Darlington cattle mart held its last sale at Bank Top on Thursday ahead of its out-of-town move, bringing 900 years of history to an end
The Bishop of Durham grants Darlington the right to hold a market every Monday between Whitsun and Christmas. Because of the market, the town develops as the agricultural capital of south Durham and North Yorkshire.
The first incarnation of Darlington council takes control of the market from the bishop. Cattle are sold on High Row, geese in Prospect Place, sheep in Tubwell Row (which is known as Sheepmarket), horses in Horsemarket and Bondgate, and pigs outside St Cuthbert’s Church.
A private cattle mart is started by auctioneers Thomas and George Tarn on land leased from Lord Barnard in Barnard Street. It runs until after the First World War.
In High Row in 1862, iron posts and railings are installed to keep the cattle in pens – it is said that when these posts became redundant, they were moved to Victoria Embankment where they can still be seen lining the Skerne.
A petition demands that animal sales be moved from the town centre because of the nuisance they cause. The petition is defeated by a union between farmers and town centre traders, including publicans, who benefit hugely from the trade the market brings.
The Darlington Extension and Improvement Act is passed giving the new borough council powers to control aspects of the town like the sewers and the gas supply. Section 81 of the Act says the council should “maintain and regulate” a cattle mart.
1878, Feb 21
Darlington council unanimously bans animal sales in the streets, ending 800 years of history. This was hugely controversial because of the economic impact on the town centre, although the council believed the damage was outweighed by the sanitary benefits.
1878, Mar 4
The council’s £14,000 New Cattle Market opens on a greenfield beside Bank Top station where there is a “cattle dock” to unload the many animals that travel by train. The Darlington and Stockton Times reports: “The morning trains brought with them shoals of country folk on various errands bent; ruddy faced and long-coated dealers, plump and good tempered farmers’ daughters, and those shabbiest of shabby men – the drovers. ” Under the hammer that first morning are 11 bulls, 198 cows and heifers, 1,762 lean cattle, 115 pigs, 351 lean sheep and 60 fat sheep.
There are complaints that on its lofty site, the mart is too exposed to the chill wind, but the D&S Times says: “The coldness of the situation will, of course, soon be lessened by the erection of buildings upon the corporation land that surrounds the site.”
It hopes that suitable services would grow up around the mart. It says: “The corner of the avenue that leads up to the cattle ground would form an excellent spot on which to erect a coffee palace, after the fashion of those in Liverpool, for apart from the tremendous business that market days would be sure to bring, it would have a great attraction for people arriving at Bank Top station.”
Instead, residential terraces spring up around it, planting the seeds of conflict.
The Darlington Farmers’ Auction Market Company (DFAM) is formed to run the auction on the site leased from the council.
The council acquires Feethams Field, where the Vue cinema is today, with a view to relocating the mart to it. The First World War intervenes.
1927, Apr 9
Mayor John Snaith, himself a farmer and a butcher with his fingers in many business pies, opens the newly refurbished mart with an inscribed silver key. The council has spent £7,525 turning it into “one of the most commodious and up-to-date markets in the north”, which even has two banks on site. Auctioneer William Bainbridge sold the first shorthorn bullock, weighing 14¾ hundredweight, from Great Burdon, to Charles Johnson, of Skinnergate, for £35.80. He sold the first pig, bred by George Harrison, of Gainford, for £18 10s to renowned butcher GH Zissler.
The first voices saying that the mart, located in a tight residential district, is in the wrong place are heard. The voices grow louder as the century progresses, but equally there are the voices of local traders who want it to stay. By the 1980s, farmers, whose increasingly large wagons struggle with access, do not disagree with a proposed move – but where to, and who will foot the bill? The council estimates it will cost a prohibitive £3m to build a new mart, and yet it has a statutory duty created by Section 61 of the 1872 Act of Parliament to provide a market.
A plan to move the mart to Morton Palms falls through in 1990 when the price of land rises sharply –Morrisons supermarket will soon be built on the planned site. The council votes unanimously to close the mart, and it petitions Parliament to have the 1872 Act repealed. However, the National Farmers’ Union says that 1,000 farmers from the Scottish borders into North Yorkshire will suffer without a market, and so a House of Lords select committee rejects the petition in June 1991.
The issue takes a desperately sad turn in August 1992 when local lad Jack Hunter, 11, falls through the mart roof to his death. Labour MP Alan Milburn joins Labour councillors in highlighting safety fears and calling for a move.
DFAM has acquired 55 acres of land off Neasham Road (opposite where the football stadium will be built) on which it wants to build 350 houses to finance the construction of a new market. However, the Department of the Environment (DoE) blocks the houses from being built on the greenfield site.
Darlington council grants DFAM permission to build a new market on Holdforth Grange on the Hurworth side of the A66, near the football stadium. Villagers allege that the council has broken its own procedures in its hurry to solve the problem, and appeal to the DoE which blocks the move.
The project is now in stalemate. In 1995, there’s a proposal to amalgamate with Barnard Castle mart and move to Scotch Corner, but this is blocked by Yorkshire fears for what will happen to marts at Leyburn and Hawes.
Councillors continue to press for the mart to move, and in June 2006 the first plans for a £14m agricultural centre at Humbleton Farm, between Burtree Gate and Heighington are floated. In 2010, the council goes against the advice of its own planning officers and grants DFAM permission to build houses on Neasham Road to finance the construction.
Progress continues to be hard, and in April 2015 there’s another tragedy, when Kyle Hull falls through the mart roof.
This seems to galvanise people. With the involvement of Jenny Chapman MP and ward councillor Cyndi Hughes, hundreds of people sign petitions demanding that the market be moved, although perhaps the key moment comes when the council agrees to give DFAM a bridging loan and buys Neasham Road from it in 2018.
This enables construction at Humbleton to begin, but the coronavirus pandemic puts the move to the new site on hold until…
2020, Sept 17
After 142 years, the last sale is held at the Bank Top, with the last bullock belonging to John Hall of Burdon Grange selling for £3,028 to the Penny family of Leeds who have been mart customers for more than a century.
The official mart report for the last sale makes mention of the former managing director who died in 2013. It says: “A fitting tribute was paid before the final beast was offered, remembering the late Stephen Aitken. A warm round of applause left very few dry eyes around the ring as the now imminent, and long awaited move, makes Stephen’s dream a reality.”
2020, Sept 21
The first sale will be held at Humbleton Park, and for the first time since the 11th Century, there will be no livestock sale in Darlington town centre.