Origins of Darlington

Darlington began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Skerne, a northern tributary of the River Tees. Later the town seems to have come under the influence of the Danes as there are still many place-names of Viking origin in its vicinity.

Church of St Cuthbert, Darlington
Church of St Cuthbert, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

In 1003 AD ‘Dearthington’ as it was then known was given by Styr, an Anglo-Dane, who was the son of Ulphus, to the Community of St Cuthbert at Durham with the permission of King Aethelred and the place became the centre of an important Anglo-Saxon estate. It was possibly the return of land that had belonged to the community in pre-Viking times.

Styr, Darlington’s owner, was a powerful magnate in the City of York, best known for granting the hand of his daughter, Sige, to Uhtred, Earl of Northumbria on the condition that Uhtred should kill Styr’s arch enemy, Thurbrand. In the event Uhtred himself was killed by Thurbrand after he was called to attend the court of King Cnut at Wighill in the West Riding of Yorkshire in 1016. Thurbrand’s men sprung upon Uhtred from behind a curtain at Cnut’s hall. The event set in motion a family blood feud that would spread across three generations.

River Skerne and Church of St Cuthbert, Darlington
River Skerne and Church of St Cuthbert, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

Dearthington, Darnton, Darlington

The name Darlington derives from the Anglo-Saxon ‘Dearthington’, which seemingly meant ‘settlement of Deornoth’s people’. There was also a variation ‘Dearnington’ but by Norman times its name had changed to Derlinton. An Anglo-Saxon cemetery and settlement certainly existed here and it seems likely that there was an Anglo-Saxon church. Traditionally, Darlington is said to have been one of the resting places for the monks who carried St Cuthbert’s coffin.

No Anglo-Saxon sculptures have been found that indicate the presence of the Anglo-Saxon church but a fragment of a ‘hogback’ Viking sculptured stone was found in the churchyard and is preserved in the church. Viking hogbacks have been found in neighbouring parts of the Tees Vale and the Vale of Mowbray and are often associated with earlier Christian churches as at Gainford, Sockburn and at Brompton near Northallerton.

The confusion and inconsistency of Darlington’s name does not end with ‘Derlinton’, because in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the town was generally known by the name of ‘Darnton’ or somewhat less politely as ‘Darnton i’ the Dirt’.

Darlington 'broach upon the steeple'
Darlington ‘broach upon the steeple’ © David Simpson 2021

The unfortunate moniker was due to the town’s notoriously muddy,  unpaved streets that are said to have inspired King James of Scotland and England to write the following uncomplimentary verse, during a visit of 1603:

‘Darnton has a bonny, bonny church
With a broach upon the steeple
But Darnton is a mucky, mucky town
And mair sham on the people.’

‘Mucky town’ is certainly not a good description of Darlington today, as it generally has a pleasant and attractive appearance. It is especially well endowed with town parks and leafy suburbs although despite its long history the periphery of Darlington town centre is largely of a Victorian and twentieth century nature though its central street layout goes back to earlier times.

The ‘broach’ referred to in King James’ uncomplimentary verse is the spire that adorns the top of the church tower. In times past a ‘steeple’ was simply a church tower (rather than a spire).

Bishop’s Borough

Since Norman times Darlington has been a borough and the site of an important market and was arguably the capital of southern County Durham, though for administrative purposes it is no longer located within County Durham today.

In 1084 Prince Bishop of Durham, William of St Carileph removed the secular priests from Durham City and relocated them to Norton-on-Tees, St Helen Auckland and Darlington. At Durham they were replaced by celibate monks from Jarrow and Wearmouth. The non-celibate secular priests who came to Darlington, Auckland and Norton were members of the old Community of St Cuthbert and are thought to be the descendants of the monks of Lindisfarne.

St Cuthbert depicted on Darlington church
St Cuthbert depicted on Darlington parish church holding the head of St Oswald, King of Northumbria © David Simpson 2021

It was under the influence of one of Carileph’s powerful successors, Bishop Hugh Pudsey, that Darlington became a borough sometime before 1195 and the medieval street layout would have been set down featuring streets such as Skinnergate, Houndgate, Market Place, Horsemarket, Tubwell Row, Bondgate and the High Row (today the town’s principal street).

