From the Darlington & Stockton Times of February 6, 1869

“SAD Affair near Ripon – Six lives lost”, said the headline in the D&S Times of 150 years ago this week. It was an extraordinary understatement – this was the Newby Hall Ferry Disaster, the greatest calamity in the history of fox hunting.

Two days earlier – February 4 – the York and Ainsty Hunt had been chasing a fox for an hour on the south side of the raging River Ure. The cunning animal – which had successfully eluded the hounds on two occasions by employing the same tactic– plunged into the water and swam across.

The hounds followed, and although swept downstream, made it over.

The huntsmen, led by the master, Sir Charles Slingsby, dashed along the bank to Newby’s private ferry, a flat, wooden platform, 30ft long, which was winched back and forth across the 50-yard wide river by a chain.

Sir Charles, 45, and his favourite hunter, Saltfish, leapt on to the platform, followed by a veritable who’s who of North Yorkshire huntsmen, until there were 13 people and 11 horses crammed onto the rocking barge. It was fatally overloaded, as Sir Charles seized the chain and Captain Clare Vyner, of Newby Hall, pushed it away from the bank into the churning current.

Halfway across, Saltfish became agitated. It kicked Sir George Wombwell’s mount, which kicked back, causing Saltfish to jump overboard. As Sir Charles was holding the reins tight, he was dragged over, tipping the barge.

It rocked perilously, causing the horses to slither, which compounded the rock, tossing everyone – man and horse – into the icy stream. The boat turned turtle and came crashing down on the heads of those struggling for their lives.

It was, said the D&S, “a dreadful scene”.

Flailing arms and kicking hooves further churned up the river, which was swollen by snowmelt, and saturated hunting pinks and heavy leather boots dragged men downwards.

Those on the banks tied their riding whips together and threw them for the drowning fellows to grasp hold of; the bravest tossed off their heavy coats and plunged in to help.

Sir Charles was seen to haul Sir George onto the underside of the up-turned platform – but when it righted itself, they were plunged once more into the water, and Sir Charles was swept away with loyal Saltfish, which he had owned for 15 years, apparently recognising his red riding jacket and going after him.

Non-swimmer Sir George, who had survived the Charge of the Light Brigade in 1854 when his horse was shot beneath him, had another lucky escape: Capt Vyner hauled him back onto the barge unconscious.

Others were not so fortunate. Nine of the 11 horses drowned (Saltfish somehow scrabbled its way out on the Newby side), and six of the 13 humans perished.

Sir Charles, the 10th baronet of Scriven Park, Knaresborough, was the most well known fatality, and there was surprise that Edward Lloyd, of Lingcroft Lodge near York, hadn’t made it as he had been a champion swimmer at Eton. Edmund Robinson of Thorpe Green also failed to make it across, as did William Orvis, the kennel huntsman.

Christopher Warriner, the Newby Hall gardener and his son, James, who had been manning the ferry, also succumbed.

A memorial was erected in the grounds of Newby Hall and around it on Tuesday, a private ceremony, which included descendants of the dead, was held.

IT was a busy news week 150 years ago because the D&S ran to a rare special second edition – a single-sided sheet slipped into the main paper to bring the latest news of a murder in Darlington.

It had taken place on Albert Hill, a notorious area of newly-built terraces in which men, newly arrived in town and usually with an Irish background, lodged while working at the surrounding ironworks.

At about 11.30pm on Saturday, January 30, rail-puncher Philip Trainer was shot at point blank range in the left eye in the street outside the Allan Arms. Trainer, aged about 28 and of Irish descent, lodged in Prescott Street and had been working at Barningham’s ironworks for about three weeks.

On Sunday, January 31, at noon, John McConville was arrested at his lodgings in Lowson Street, Harrowgate Hill, about a mile away, and a pistol cover was found by his bed.

The special edition of the D&S told how the evening’s events had begun at about 8.30pm in James Costello’s beerhouse in Haughton Lane, where McConville had been seen in conversation with Thomas Finnigan before, at 8.30pm, Finnigan had fired a pistol in the pub yard, narrowly missing puddler William Young.

