Dales Diary: The tale of Harry Witham, the 1881 Consett Guardian murder libel, Romaldkirk graveyard crisis of 1888 and the Staindrop hermit (From Darlington and Stockton Times)
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Dales Diary: The tale of Harry Witham, the 1881 Consett Guardian murder libel, Romaldkirk graveyard crisis of 1888 and the Staindrop hermit
Around £70,000 is still needed by the team behind the superb renovation of the Witham Hall.
But in trying to raise it they certainly won't follow the example of Harry Witham, in whose memory the building was put up in Barnard Castle in 1854.
He was born into a wealthy family in 1779, but was known as its black sheep as he gambled away much of his money.
The situation was precarious at times for him, his wife Eliza and their 11 children.
But he was an amiable fellow who made friends easily. He spent a lot of time helping working people, so was well liked in the area.
When he was heavily in debt once he begged, borrowed and scraped together a big sum of cash and -- true to form for a gambling addict -- put the lot on a brilliant racehorse, Doctor Syntax.
He was so confident of victory that he organised a big ball at his home, Lartington Hall, to celebrate the fact that his finances were about to be put right.
The Doctor, as the bay horse was affectionately known, was a track star in that era, winning at least 36 races between 1814 and 1826 for his owner, Ralph Riddell of Felton Park.
He gained the Preston gold cup a record seven times, and scored five victories in both the Richmond gold cup and Lancaster gold cup.
He was a crowd pleaser who could be coaxed along by jockeys without the use of a whip. He went for nine years without being out of the first three in any race.
But Harry Witham was shattered when The Doctor failed to win the race in which he staked everything.
Instead of being in the black at last he sank further into the red, and of course the celebration ball was cancelled. He went off to Scotland to avoid his creditors.
Later his mother sold part of her land to help him out, and when she died in 1832 he inherited a sizeable fortune.
He returned to Lartington amid great rejoicing because he was still highly popular in the dale.
He was a skilful geologist who uncovered and identified a large collection of specimens. He founded the Mechanics Institute which was well used by many men of all ages in Barnard Castle.
When he died in 1844 aged 65 it was decided to open a fund to have a hall built as a memorial to him. It was completed 10 years later, with space for the Mechanics Institute and other facilities including a medical dispensary which gave treatment and medicine to hard-up families.
It has been a leading centre for social activities in the town ever since. There can never have been a more impressive memorial in the dales to any individual.
It was known for a long time as the Witham Testimonial. In its years as a dance venue it was famed for having the springiest floor in the area, giving extra zing to quicksteps and foxtrots.
It staged many plays, concerts and talent shows, and for a spell was used as a furniture showroom.
After having some £3 million spent on it lately the hall is now in better shape than ever, and will be a massive benefit to various organisations as well as the public.
A modern day Harry Witham might borrow as much as possible from Wonga and credit cards then put the lot on the nose of a supposed racing certainty to bring in the cash still required to round off the work and meet running costs.
But the organising team will stick to seeking grants and donations. After retiring to stud Doctor Syntax still performed well, siring a string of winners.
JANE BARRON, the housekeeper cleared of murdering farmer Robert Snowball, as recorded here last week, was back in court less than a year later, but this time she was not in the dock.
At the time she was a housekeeper for another farmer, Thomas Lowden of Downhill Farm, West Bolden.
Her pay was £14 plus 12 shillings (60p) a year. The court was told that the Consett newspaper recalled her acquittal on the murder charge, then added: "The most recent intelligence about the woman who figured so conspicuously in the tragedy is that she was removed a few days ago to a lunatic asylum.
"It is further stated that on a former occasion she was an inmate of an asylum and that a brother of hers, who was similarly afflicted, is now, or was until recently, under similar confinement."
It also stated that after being found not guilty of the killing she went to Newcastle hirings and was taken on by an innkeeper at either Shields or Sunderland.
But 27-year-old Miss Barron gave evidence that she had never been in an asylum, nor had her brother. She had not been hired by an innkeeper and had not been to Shields or Sunderland.
She had been working happily for Mr Lowden and his family. Her brother Joseph confirmed in court that neither she nor he had ever been in an asylum. Her new employer stated that she was a happy, hard working and intelligent young woman in whom he had the fullest confidence.
When he went away with his wife and two children for a few days he left the housekeeper in total charge of his establishment.
The editor of the Consett Guardian admitted his report was completely wrong and said he had merely copied it from another paper, printed in Durham, without checking if it was true.
The jury found that Miss Barron had been libelled through gross negligence rather than malice and said she should be awarded £40 damages.
The judge agreed. It doesn't sound much considering the offensive and untrue remarks made about her, but it was more than two years' wages, so she probably felt satisfied. The court also heard that nobody else had been caught for the murder.
IT has been reported nationally this week that there are problems in many places over a shortage of space in burial grounds.
Many have room for only 10 or 20 more years. But there was a much more urgent dilemma over a century ago for people in four dale villages when their only graveyard was rapidly running out of capacity.
The grounds of Romaldkirk parish church had been used for centuries to bury those who died in the immediate area as well others from Cotherstone, Lartington and Hunderthwaite.
By 1888 it was at crisis point, with only about 20 spaces remaining whereas 28 could be required in a normal year. There was said to be a disgusting state of affairs, with human bones appearing each time a new grave was dug. It was claimed that in the past flagstones had been lifted from a pathway from the church gates to the main door so that a grave could be dug and a body buried before the flagstones were replaced on top.
In previous centuries there had been even more burials at Romaldkirk because its area extended up to the border of Westmoreland.
That was before a burial ground was opened at Laithkirk to provide a final resting place for residents of Mickleton, Lunedale and Holwick.
At one time bodies had been buried inside the Romaldkirk church, St Romald's.
An emergency meeting decided there was a need for two new cemeteries rather than just one.
The first was earmarked at Romaldkirk, beside the road to Eggleston, and the second was chosen at Cotherstone.
There was a lot of argument before the two sites were approved, but they have solved the problem and have served the area well.
A READER has asked for details of a hermit who once lived in Staindrop.
Tradition has it that a strange fellow called John de Camera made a home in the upper section of a two-storey vestry in St Mary's parish church back in the 14th century.
Apparently he enjoyed the atmosphere and warmth of the ancient church, which dates from Saxon times and was originally dedicated to St Gregory, but nothing more seems to be known about him.
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