Numerous old street-names that show the extent of the early town demonstrate that it was a successful borough. In fact it was virtually two towns: the street of Bondgate on land belonging to the freemen or bondsmen (as at Alnwick and Bishop Auckland) was treated as an almost separate place in early times.

St Cuthbert’s, the ‘bonny church’ referred to in King James’ rhyme above is still of course one of the most admirable features of Darlington. Built in the twelfth century in Early English style by Bishop Pudsey, it is sometimes referred to as the ‘Lady of the North’ and is one of the largest churches in the region. In 1164 Pudsey built a manor house in Darlington just south of the church on the banks of the Skerne (to the south of the present day town hall).

St Cuthberts Church Darlington
St Cuthberts Church Darlington. Photo David Simpson

When Bishop Pudsey died at the age of 70 in 1195 he was on his way south to  report to King Richard I (Richard ‘the Lionheart). Pudsey seems to have been in trouble for spending money that he had raised to help pay the ransom for the release of Richard, who had been imprisoned in Austria. Pudsey had seemingly spent the money in the construction of St Cuthbert’s church at Darlington. Pudsey didn’t make it to the meeting with the king. He died at Doncaster during his journey south.

Quaker town

In the seventeenth century Darlington became noted for its woollen and linen industry and as a popular place of residence for members of the Quaker faith. Quakers soon formed an influential and wealthy community in the town by the 1800s. The best-known member of this Darlington fraternity was Edward Pease, the man responsible for Darlington’s fame as the ‘Cradle of the Railways’.

Edward Pease
Edward Pease

It was Pease who rejected an early nineteenth century plan by local businessmen to build a canal for the shipment of coals from south Durham to the mouth of the Tees and made the innovative suggestion that steam locomotives be used instead. The suggestion was accepted.

George Stephenson, the famous engineer of Tyneside was employed by Pease to design the locomotives and develop the railway, though it was Pease who provided the financial support and he was very much in charge.

On one occasion Stephenson had suggested an alternative route for the railway which would have bypassed Darlington and altered the railway history books. Pease was clear with his reply:

“George thou must think of Darlington; remember it was Darlington that sent for thee”

Closely involved with the development and management of the Stockton and Darlington Railway was Edward Pease’s son, Joseph Pease, who is commemorated in a statue in the centre of Darlington.

Edward Pease statue, Darlington
Joseph Pease statue, High Row, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

It was Joseph Pease who instigated the extension of the line across the River Tees to the site of a farm called Middlesbrough after buying up land there for the construction of a port initially called Port Darlington. Pease was the founding father of the town of Middlesbrough.

The Stockton and Darlington Railway

When the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened on the 27th September 1825, history had been made, for as well as carrying coal, the train included six hundred passengers, most travelling in coal waggons, but some in a specially designed carriage called The Experiment. The Stockton and Darlington Railway was thus the world’s first public railway.

On the historic day, the coal wagons for the journey were linked up to the locomotive called Locomotion Number One at Shildon and were brought there from Witton Park Colliery by inclines at Etherley and Brussleton. From Shildon the Locomotion travelled for two hours with only minor hitches before arriving in Darlington, where coal was distributed to the poor.

From Darlington the Locomotion and its train of passengers continued the journey to Stockton stopping only at Yarm Junction where more passengers, including a brass band climbed on board.

Head of Steam Museum, Darlington
Head of Steam, Darlington in railway station building of the 1840s © David Simpson 2021

Until recently George Stephenson’s original Locomotion Number One, the locomotive that hauled the train on the historic opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, could still be seen in Darlington on display at the town’s fascinating Head of Steam museum in North Road. The locomotive is now shared with the National Railway Museum’s Locomotion museum at Shildon. The former station building at Darlington, which houses the Head of Steam museum is one of the oldest railway stations in the world and dates from the 1840s.

A full size working replica of Locomotion can be seen at the Beamish Open Air Museum near Stanley, in County Durham. The Locomotion Number One is of course an older engine than Stephenson’s perhaps more famous Newcastle-built Rocket, which won the victory at Lancashire’s Rainhill Trials in 1829. Both the Rocket and Locomotion Number One were built by Stephenson’s works near Forth Street in Newcastle.

