedee Craggs.

"It was one of those monstre processions with which Shildon makes a point of demonstrating its jubilation," said the Darlington and Stockton Times, using the then fashionable word “monstre” which was applied to anything unusually large.

The Northern Echo: Scouts and soldiers parading in Church Street, Shildon, on the opening day of Hackworth ParkScouts and soldiers parading in Church Street, Shildon, on the opening day of Hackworth Park

They all processed from the Market Place down Main Street along Byerley Road into New Shildon, and then they turned onto the new road – which some people had already begun calling Central Parade – where they found their "way barred by a slender strip of white ribbon stretched across the roadway".

Councillors W Spensley and W Kidd used silver ribbon to cut the ribbon and declare the new road, joining the Old and the New, open, and members of the crowd grabbed bits of ribbon as souvenirs.

The procession reformed along Central Parade to reach the three gates into the park. A Boy Scout bugler gave the cue, the gates were opened simultaneously, and everyone spilled in.

The Northern Echo: Councillor John Peacock, centre, and Councillor W Kidd open the Central Parade gate to the parkCouncillor John Peacock, centre, and Councillor W Kidd open the Central Parade gate to the park. Below: The well dressed crowds spill across Hackworth Park on opening day. Both pictures are taken from The Northern Echo's report of the proceedings

The Northern Echo: Well dressed crowds spill across Hackworth Park in Shildon on its opening day in 1912

There wasn't much in the park – in fact, there was only a shed in which the park-keeper kept his tools – although a wooden platform had been temporarily erected so the councillors could make their speeches.

Cllr Kidd referred to the bitter disputes that had preceded the park’s opening. He said: "I regret there has been necessity for industrial strife, but I feel, however, that it is inevitable while there are capitalists among us who appear to think that a working man has no right to be what they might term respectable."

The Northern Echo: How the Echo reported the park opening in 1912How the Echo reported the park opening in 1912

The Northern Echo said: "The scheme has been carried through mainly by the efforts of the Labour group on the council, and backed by an increasing sentiment on the part of a great majority of the public, against strenuous opposition from the Ratepayers and Property Owners Association."

Now, though, there was great hope that the park and the road could symbolically bring the two settlements together and unite the two warring political parties.

"There has been a stronger feeling of brotherliness today than I have ever witnessed before," declared Cllr Kidd.

The Northern Echo: The fancy dress cyclists parade down Byerley Road as part of the celebrations of the opening of Hackworth Park on September 28, 1912The fancy dress cyclists parade down Byerley Road as part of the celebrations of the opening of Hackworth Park on September 28, 1912

Prizes for the best dressed horses and the silliest cyclists were dished out, the bands played and the children ran their races. Then it was teatime. The children were coralled into 11 pens – 300 in each –and were given a cup of tea and a bag of cakes.

As the September evening drew in, hundreds of fairy lights and Chinese lanterns illuminated the scene.

The councillors didn't hang around, though. They had a banquet – "a splendid repast prepared by Mrs Green, a well known Shildon caterer" – to go to in the Masonic Hall.

Here, there was further opportunity to speechify about battles past – Cllr JP Shaw said he "regretted that some of the landowners who had exploited the town for their wealth had not shown the generous spirit expected of them" – and to promise more expenditure to come.

"There was a great deal more to be done," said council chairman Cllr John Peacock, "because they intended to have a swimming bath (loud applause) whilst they also had ample room for a bowling green and other things of that kind that were essential for the well-being of the boys and girls and of the men. (Applause.)"

No mention there of the well-being of women.

While nothing as grand as a swimming pool materialised in Hackworth Park, on August 30, 1913, a bandstand was officially opened “amid much ceremony and many speeches”. In 1924, weekly deductions from miners’ wages enabled “the rest house” to be built as a meeting place for the elderly overlooking the park, and the following year, to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the opening of the railway, a bronze statue of Timothy Hackworth carrying a model of his famous engine, Royal George, was unveiled.

The Northern Echo: The 1914 Macfarlane & Co drinking fountain is a remarkable piece of ornamental ironworkInside the drinking fountain

Perhaps the most striking feature of Hackworth Park, though, is the drinking fountain. The Committee of the Old Shildon Workingmen’s Club ordered it for £124 9s 11d through Darlington ironmongers Croft & Hall, and it was made at Walter Macfarlane & Company’s famous Saracen foundry in Glasgow.

It features eight dragons and herons plus bespoke designs for Shildon, including a metal medallion showing Hackworth’s Royal George, and a plaque inside saying it was presented to the town by the club in November 1914.

It had tin cups hanging from chains so that people could drink the fountain’s water, but unfortunately the cups were removed during an outbreak of scarlet fever.

The Northern Echo: A 1920s postcard showing the drinking fountain in its original gloryA 1920s postcard showing the drinking fountain in its original glory

In fact, the rest of the 20th Century was not very kind to any part of Hackworth Park. In 1941, its iron perimeter railings were taken away for the war effort, and then its two shelters and public toilets became so vandalised that they were taken away.

In the early 1980s, Hackworth’s statue was also damaged, either by common vandals or by those who were protesting against the closure of the Shildon workshops by British Rail Engineering, which was announced on April 23, 1982, with the loss of 2,600 jobs. Beyond repair, the statue was later removed.

In the 1990s, the vandals turned on the rest house, and the last indignity came in 2003 when thieves made off with the fountain’s red dragons.

The Northern Echo: A classic municipal park scene as the 100th Shildon Parkrun in Hackworth Park takes place on February 14, 2015. Picture: TOM BANKSA classic municipal park scene as the 100th Shildon Parkrun in Hackworth Park takes place on February 14, 2015. Picture: TOM BANKS

But a £900,000 restoration programme restored the dragons, the fountain and the rest home and installed a new statue of Hackworth so that by the time of the park’s centenary in 2012, it was looking like the very model of a municipal park: a place for all Shildonians to enjoy the greenery whether they come from the Old or the New settlements, or are working men or filthy rich capitalists.