MIDDLETON-IN-TEESDALE was the agricultural capital of the upper dale until 1815 when the London Lead Company moved its headquarters there and it transformed into a lead town – by 1857, 90 per cent of the population was involved in the lead industry.

Having Quaker origins, the company liked to provide model accommodation for its workers on the surface of the earth, even though they scrabbled for lead beneath the surface in appalling conditions.

In 1833, the company built a new settlement at Masterman Place and Newtown, which included cottages set in gardens designed by the Durham cathedral architect Ignatius Bonomi.

In 1842, it created the Governor and Company's Teesdale Workmen's Corn Association so that its miners could buy flour more cheaply than local millers were selling.

This was, effectively, a co-operative, and as it was not until 1844 that the Rochdale Society of Equitable Pioneers formed what is regarded as the first co-operative, Middleton was home to a truly pioneering venture.

The Northern Echo: The co-op in Middleton-in-Teesdale which was destroyed by fire in 1929The co-op in Chapel Row, Middleton-in-Teesdale, which was destroyed by fire in 1929

It struggled at first, but in 1873 changed its name to the Teesdale Workmen’s Industrial and Provident Society and it opened its first grocery shop.

Over the next few decades it grew so that its premises in Chapel Row were nearly big enough to accommodate its full name over the door, making this the biggest shop in the upper dale.

And, appropriately, shortly after 9pm on October 30, 1929, it was hit by one of the biggest fires in the upper dale.

It broke out in the tailoring department at the rear of the building and quickly spread to the drapery, hardware, butchery and grocery departments.

The Northern Echo: Middleton in Teesdale from the archive.The rebuilt co-op is on the right of this early 1960s picture, behind the tree

“A large army of voluntary workers” sprang into action, rescuing valuables from the store under the eyes of Police Sergeant Kitching, who bravely retrieved cash from the store safe.

Then he began calling up local fire brigades to see if they would help. In those days, each town had its own brigade which was quite prepared to stay within its own boundaries even when there was a genuine emergency beyond. Darlington, Barnard Castle, Bishop Auckland and Crook Colliery brigades all turned down Sgt Kitching’s entreaties as they did not have a payment agreement with the local authority.


Undeterred, Sergeant Kitching tried to get help from the Catterick Camp Brigade, which did agree to turn out – but they met with an accident en route. Whether they would have been any use had they arrived is debatable, because it later transpired they were heading for Middleton Tyas rather than Middleton-in-Teesdale.

The blaze was now out of control, and spreading to neighbouring properties, where the army of volunteers was carrying furniture into the street to save it.

“At least LNER showed some community spirit and allowed the hoses from Middleton-in-Teesdale station to be deployed,” says Gillian Hunt, who kindly drew our attention to this story after Memories 661 in January in which Bishop Auckland co-op on Newgate Street was hit by a terrific fire on July 29, 1876.

“There was no shortage of water as the town reservoir was at Snaisgill, a short distance away,” continues Gillian, whose great-grandparents, John and Mary Hunt, had lived in co-op houses in Chapel Row as John had been the butchery manager.

“It took 10 hours to extinguish the flames, which were still in danger of re-igniting by 3pm on the Sunday afternoon. If it had not been such a calm night, it would have been impossible to contain the blaze.”

The Teesdale Mercury reported that flames could be seen for miles around, and, as a result, hundreds of people travelled out by motor car to watch the drama as the front of the store collapsed.

The Northern Echo: The 1930s co-op in Chapel Row, Middleton-in-Teesdale, which was built on the site of the store that was destroyed by fire on October 30, 1929. Picture: Google StreetViewThe 1930s co-op in Chapel Row, Middleton-in-Teesdale, which was built on the site of the store that was destroyed by fire on October 30, 1929. Picture: Google StreetView

Because it was the biggest store in the district, the co-op was crucial to the lives of local people, so the Barnard Castle co-op replaced the lost stock and local grocer, Mr RW Raine, also helped out.

The co-op re-commenced trading in the garage and stables at the rear of the fire-damaged premises and set up its drapery department in the Primitive Methodist schoolroom.

Then it rebuilt, a true phoenix from the ashes, with a classic-looking 1930s department store shopping palace which is still the largest store in the upper dale.

MEMORIES 671 took a railway tour up Teesdale with the help of the splendid new book, A Ticket to Teesdale, produced by the North Eastern Railway Association (see ner.org.uk).


Once, the Tees Valley Railway, from Barnard Castle to Middleton-in-Teesdale with intermediate stations at Cotherstone, Romaldkirk and Mickleton, was renowned for not only the beauty of its dales scenery but also its station flowers.

“Each of the stations on the Tees Valley branch has its floral display and the line contrasts sharply with the dingy route from Darlington to the coast, where the railways have succumbed to the atmosphere of industrial squalor that pervades most of the area,” reported the Echo’s evening sister paper, the Northern Despatch, in 1951. “It would take a magician to distil order and beauty from the tangled masses of rusty old iron, weeds and slagheaps that flank each side of the railway line.”

The Northern Echo: Middleton-in-Teesdale station, on the south side of the riverMiddleton-in-Teesdale station. Picture: John Askwith

The waiting room at Middleton-in-Teesdale was decorated with certificates that had been awarded to the station in the years after the war when much store was put on the beautification of the platforms.

“The whole station is a model of cleanliness and enterprise,” said the Despatch reporter in awe, “where even the buffers are decorated with tubs of flowers and the whole amenities are spick and span.”

The waiting room, he said, was filled with a clarkia – a flowering plant – that had been trained from a pot on the floor to run up the chimneybreast.

The Northern Echo: From the Guardian, July 6, 1960. Left: A waiting room transformed. Right: Stationmaster EW Archer watering a flower box on the buffers

John Askwith has kindly sent in a cutting (above) from The Guardian from July 6, 1960, which features two pictures of the blooming marvel at the end of the Tees Valley Railway.

“The little station at Middleton-in-Teesdale is celebrated in railway gardening quarters just as the area is noted for its moorland grandeur,” said the caption beneath.