Painting of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825,
Painting of the opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825, showing the Skerne Bridge

Not far from the Head of Steam museum is a railway bridge across the River Skerne, built by the Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi. It dates from 1825 and is part of the original Stockton and Darlington railway route.

Darlington’s present railway station, sometimes known as Darlington Bank Top, is situated at the north end of Victoria Road and opened in 1887. It is situated on the main East Coast Main line and is noted for its prominent clock tower.

Tower of Darlington Railway station
Tower of Darlington Railway station David Simpson 2021

Bridge Building and Journalism

Railways are not the only industry for which the town of Darlington is noted. Its engineering skills, particularly bridge building were long important and famous bridges have been built at Darlington by the town’s Cleveland Bridge engineering company which span rivers as far away as the Amazon and the Nile. Local examples of the work of Cleveland Bridge include Middlesbrough’s iconic Transporter Bridge.

Darlington also has an important publishing industry as the headquarters of The Darlington and Stockton Times and The Northern Echo which have their headquarters in the town’s Priestgate.

The Northern Echo building
The Northern Echo’s Edwardian headquarters building. © David Simpson 2021

The second of these newspapers was once edited by W. T. Stead (1849-1912), the influential Northumbrian-born social reformer (born in Embleton) who died on board the Titanic in 1912. Stead began his career as an editor with The Northern Echo at the age of only 22.

Other former Northern Echo newspaper editors include the campaigning journalist Harold Evans (1928-2020) who later went on to become editor of The Sunday Times and The Times before continuing his career as a highly influential editor in the United States, becoming Editorial Director of US News, the New York Daily News and the President and Publisher of Random House.

Commemoration of W.T. Stead
Commemoration of W.T. Stead at The Northern Echo offices, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

Despite its industrial past, Darlington has a very smart town centre that is focused on the broad two-level street called High Row. It’s a neat-looking street, and one building of note here is the former Backhouse Bank (now Barclays), founded by Jonathan Backhouse, a prominent Darlington banker and Quaker.

Backhouse bank, Darlington
Backhouse Bank, Darlington (now Barclays) © David Simpson 2021

His enterprise was one of the early roots of what would become the Barclays banking ’empire’, now one of the most powerful and influential banking institutions in the world. The building itself was designed by the Darlington architect Alfred Waterhouse and dates from 1864.

Darlington, Town Hall, markets, market place
Darlington, Town Hall, markets, market place and clock tower © David Simpson 2021

The most prominent Darlington landmark building in High Row is however, the Victorian Town Hall which is also of 1864 and again designed by Waterhouse, with its prominent clock tower overlooking the main street. Part of the building incorporates Darlington’s indoor market.

The broad market square to the rear of the old town hall separates the building from the present day’s rather bland town hall of the 1970s that stands alongside alongside the River Skerne near St Cuthbert’s church.

Old Town hall, clock tower, Darlington
Old Town hall, clock tower, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

Darlington Streets

Many of Darlington’s town centre streets follow a medieval lay-out typically named with the suffix ‘gate’,  a Norse word for a street – there were no actual gates across these streets. Thus we have Blackwellgate, Northgate, Skinnergate, Houndgate, Bondgate and Priestgate. Priestgate was associated with the prebends of St Cuthbert’s church which held a collegiate status, headed by a dean.

Post House Wynd
Post House Wynd © David Simpson 2021

Some of the older narrower, passages and passage-like streets in Darlington are called ‘wynds’ including Bull Wynd off the south side of the market place but the most prominent wynd is Post House Wynd linking High Row to Skinnergate.

‘Wynd’ seems to be an old term used in the Tees valley (notably at Yarm and Staindrop) as well as in nearby Richmond and in the neighbouring Cleveland area of Yorkshire, for example at Hutton Rudby. It does not seem to occur as an historic street-name in other parts of England including the rest of Yorkshire, Durham or Northumberland (though there is a long street called the ‘Wynding’ at Bamburgh). Interestingly the term Wynd is very widespread in Scotland found in just about every historic town from the Border northwards all the way up to Shetland. There are several old ‘Wynds’ in Edinburgh. In Darlington there are also several side streets called ‘yards’ in the old part of town.

