There is a tale associated with North Road Station in Darlington of ghostly goings on. In the 1850s a night watchman James Durham had an unforgettable experience. It was ‘during winter, and about 12 o’clock or 12.30, I was feeling rather cold with standing here and there; I said to myself, ‘ I will away down and get something to eat.’
He went down the steps and had just settled himself on the bench opposite the fire when he was startled by a man coming out of the adjoining coalhouse…….
‘As soon as he entered, my eye was upon him and his eye was upon me, and we were intently watching each other as he moved on to the front of the fire. There he stood looking at me, and a curious smile came over his countenance. He had a stand-up collar and a cutaway coat with gilt buttons and a Scotch cap. All at once he struck at me, and I had the impression that he hit me. I up with my fist and struck back at him. My fist seemed to go through him and struck against the stone above the fireplace, and knocked the skin off my knuckles. The man seemed to be struck back into the fire, and uttered a strange unearthly squeak. Immediately the dog gripped me by the calf of my leg, and seemed to cause me pain. The man recovered his position, called off the dog with a sort of click of the tongue, then went back into the coal-house, followed by the dog.’
This ghostly young man was subsequently thought to be the ghost of Thomas Munro Winter and his dog. Winter, a former ticket clerk, had committed suicide in 1845 in the gentlemen’s toilets by shooting himself . He had been suffering from depression after a complaint was made against him. While awaiting carriage to the mortuary, his body was laid out in the Porter’s Cellar.
The incident caused some uproar in Darlington at the time and James was summonsed by Edward Pease to be questioned. Had he been sleeping? Was he drunk? No and no. In fact Durham was teetotal.
Today, the porter’s mess is in a basement, not accessible to the public and not maintained since it went out of use. A viewing point has been placed in the Head of Steam Museum which allows visitors to peer into the darkness where a shrouded body supposedly representing Winter can be seen.
The Stationmaster, wearing her heritage consultant hat, was given access to this dusty and cobweb filled basement when carrying out a survey of the Station in 2014. How does the physical evidence relate to this story? Here are some extracts from the report relating to these forgotten rooms.
The west basement is located under the original 1842 building. It was originally below part of the station used for domestic use. It appears to have been used by personnel, possibly porters and night watchmen, as a mess room. It had a separate access from stairs leading down from the front of the station (now blocked, but the approach used by James Durham) and a trap door access to the south platform. One window faced out to the station front, but this is now blocked. Where the blocking has come away from the window, the original appears to survive, possibly a 6 or 8 pane sash. The door to the outside is blocked in modern brickwork internally, but the original door with ventilation holes (consequently blocked) remains externally.
The room in the SW corner has chimney breast – the location of the warming fire and the ghostly sighting. There is also a larder or similar (where the porter was about to retrieve some food?) consisting of a cooling stone shelf and a stone corner shelf set into a cupboard (although the shape of this corresponds to WCs in the 1864 plans); this appears to have been separated from the room with the fireplace by lath and plaster partition. The south facing rooms appear to have been fully plastered to create a domestic space. There is also a cupboard fully shelved.
There may be merit in ensuring that this room is conserved, but not restored as it provides an interesting and slightly spooky insight into the station’s early history, the life of the porter or the night watchman and its associations with ghostly goings on.