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MP’s gift of a bell takes Darlington market back to the days of the 9pm bargain hour

“I’m 78 now and I started coming here when I was three months old – I slept in my carrycot under the counter – and in my schooldays, I remember the bell hanging up there by the hatch, and then it just seemed to disappear,” says Robin Blair, the fourth generation of family greengrocers to have a stall on the market.

But now, the ringing is returning, as the town’s MP, Peter Gibson, yesterday presented an old Tees tugboat bell to go on the wall.

The Northern Echo: MP Peter Gibson, Market holder Robin Blair and Michael Harvey Market manager with the new bellMP Peter Gibson, stallholder Robin Blair and Michael Harvey, market manager, with the new bell. High up on the wall behind them is the market manager’s hatch, now block off, beside which the wall is going to go once again. Picture: SARAH CALDECOTT

Darlington was probably first given permission to hold a market by Bishop Hugh de Puiset, of Durham, in 1183. The bishop controlled the market, with his men taking a toll – essentially a purchase tax – from each transaction. His men would ring a bell to signal the start and close of trading, and his heavies would stand at the gates leading away from the market and search baskets to make sure no one was sneaking out with giving the bishop his dues.

A tollbooth grew up, where the covered market is today, and there is a record that in 1791, a new bell was installed there to be rung at 11am to open the corn market. It would be rung an hour-and-a-half later to close the market.

In 1856, the Quaker industrialists who ran the town council bought out the bishop’s rights to the market and took control themselves. One of their first acts, which was hugely controversial, was to build the covered market with a comfy town hall on the side for themselves.

The market manager was given an office in the clocktower. From his hatch, he could look out across the market and see everyone was abiding by the market regulations. Market Bye-Law 55 said no stallholder was allowed to shout out about wares, and on July 16, 1863, William Walters was prosecuted for “bawling out to the great annoyance of other people…‘fourpence a pound for cherries’ in such a loud voice, it could be heard right across the market”. He was fined five shillings and ordered to pay four shillings cost – or he could go to jail for 14 days.

READ MORE: THE CURIOUS PLACE IN LITERATURE HISTORY OCCUPIED BY A DARLINGTON PUB

“In those days,” said Robin, “the market opened at 3pm. Everything was freshly harvested, or freshly killed, in the morning, and then brought down to market by horse and cart in the afternoon.

“The market traded until 10pm but because they did not have refrigerators, everything had to be sold, and so at 9pm, the bell was rung and traders started to auction off their wares. It signalled the point where they were allowed to shout out about them.”

So the last hour of trading must have been very noisy with traders, quiet for fear of being sent to prison for the rest of the day, barking about the bargains they had on offer.

The Northern Echo: MP Peter Gibson, Market holder Robin Blair and Michael Harvey Market manager with the new bell

“When I first came to the market, Robin told me this story, and then I was helping my mother-in-law, Jennifer Dadd, move house and we found in a cupboard a bell that my late father-in-law had bought off a man in a pub,” said Mr Gibson.

Inscribed on the bell are the words “Marton Cross 1963”. From 1880 to 1983, the tugboats on the Tees were operated by the Tees Towing Company which was owned by the Crossthwaite family – Sir William Crossthwaite was mayor of Middlesbrough in 1925, 1939 and 1943. They gave their vessels local names, like Ingleby, Danby, Acklam or Marton, along with “Cross” as a connection to the family.

The Northern Echo: The Marton Cross Tees tugboat with the bell clearly visible at the frontThe Marton Cross Tees tugboat with the bell clearly visible at the front

Marton Cross was one of the company’s last tugs, and its bell somehow ended up in a pub where Jeffrey Dadd – “a bit of a wheeler-dealer” – acquired it.

When Mr Gibson discovered it, he took it to furniture-maker David Glegg, “the Beaver man”, of Sutton-under-Whitestonecliffe, to create the housing which, of course, has Mr Glegg’s trademark beaver scampering across the top of it.

“I was always struck by Robin’s lovely story so now we are reinstating a little piece of history to help keep that alive,” said Mr Gibson. “We are celebrating everything that is going on in the market today with this nod to the past.”

Market manager Michael Harvey said: “Getting a new bell was on our to-do list, so we are delighted to receive this bell that will keep the history of the market going.”

The bell is to be hung in its original position which is above “the alley”, a new range of small stalls that are being installed to appeal to start-up traders.

It is hoped that an image of a Victorian market manager will be painted on the hatch next to the bell so that he is still keeping his beady eye on the traders, just waiting to pounce should Robin call out the price of his cherries before the clanger has marked the 9pm start of bargain hour.

READ MORE: HENRY’S FANTASTIC FOLLY AND THE DOINGS OF OLD DARLINGTONIANS



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