Skinnergate, Darlington
Skinnergate, Darlington © David Simpson 2020

Darlington’s Market Place is situated between High Row and St Cuthbert’s church, bordered by Tubwell Row and Horse Market. Branching off to the south from the south east corner of the market place is Feethams, a street that leads out to the meadows alongside the River Skerne near the cricket ground. The name Feethams derives from a Norse word for meadow and indeed the name of the Skerne itself shows Norse influence, resulting from a Viking pronunciation of an older Anglo-Saxon word ‘scir’ (sher) meaning ‘bright stream’ which occurs in place-names such as Sherburn.

Market Place, Darlington
Market Place, Darlington. © David Simpson 2018

The main thoroughfares leading out of the town are North Road (an extension of Northgate) which is the main route north to Durham and beyond. It is the site of the Head of Steam Museum and was once the home to the famed Darlington North Road Railway Works or North Road Shops, established in 1863 and closed in 1966. The site is now primarily occupied by a Morrisons supermarket, a modern building that features the clock of the former works.

Darlington’s main thoroughfare heading east out of the town is Yarm Road, the historic route to Yarm. The best-known feature of this street is the Hippodrome Theatre which was for many years known as Darlington Civic Theatre. It began life as a variety theatre called the Hippodrome and has reverted to this original name (though it was alternatively known as ‘The Palace’ in its early days).  Dating from 1907, the theatre was designed by Darlington architects G. Gordon Hoskins.

Hippodrome Theatre, Yarm Road
Hippodrome Theatre, Yarm Road, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

Grange Road and Consicliffe Road are the two main routes to the south and south west which meet at the junction with Skinnergate and Blackwellgate in the town centre. Consicliffe Road is a lengthy and leafy street heading out to the villages of Low Coniscliffe, High Coniscliffe and Piercebridge en route to Barnard Castle and Teesdale.

Grange Road heads southward passing close to the town’s picturesque South Park and from there onward to Blackwell Grange and Croft-on-Tees. The main route out to the North West and North East are Woodland Road leading to the suburb of Cockerton and Haughton Road which heads out to Haughton-le-Skerne and Great Burdon.

Cockerton and Haughton-le-Skerne

Cockerton and Haughton-le-Skerne are two suburbs of Darlington that still retain their original village feel despite being absorbed by the growth of the town.

Cockerton is a north western suburb of Darlington and although once a separate village has been part of Darlington parish since medieval times. The name Cockerton comes from the Cocker Beck which has an ancient British Celtic name deriving from a word ‘Kukro’ meaning crooked.

Haughton-le-Skerne, a north eastern suburb was probably given its suffix to distinguish it from other similar sounding places in the historic county of Durham like Houghton-le-Spring near Sunderland and Houghton-le-Side near Heighington though the spelling is with an ‘a’ rather than an ‘o’ as it is named from a ‘haugh’ or riverside meadow next to the Skerne.

Unlike Cockerton, Haughton-le-Skerne was historically completely separate from Darlington as it has its own parish church which is dedicated to St Andrew and dates from Norman times. Haughton itself still looks very much like a village.

Just out to the east of Haughton in the open countryside to the east is the still separate village (or perhaps more accurately hamlet) of Great Burdon. Its name means ‘great fortified manor on a hill’ and suggests it may once have been a place of importance. Its neighbours to the east are Little Burdon and further east still the village of Sadberge which certainly has historical credentials as a place of former significance.

The course of the Skerne

Although Darlington lies within the vale of the River Tees it is its tributary, the little River Skerne that flows through the centre of the town which is truly the Darlington river.

The Skerne rises in eastern County Durham to the north of Sedgefield between the villages of Trimdon and Trimdon Grange from where it initially flows east. Its course begins a little to the east of the deserted medieval village of Garmondsway from which the Viking king, Cnut made a pilgrimage to Durham in 1031.

