Origins of Darlington

Darlington began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on the River Skerne, a northern tributary of the 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.

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

In 1003 AD Dearthington as it was then known was given by Styr, 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.

The name Darlington derives from the Anglo-Saxon Dearthington, which seemingly meant ‘the settlement of Deornoth’s people’. There was also a variation ‘Dearnington’ but by Norman times its name had changed to Derlinton.

Confusion does not end here however, because during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the town was generally known by the name of ‘Darnton’ or somewhat less politely as ‘Darnton i’ the Dirt’.

This unfortunate moniker was probably due to the once unpaved streets of the town that are said to have inspired King James of Scotland 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 very centre of Darlington is now largely of a Victorian and twentieth century nature though its central street layout goes back to earlier times.

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 that county today.

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

It was under the influence of the powerful Prince Bishop, Hugh Pudsey of Durham that Darlington became a borough sometime before 1195 and the medieval street layout would have been set down featuring Skinnergate, Houndgate, Market Place, Horsemarket, Tubwell Row 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 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.

St Cuthberts Church Darlington
St Cuthberts Church Darlington. Photo David Simpson 2018

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’.

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”

The Stockton and Darlington Railway

The Stockton and Darlington Railway was opened on the 27th September 1825, and history was 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 its journey to Stockton stopping only at Yarm Junction where more passengers, including a brass band climbed on board.

George Stephenson’s original ‘Locomotion Number One’, the locomotive that hauled the train on the historic opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway can still be seen in Darlington today on display in the town’s fascinating Head of Steam museum in North Road. This 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 more famous Newcastle-built ‘Rocket’, which won the victory at Lancashire’s Rainhill Trials in 1829.

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

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.

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 second of these newspapers was once edited by W.T Stead, the influential Northumbrian born social reformer 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 newspapers include the campaigning journalist Harold Evans 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.

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 asmart-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. 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.

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

Market Place, Darlington
Market place, Darlington. Photo David Simpson

The neat market square to the rear of the old town hall separates the building from the present day rather bland town hall of the 1960s that stands alongside alongside the River Skerne.

The old clock tower is one of two that are landmarks in the town centre. The other is that of the town’s ‘Bank Top’ railway station of 1887 that lies at the end of Victoria Road across the Skerne to the east. It should not be confused with the North Road Station to the north of the Town Centre which stands on the old Stockton and Darlington line.

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 it is spelt 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 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.

Hell’s Kettles and the Skerne

Although Darlington is undoubtedly in the valley 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 near the former colliery village of Trimdon and flows south before joining the River Tees at Croft near Darlington, close to the site of the famous ‘Hell’s Kettles’ or ‘Hell Kettles’ at Oxen-le-Field.

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, locals may tell you that they are full of green, boiling sulphurous water. People and animals are allegedly drowned or eaten alive by the pikes and eels that infest 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 and were even 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

 Croft, Sockburn and Sadberge | Yarm and Eaglescliffe

Stockton-on-Tees | Hartlepool Billingham Norton

Middlesbrough Around Middlesbrough


North East England History and Culture