HURWORTH Councillor Peter Foster has lent me a folder of items relating to HMS Hurworth (I think you can see the connection there). I haven't yet got round to working out how fascinating the contents are, but I've already been struck by the folder itself.

It's a Dressers folder which seems to have been their own line as it is called the "Coniscliffe Wallet". How cool is that, having various stationery lines named after local places? I wonder what else there was: a Merrybent eraser, a Walworth HB?

Amazingly, in March it will be ten years since Dressers shut, and Darlington has never been the same. Here's a history from back then:


The Northern Echo 28/03/2001 Chris Lloyd

ON Saturday, nearly 200 years of Darlington history comes to a close when Dressers of High Row shuts its doors for the last time.

It could even be longer than 200 years. For the last 34 years, Dressers has traded from a building on High Row which positively reeks of the old-fashioned ways of family businesses serving a town for generation after generation.

The building, as regular Echo Memories readers will know, was until 1966 the home of Lucks, a family firm of haberdashers which could trace its roots back to 1783.

As this building now seems likely to be sold to one of the High Street "giants" whose bland brands populate every main road in every town in every county, a 220-year era of shopping and service in Darlington can reasonably be said to be coming to an end.

Dressers effectively started in 1809, when a Stockton man called John Readman set up as a printer on the corner of Prebend Row and Priestgate. The biggest boost to his business came in 1825, when the local Quaker ruling families set up the Stockton and Darlington Railway. Railways needed posters, timetables and all manner of paraphernalia that only a printer could provide.

When Readman retired in 1849, the Pease family were desperate to find a suitable candidate to become their in-house printer. They found, living in Brighton, a young Quaker called Harrison Penney who had just finished his printing apprenticeship, and enticed him north.

One of Penney's first acts was to take on an apprentice, and in 1852 he chose a 16-year-old called William Dresser. Young William had been born roughly where Specsavers Opticians is today on High Row - practically opposite Penney's shop.

He had been well-educated at Bowman's Academy in Gainford, one of the leading schools in the North-East in the 19th Century (its former pupils include comedian Stan Laurel.

In 1858, William completed his apprenticeship and decided to set himself up in business with a friend called Rapp. Their first press seems to have been in an out-building behind the Dresser family home on High Row, although soon the business took over the whole frontage.

They must have done fairly well, because soon they too were able to take on an apprentice - a young lad named Joseph Malaby Dent, from Archer Street.

In 1867, JM Dent went to London to finish his apprenticeship as a book binder and there he founded a firm of publishers that became world famous, and he earned enough money to bestow a nursery school in Darlington in memory of his father.

His firm, JM Dent, still publishes the Everyman's Library and his school, George Dent, in Woodland Road, still flourishes.

Back on High Row, Mr Rapp headed off to Saltburn, leaving William Dresser on his own. He had to invest because his competitor over the road, Mr Penney, was installing one of the first steam-powered printing presses.

William opted for slightly different technology and went for one of the first atmospheric gas engines.

"It was a fearsome contraption of ratchets, cog-wheels, explosions and smells and people come from near and far to see it," says CP Nicholson in Those Boys O'Bondgate.

"It was one of the perennial April Fool jokes to send a boy around the town with a basin for 'a pint o'gas for t'engine'."

William was clearly doing well, but his big moment came in 1888 with the demise of his mentor over the road. "On the death of Mr Penney, Mr Dresser purchased the goodwill and the business, and incorporated it with his own," said The Northern Echo. It was now a large concern.

As well as the large stationery and printing shop on a couple of floors on High Row, he had a 100ft long press room out the back, full of machines for cutting, punching, perforating and printing, plus staff like bookbinders, lithographers and gold-blockers.

An 1894 advertorial boasted: "Work has been executed by Mr Dresser from these rooms and sent to HRH the Prince of Wales, at Sandringham, and Mr Dresser speaks with pride of the letter of approval received from our future king (Edward VII), who gave practical evidence of his satisfaction by repeating the order."

Five years after that repeat order, in 1899, William died after a second intestinal operation in Leeds.

"The second operation was performed on Monday and he seemed very much better for it," the Echo reported on the Friday.

"Unfortunately he had a relapse yesterday and succumbed.

"Of a quiet, unassuming disposition, Mr Dresser was generally respected by all who came in contact with him and could appreciate a man of upright character in business, social or private life."

Unlike his contemporaries, William had steered clear of the committees and councils that ran Darlington. Instead he devoted his energies to the Temperance Society and the Paradise Methodist Church.

He also had a large family, although this was tinged with sadness.

In the births section of the Darlington Telegraph and Guisboro' Mercury of June 8, 1861, is the announcement that on June 1 to "the wife of Mr William Dresser, printer and stationer, a son".

Below that, in the deaths, it is recorded that on June 6 "aged 24, Dorothy Anne, wife of Mr William Dresser, printer and stationer" died.

Presumably, he remarried for he left behind four sons and two daughters.

Two of those sons, JC and TE, carried on the business, JC in charge of the shop and TE looking over the printing press. The latter was moved into Crown Street - probably taking over another firm of printers which had served Darlington for years - and in the 1920s was sold to the company which owned The Northern Echo. It closed in 1963.

JC Dresser, a stout abstainer and devoted Methodist like his father, died in 1932, leaving TE to run the firm on his own. When he died in 1942 the family sold up.

Fred Mowbray, a typewriter salesman from Stockton, and GW Rudd, a paper merchant from Bishop Auckland, took over but kept the family, quality feel that was essential to the business.

They extended the High Row shop dramatically, and when Peter Warrand became general manager in 1953, a new travel section opened. It sold cases and tapped into a new market as cars were becoming affordable and foreign holidays were beginning to become common.

There was now fancy china and crystal to be found among the stationery, books and magazines.

By 1966, Nos 41 and 42 High Row were unable to cope with all of Dressers' departments and the building was sold. It, and the Pearl Assurance offices on the Bondgate corner, were then demolished and replaced with the hideous 1960s monstrosity that the Abbey National now squats in.

Dressers moved up the road to the site vacated by Richard Luck and Sons, which was twice the size of the old shop, and so there was room for the specialist Pen Corner and a toy department. It was a time of expansion because Dressers branched out into Stockton (1971, but closed in 1990) and Northallerton (1973, closed last month).

Perhaps the best thing about Dressers, apart from the service (everything was sold there, even Echo Memories books) was the handsome mahogany staircase that Lucks had put in in 1926.

It has a stylish, classy sweep, and it is to be hoped that when the developers move in after Saturday, their bland brands do not demand that is lost along with 200 years of Darlington history.