IF ever there was a landmark on the A167 between Darlington and Northallerton, it was Harry Sample’s saddlery which stood for 200 years on a sharp corner in Great Smeaton until a decade or so ago.

The saddlery was in an intriguing-looking, old brick outhouse, but what really caught the eye – and the headlights – was all the paraphernalia piled outside it: brushes, bikes and always a tin bath.

We stopped once to buy a hard yard broom, and remember being surprised that the broomhead and the broom handle were priced separately even though they were a single item. The black felt tip price on the head is now irretrievably covered with dirt, but you can still see the price on the handle: £1.40.

Indeed, Sample’s saddlery was something of a tourist hotspot. Mr Sample and his son, John, “patiently chat to hordes of holidaymakers, many of them from abroad, who stop off to take a peep inside”, said the D&S Times’ sister paper, The Northern Echo, in 1980.

As we told here a fortnight ago, Great Smeaton’s name means that it is the settlement of smiths, so with its two blacksmiths, four pubs and the saddlery, the village had been servicing the needs of travellers on the Great North Road for many centuries.

The Samples had been saddle-making since at least 1835 and Harry believed he was the eighth generation – which may explain the immense build-up of clutter in the small saddlery.

Photographer Tony Whelan captured that cluttered atmosphere when he took a set of pictures in May 1969.


Harry Sample at the door of his saddlery in Great Smeaton in May 1969. Picture by Tony Whelan

Harry Sample at the door of his saddlery in Great Smeaton in May 1969. Picture by Tony Whelan


Tony had been born in Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, in 1928 when his father was a missionary. The family returned to Northern Ireland, Tony studied chemistry at Trinity College, Dublin, and then became an industrial chemist with ICI at Billingham. In 1962, he bought a house in Hornby, just down the lane from Smeaton, to bring up his own family.

“He had been taking photos since the 1950s, finding himself particularly good at candid images of interesting characters and social situations, as well as landscapes,” says his son, Nick, of Romanby, who has kindly sent in the pictures of the saddlery.

In the 1970s, Tony set up as a professional photographer with studios above a restaurant in Romanby Court in Northallerton. One of his jobs was as the official photographer during the construction of Hartlepool Nuclear Power Station.

Harry Sample’s saddlery was at the other end of the rural scale and, by the looks of the pictures, much more haphazard.


Harry Samples saddlery, by Tony Whelan, In May 1969

Harry Sample's saddlery, by Tony Whelan, In May 1969


“He has metal statuettes of naked ladies, rusty old gin traps, wellies, witches’ twig brooms and even an old paraffin heated iron in its original box,” said the Echo report in 1980.

When Harry died in 2007, four days before his 96th birthday, the D&S Times said: “Everyone who visited his shop will remember the apparent disorganisation, but Mr Sample could always find what was needed.

“With a lifetime in harness repairs, his skills were exceptional, which resulted in work coming from all around the county and further afield.”

Harry, who had attended the village school from 1917 to 1926, had started at his workbench in the days before tractors when his workload had been making and repairing collars, saddles and harnesses for carthorses. The Second World War killed off the carthorse as tractors took over, and Harry scrapped a living making pig harness – he reckoned seven saddlemakers within an eight mile radius of his shop either died or gave up in the 20 years after the war – until the 1960s saw a rise in leisure riding.


Harry Samples saddlery, by Tony Whelan, In May 1969

Harry Sample's saddlery, by Tony Whelan, In May 1969


More than 250 people attended Harry’s funeral in the overflowing church, which is, uniquely in this country, dedicated to St Eloy.

“He will also be remembered for his convivial nature and skills as a raconteur,” said the D&S obituary. “The warmth of his shop made it a popular meeting place, where stories of the past, an era unknown to many, were vividly recalled.”

His death did mark the end of an era for the saddlery, where he had worked well into his nineties, closed soon after. It is now a little retro shop.

THE name “Sample” is found primarily in Northumbria, Durham and North Yorkshire, and comes from the Scottish nickname “Semple”, which meant “simple, straightforward or humble”.

WE were in Great Smeaton because of the cricket-themed development on what was once the village cricketfield – according to the 1911 score book we showed a fortnight ago, Harry Sample’s father, Herbert, was a bit of a batsman.

The club closed in 2001, after the foot and mouth epidemic, and the pavilion tumbled down so that even before the developers moved onto the land, there was no sign of it.

The pictures which lined the pavilion are now in the possession of former all-rounder John Morton. One showed the East Cowton Cricket Club team of the 1950s which had won a major trophy in conjunction with players from Great Smeaton.

“My father is the tallest man in the middle of the back row – he was 6ft 6ins tall – but he was Thomas William Kirkbride (called Bill or Binks) and not George, as you said, who is his eldest brother,” says Heather Murray. “I remember when I was a small girl riding on the back of his bicycle going to these cricket matches. We lived at Dalton-on-Tees.”

Martin Birtle had other reasons for remembering the Smeaton ground. “I played there with my old team Cowpen Bewley,” he says. “My abiding memory was the numerous horse flies which lived on the ground.”

Let’s hope they don’t affect the owners of the new executive houses.