Hurworth Burn Reservoir near Trimdon
Hurworth Burn Reservoir near Trimdon lies close to the source of the Skerne. Photo © David Simpson 2018

East of Trimdon, the Skerne is joined by a stream called the Hurworth Burn  after which the river feeds the Hurworth Burn Reservoir to the north west of Hartlepool. Hurworth Burn should not be confused with Hurworth-on-Tees near Darlington which lies at the end of the Skerne’s journey where it joins the River Tees. A curious coincidence that there should be a Hurworth at the beginning and end of the river’s journey?

An associated separate branch of the Skerne that was historically called ‘The North Skerne’ begins in the Ferryhill Carrs area near the East Coast Main Line where in boggy woodland country it virtually links up with the Tursdale and Croxdale Becks to the north, which are tributaries of the River Wear.

The Skerne itself exits from the south side of the Hurworth Burn Reservoir and then takes a course south west passing south of Fishburn near Winterton (the Skerne is the ‘burn’ or ‘stream’ of Fishburn’s name). It then continues west to the south of Bishop Middleham (site of one of the Bishop of Durham’s castles). Nearby in one of several areas known as ‘the carrs’ it is joined by the North Skerne and continues its journey southward from here.

East Coast Main Line, Ferryhill
East Coast Main Line, Ferryhill – the woodland to the east was the boggy setting for the ‘North Skerne’. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Skerne heads south through the ‘carr lands’ in amongst a legion of drainage ditches and streams in this poorly drained district of scrubby low lying country around Mordon Carrs and Bradbury Carrs south west of Sedgefield.

The river passes a deserted medieval village called Preston-le-Skerne as it flows beneath the motorway and then passses another deserted village called Heworth. From there it flows along the western side of Aycliffe village and then southward between Coatham Mundeville and Brafferton.

Brafferton means ‘broad-ford-settlement’ from an old crossing point on the Skerne. Coatham Mundeville, with its part Norman name is yet another deserted medieval village.

Historic view of Darlington showing the Skerne and St. Cuthbert's church
Historic view of Darlington showing the Skerne and St. Cuthbert’s church

The Skerne, never quite sure which direction to take, approaches Darlington tentatively from the north west from Beaumont Hill and Ketton Hall Farm (where the famed Durham Ox was bred), passing the southern edge of Barmpton and the western edge of Great Burdon before entering Darlington itself on the south side of Haughton-le-Skerne.

After skirting a trading estate it passes underneath the famed single-arched Skerne Bridge of 1825, a railway bridge built for the Stockton and Darlington Railway by Durham architect Ignatius Bonomi.  It is the oldest railway bridge in continuous use and once featured as an image on the five pound note along with a portrait of George Stephenson.

River Skerne and church of St Cuthbert, Darlington
River Skerne and church of St Cuthbert, Darlington © David Simpson 2021

It continues south through the town and town centre, crossed by several bridges and passing close to St Cuthbert’s church; the borough council’s town hall; Feethams cricket and onward through the beautiful South Park, leaving the built up area of the town to the south near the golf course in the Blackwell Grange area, eventually joining the River Tees near Croft and Hurworth Place.

The land in the junction between the two rivers west of the Skerne and north of the Tees is called Oxen-le-Field or Oxneyfield and is the site of the ‘Hell’s Kettles’ or ‘Hell Kettles’.

These three supposedly bottomless pits, also known as ‘Devil’s Kettles’ or ‘Kettles of Hell’, have been the subject of numerous legends and superstitions in times past. Said to have been created by a ferocious earthquake in 1179, there is a story that they were full of green, boiling sulphurous water. People and animals were allegedly drowned or eaten alive by the pikes and eels that infested their waters.

The pits once aroused the curiosity of people the length and breadth of Britain, marked on historic maps of England alongside major towns. They were once visited by the writer and traveller Daniel Defoe, who dismissed them as ‘old coal pits’. This they certainly are not, as coal has never been mined in the Darlington area.

Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.

Castle Eden and Crimdon | Peterlee Trimdon to Thornley

Aycliffe and Shildon | Sedgefield 

Bishop Auckland | Barnard Castle | Gainford to Coniscliffe

West Auckland and the Gaunless Valley

 Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge | Yarm and Eaglescliffe

Stockton-on-Tees | Hartlepool Billingham Norton

Middlesbrough Around Middlesbrough



North East England History and Culture