At 11.10pm, Finnigan was arrested in the Havelock Arms, at the entrances to Albert Hill. As police approached him, he attempted to remove the pistol from his jacket pocket, but the hammer got snagged on the cloth. However, as he later said he was merely minding the gun for a friend and it had gone off accidentally, he was never charged.

Twenty minutes later, a couple of hundred yards away in Killinghall Street, an altercation broke out in the Allan Arms, where McConville had had a strange conversation with puddler James Quinn. The two had been discussing whether their acquaintance, Owen Hanlan, could stop a notorious “fighting man” called Burns when McConville had touched his breast pocket and said: “I’ve something here that would stop him.”

Minutes later, when the melee spilled outside, Quinn watched as McConville had walked through the crowd and shot Trainer from four yards.

Despite Nestfield Street and Killinghall Street being full during the fracas only Quinn, who had himself been arrested under suspicion, had seen anything. Everyone else had melted away.

However, ironmonger George Harrison testified that a week earlier, a man named “James Jackson”, who looked like McConville, had ordered 100 pistol cartridges from his shop in Albion Street. Shopkeeper William Benson had been behind the counter when the order was collected by, he thought, Hanlan, who was also in custody.

Mr Benson said the bullet which had fallen out of the dead man’s eye socket during the post mortem was definitely from the batch of 100.

The inquest jury decided that Hanlan should be released due to lack of evidence, and McConville should stand trial at Durham Assizes for wilful murder.

No motive was put as to why McConville – who was known locally as “Gentleman John” due to his kindly nature – should act so out of character and murder a fellow Irishman.

However, the D&S speculated: “The motive for the perpetration of the act remains yet a subject of surmise and it is not unlikely that Trainer’s habit of retirement from the company of his fellow countrymen is in some degree connected with his fate.”

The case was concluded violently within two months, and we’ll follow its progress in this space; however, for Darlington, this was just the start of Fenian trouble that would lead to more killings.

LAST week we told of the fantastically scandalous life of Lord Ernest Vane Tempest, of Wynyard Hall.

He was drummed out of the army for beating up a theatre manager over his affair with an actress, rehabilitated himself opal mining in Australia only to be drummed out of the army for a second time for forcibly shaving a recruit during an initiation ceremony. He rehabilitated himself fighting in the American Civil War and returned to stand for the Conservatives in Stockton and, exactly 150 years ago, to marry Mary Hutchinson in her local church at Thorpe Thewles.

His antics filled column inches in newspapers around the world, and The Times said he was of “Strephonic tendencies”.

Jon Smith in Barningham consulted his dictionary to explain: “It doesn't list strephonic but it does have strephosymbolia, a Victorian word for a child's inability to recognise different word endings, derived from the Greek ‘strepho’, meaning to turn, twist, evade or pervert.

“My guess is that The Times' erudite correspondent, confident that his readers were well-acquainted with Greek, made up the word strephonic to describe Lord Ernest's devious tendencies, and a useful word it is too, though that appears to be the only time it's ever been seen in print.”

Graham Smith in Stokesley also consulted an oracle. “I am the proud holder of my late grandfather's ‘Book Of Spells’, as the family calls it because it looks like one,” he says. “It is a rather large Chambers English Dictionary published in 1908 and it contains many old words now discarded from common use. As such it was quite useful when we used to watch Call My Bluff – many of those old words are in this book.

“It contains an entry for Strephon which reads: noun, a love-sick shepherd in Sir Philip Sidney's Arcadia, hence a love-sick swain generally. n. Strephonade, a love-song.”

Sir Philip’s lengthy Arcadia is a pastoral romance that features sex, politics and cross-dressing. It was written in the 1570s and 1580s, and Strephon was presumably named after ‘strepho’, the Greek word for twisting as love had thrown his head into a spin.

But Cllr Heather Smith, from Evenwood, takes us further. “The name Strephon was used in other works for a lover engaged to two women at the same time,” she says. “Gilbert (one half of the Gilbert and Sullivan team) used it for a shepherd in Iolanthe who was half-mortal and half-fairy and not viewed as a suitable son-in-law for a peer’s daughter.

“So I think strephonic probably means a rather flaky, unreliable character, which sounds a very suitable description for Lord Ernest Vane Tempest!”