A STEEPLE peers over the top of some of the least attractive concrete block buildings in Darlington's Northgate and looks down on the shoppers scurrying into McDonalds.

When it was built exactly 140 years ago, the steeple, and the church it is attached to, were at the hub of a thriving congregation which was inspired by one of the district's greatest preachers.

But now the church, which includes some of the oldest stonework in this part of the town centre, is a carpet shop and the Sunday school beside it is a furniture shop.

It was once the Darlington Congregational Bicentenary Memorial Church. Congregationalists are an independently-minded lot. They did not like the extravagant ways of the Roman Catholic church, and even after the Reformation, the Church of England with all its vicars, bishops and archbishops was still too much for them.

To escape, some of them boarded the Mayflower and sailed to America. Others stayed at home and tried to purify the Church of England. They were the Puritans and their leader was Oliver Cromwell.

But, after Cromwell's death, the monarchy was restored and the Congregationalists were persecuted. In 1662, 2,000 Puritan ministers were expelled from the Church of England, and Congregationalism went underground.

It quickly resurfaced, though. The first Congregational preacher was spotted in Darlington in August 1672. He was the Reverend Rogers, a Barnard Castle clergyman who had been ejected from the C of E on that fateful day in 1662.

By the late 18th Century, a congregation of Congregationalists was sharing a meeting room in Northgate with some Presbyterians. But in 1806, a fearsome Presbyterian minister called William Graham drove 12 of them from the premises and they set up home in a street off Northgate - Union Street - which is today accessed through a concrete arch beside Boots the Chemist.

In 1812, they built the Bethel Chapel - "house of God" - there, but by 1825 their congregation was so large that the chapel had to be expanded. The carved plaque marking this expansion can be seen in the courtyard between the carpet and furniture shops.

In 1859, the chapel welcomed a new minister, the Reverend Henry Kendall, who in his youth had been renowned as "The Boy Preacher". Still only 27, he enthused the chapel and the congregation kept growing.

In 1862, Congregationalists wanted to mark the 200th anniversary of the 2,000's expulsion by building as many new churches as possible. Darlington was an obvious place to start. Bethel Chapel was torn down in November 1861 and local ecclesiastical architect JP Pritchett started work on the Gothic plans.

On December 5, Mr Kendall, with an inscribed silver trowel and a rosewood mallet, helped lay the foundation stone of the new building. A bottle was placed inside the stone containing a copy of the Darlington and Stockton Times and some coins of the day - all, as far as we know, are still somewhere in the carpet shop.

The official opening day was on August 24, 1862 - 200 years to the day that the 2,000 had been expelled. The new church held 600 adults and children. It cost, "including warming, ventilation and lighting, and allowing for the value of old materials reused", £1,900.

The Congregationalists then turned their thoughts to the houses to the west of the church - an ideal spot for a Sunday school.

The "costly and commodious structure" was started in 1875. Mr Pritchett was again the architect and Louie Pease, the daughter of the mayoress Mrs Henry Pease, of Pierremont, laid the foundation stone. For her troubles, she received another inscribed silver trowel and a polished walnut mallet (her mother the mayoress was in Cotherstone tending a sick son at the time).

The school cost £1,800, with its main feature the 62ft by 25ft second floor schoolroom - you can still visit the cavernous classroom, complete with stage, when browsing among the furniture.

For just over 100 years, there were enough Congregationalists in Darlington to keep the church and school in use. But the 1960s were a controversial time for Congregationalism - some of these independently-minded churches started clubbing together; others stopped co-operating with each other altogether.

In 1972, the Darlington church decided to throw its hand in with Presbyterians of Northgate. Together they formed the United Reformed Church and they chose St George's, on the Chesnut Street corner, as their home.

Union Street was surplus to requirements so it, along with its 100ft steeple, was sold off.

THE figure that looms largest over Union Street's history is the Reverend Henry Kendall. He was the man who brought WT Stead, The Northern Echo's most famous editor, to Darlington in 1871; he was the one who verified James Durham's character when the railway porter reported being attacked by a ghost in North Road station.

Mr Kendall was born in Scunthorpe in 1832, the youngest of 11 children - six of whom become Methodist ministers. His conversion to Christ came when he had reached the grand age of ten years, eight months and 27 days.

He was collecting the cows one day when he told a friend that if they were waiting for him at the gate, he would "give his heart to Christ that night". They were and, after 15 weeks of praying, he did.

He was 11 years and eight months old when he preached his first sermon, and he quickly became a phenomenon. Known as The Boy Preacher or The Lincolnshire Boy, he toured the district. On one occasion he arrived at a chapel to find it so crowded he could not enter the door - the congregation had to pass him from shoulder to shoulder until he reached the pulpit.

In 1855, he switched from Methodism to Congregationalism, and after attending college in London he took his first ministry in Darlington. At first he lived in lodgings in Blackwell, but when he married Margaret Millen in 1861 he moved into Flora Cottage, in Coniscliffe Road (it still stands near Flora Avenue, although last time we were up that way it appeared to have been renamed Elton West).

It was largely Henry's brilliance as a preacher and minister that caused the Union Street church to thrive in the second half of the 19th Century.

In 1872, a church in Middlesbrough tried to poach him with the offer of a "better financial position". But Union Street rallied around, and at a special tea in a marquee in the grounds of Pierremont, he was presented with a purse of 56 gold sovereigns collected by the congregation. So touched was Mr Kendall that he decided to stay.

"He is not only one of the most refined and popular preachers, but he is also one of the leading citizens of Darlington," said The Northern Echo in an article written by its then editor, WT Stead. Stead, who died on the Titanic, was also a Congregationalist and had taken the Echo job only after discussing it with Kendall.

Henry is also remembered for his involvement in Darlington's spookiest ghost story. Railway porter James Durham claimed to have been punched by a ghost in North Road station and bitten by the ghost's dog. When Mr Kendall testified that he had known Durham for 25 years and that he was one of the strongest, soberest men he had known, the story aroused national interest as it was the first time a ghost had been accused of physically assaulting a living person. The story has recently been revived at the North Road Railway Centre.

In 1893, Mr Kendall retired and went on a two-year preaching tour in North America. Among his gifts from his Darlington congregation was an album of their photos.

But he said: "You are photographed upon my memory and I will often think of you in wild wastes of waters and in the depths of Canadian forests. You will be with me beside the vast lakes of the new world."

He returned to England in 1895, but he had contracted malaria while preaching in the Deep South of the US. He continued to preach, but fell seriously ill in 1899 and died in his home at 37 Stanhope Road, on February 25, 1900.

He was buried in West Cemetery, and The Northern Echo said he was "the doyen of nonconformist ministers of Darlington and district".

THE Kendall family is being researched by Maria Borrill, of Scunthorpe, and she would like to trace descendants of Henry. His daughters were Ada, who married Thomas Dixon, and Effie, who became a teacher and never married. Henry had a son, Arthur, who became a bank manager. Maria would also like to know what happened to the plaque which went up in Henry's memory beside the pulpit in Union Street, but which does not seem to have survived the chapel's transition into a shop.

If you can help, or have any information to add to this week's column, please write to Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington, DL1 1NF, e-mail chris.lloydnen.co.uk, or phone (01325) 505062

Published: ??/??/2002

Echo Memories, The Northern Echo, Priestgate, Darlington DL1 1NF, e-mail chris.lloyd@nne.co.uk or telephone (01325) 505062.