ONE hundred years ago today, an “excellent scheme” was launched to bring together all the antiques, fossils, curios, truncheons, coins, engines and stuffed wild animals that people had lying about in their homes in Darlington.
A new museum opened on August 1, 1921, in the former borough accountants’ office in Tubwell Row containing all manner of marvellous bric-a-brac, ranging from one family’s collection of 182 exotic animal heads to “a fine specimen of a wasps nest obtained by Mr JW Geldard from a rose tree in the South Park”.
It was a crammed affair. “This is but a temporary arrangement and hopes are entertained that in the future a more imposing building may be provided,” said The Northern Echo, enviously eyeing the local museums which had been set up in Middlesbrough and West Hartlepool.
However, the temporary arrangement proved permanent, and the museum remained in Tubwell Row until it closed in 1998, when its contents were scattered across the North-East.
When it opened, though, Darlington was very pleased with itself for creating its own museum. The council had begun collecting items in 1917 and had amassed many curios from local people. It was hoped that the Prime Minister of New Zealand, William Massey, who – inexplicably – was visiting Darlington on August 1, 1921, would formally open the museum but, said the Echo without giving explanation, “this could not be arranged”.
Mr Massey would undoubtedly have been impressed by the centrepiece of the museum which occupied the entire top floor: the stuffed exotic animals that Sydney Pearson and his wife, who was never named, had bagged on their shooting tour of Africa – at enormous personal cost.
“Mr Pearson suffered great hardship and privation in obtaining two unique specimens, the white rhinoceros and the giant eland,” said the Darlington & Stockton Times. “After getting the two animals in the swamps of the Soudan, he contracted an illness and was carried on a litter by natives for 140 miles across the desert, and subsequently succumbed.”
The display even featured the litter – the portable bed – on which the stricken shooter was carried, perhaps still popping away at any animal that swept across the savannah into his rifle sight.
Mrs Pearson no longer had room for the collection in their home in Askrigg and so donated to Darlington, where Mr Pearson’s brother lived.
As Memories 520 told in April, the collection contained “a magnificent Polar bear, the head and hide of a royal black-maned lion, the head and skull of a huge white rhinoceros, and a gigantic buffalo – second largest of its kind in the country – topi, tiang, oryx-bisa, gerenuk, giant and lesser elands, antelopes, hogs, gazelles, hippopotami, dinka, kondoo, cheeta, and a giraffe”.
It was, said the D&S, “one of the finest in the North of England and will make an appeal to children and grown-ups alike”.
Modern sensibilities would not praise Mr Pearson for travelling around Africa shooting wily-nily at the wildlife, but in the days before the Blue Planet on high definition television, this was the closest Darlington schoolchildren came to seeing these magnificent creatures in colour – and the memory stuck with many of them.
“I have happy childhood memories of visiting the museum many times in the 1960s,” says Mark Nimmins, in Durham. “I remember the giraffe head and neck on the first floor. I was told that the rest of the giraffe was downstairs and that it had been necessary to cut a hole in the ceiling to poke the head and neck through to the floor above.
“I often wondered why the lower part wasn't on public display!”
Many others will remember the 9ft tall Polar bear which Mr Pearson must have shot on an Artic expedition. It became as iconic as the town clock, starting its life as Peter the Polar but, as the 20th Century wore on and generations of young children rubbed its nose and poked its ribs, it became known as Fred Bear.
Downstairs in the museum were three cases of tapestries, pottery and plate loaned by the Victoria & Albert Museum in London, plus Dr Richard Taylor Manson’s collection of fossils – as well as being Darlington’s first public vaccinator, Dr Manson was a founder of the Darlington & Teesdale Field Naturalists Club.
There was a collection of minerals donated by a Mr I’Anson, a collection of stuffed local birds shot and donated by Mr Whitling Wilson, plus a collection of coins donated by Mr Stow Stowell, of Faverdale. The coins had been minted in Durham between 1154 and 1547 (the Bishop of Durham minted his own coins at Moneyers Garth at the entrance to Palace Green), and the collection was described as “a most valuable bequest to the town”.
There were some great curios, from the skull of Comet – the world’s first bull to sell for 1,000 guineas, bred by Charles Colling of Ketton – to the remains of the dial of Darlington’s first illuminated clock, from some Stapleton handcuffs to a Cockerton mantrap…
“What I remember best were some excellent large scale models of steam locomotives displayed in glass cases on show in the main windows of Tubwell Row,” says David I’Anson. “The most notable of which was the unique experimental locomotive class W1 numbered 10000 nicknamed "Hush Hush" – the model was in its non-streamlined guise and coloured grey.”
David continues: “Upstairs, I remember there was a fairly large pike said to have been caught in South Park lake, and there was an active apiary which the bees accessed from St Cuthbert's churchyard. It was made of glass so we could see it functioning.”
Several people have mentioned the bees, and in the Echo archive there is a picture from January 1982 showing beekeeper Alfred Grey with a hive of 20,000 dead bees which had been killed when the Skerne flooded the churchyard.
This seems to have been the end of the bees as a museumpiece, but what happened to all the other treasures in 1998 when Darlington decided it couldn’t support a town museum as well as a railway museum?
Many were distributed to appropriate museums across the region: Fred Bear is at the Captain Cook Birthplace Museum in Middlesbrough; Comet’s skull is at the Hancock Museum in Newcastle; many railway exhibits, like the model David remembers, ended up in the National Railway Museum collection; many other model items ended up at Beamish.
Quite a lot of the Darlington bric-a-brac went to Darlington’s Head of Steam railway museum, where it is in storage, although quite a lot has disappeared – just what do you do in Darlington with the remains of a long dead robber crab from Christmas Island?