Arsenic and old laces in West Auckland, County Durham

PUBLISHED: 08:33 26 May 2010 | UPDATED: 17:16 20 February 2013

Picture courtesy of West Auckland Town FC

Picture courtesy of West Auckland Town FC

West Auckland has had a varied journey from its 12th century roots, via a notorious Victorian poisoner through to its football club's incredible achievements in the first World Cup tournament. Helen Devonshire reports

This historic town is at a junction - literally and figuratively. Geographically it sits where the north-south A68 intersects the A688, and improvement schemes mean the town is moving in a new direction.
Several developments are enhancing the environment for residents and visitors. The bypass opened in June 2007 and has reduced traffic through the town; and the flood alleviation scheme for the river Gaunless is improving access to wildlife habitats and increasing awareness of the local heritage, according to the Environment Agency.
There are 93 conservation areas in County Durham, and West Auckland is one of them because of the architectural and historic importance of many of its attractive buildings.
The villages history is traceable to an entry in the Boldon Book of 1183. The book was a record of land ownership and the taxes due on property. The village green dates from the 12th century and originally was surrounded by low timber-framed farms and cottages. On the south side of the green is a Grade-II* listed building The Old Hall, which was a 16th century farmhouse and is now a house and office.
Another listed building is a structure on the green called The Pant. It was built in 1848 in the Gothic Revival style to house a water supply for the village. It became redundant after just 40 years when the Waskerley Reservoir in Derwentside opened and water was piped to the area. The Pant was rededicated for Queen Victorias Jubilee in 1897. In 2009, a war memorial and two carved stone benches were added and it was rededicated by the Bishop of Durham on Remembrance Sunday.
To the north side of the green is the Manor House. The Grade-I listed Jacobean building is now a hotel and country club.
Also on the north side of the green is the former home of infamous Victorian, Mary Ann Cotton - who was said to have used arsenic to poison many members of her family (see panel) - and the Working Mens Club, home of the replica of the famous first World Cup, the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy.
West Auckland Town Football Clubs team of amateur players - mostly miners - won the inaugural World Cup in 1909, beating Italian giants Juventus 6-1 in the final. And the team won again in 1911 so it was entitled to keep the prize - called the Sir Thomas Lipton Trophy - in perpetuity. However, in January 1994 the trophy was stolen from the Working Mens Club and has never been found, so a replica was manufactured and is now displayed there.
The story of the epic achievements of the World Cu- winning team have recently been dramatised by playwrights Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood in a play called Alf Ramsay Knew My Grandfather. It opened to sell-out audiences at the Gala Theatre, Durham, last year and recently was staged at the Theatre Royal, Newcastle.
The international football tournament was set up by sports enthusiast Sir Thomas Lipton, creator of the tea brand. It is unclear exactly why the West Auckland club was selected to represent Great Britain - some think it might
have been an error - but a possible reason, cited by the towns football club, is that a member of Liptons staff was a referee with the Northern League and suggested the club.
The success story was told in the 1982 film The World Cup: A Captains Tale. And in the centenary year of the first win, the Gala Theatre in Durham commissioned and staged a commemorative play called Alf Ramsey Knew My Grandfather, by Ed Waugh and Trevor Wood. After playing to sell-out audiences at the Gala last year, the play was staged at Newcastles Theatre Royal in May this year.
In August, 2009, a re-match between West Auckland FC and Juventus took place - West Auckland lost 7-1. Michael Bainbridge, the clubs commercial manager, says: Everyone did themselves proud against a very strong side that included a star 7million signing,
Sergio Almiron.
The club is considering options for events in 2011 to celebrate the next centenary of winning the World Cup.
This year, the clubs fortunes have already improved. Michael explains: Attendances have increased and there is some excellent young talent in the squad, some of whom could play at a higher level.
This also seems to be the outlook for the town, with a series of public realm schemes being undertaken by the County Council to improve the quality of the built environment.
Despite the closure of some pubs and shops over recent years, there are still many active businesses around the ancient green. At the west end is the tanning salon Sizzle, run for three years by Katie Metcalfe. Her mother, Margaret Metcalfe, works there and says: The location is very convenient and accessible for customers.
Other businesses include a butchers shop, hairdressers and The Crusty Loaf bakery and caf. In the building beside the Post Office there is a new caf, called the Sir Thomas Tea Room, with tourist accommodation above. The building was restored with help from the historic shop-fronts and buildings grant scheme.
The scheme is part of the English Heritage Partnership Schemes in Conservation Areas initiative. Val Robson, design and conservation officer for Durham County Council, says: I have been operating the scheme in the village for the past four years and it will continue until the end of March 2011.
And there are more projects in the pipeline to enhance the area, so next year looks set to be a turning point for West Auckland in terms of both sporting activities and business.

Hanged for poisoning

Mary Ann Cotton was arrested in July, 1872, at her home in West Auckland for the murder, by arsenic poisoning, of her step-son. She was hanged in March, 1873, at Durham Prison.
After the authorities had become suspicious about the childs death, the bodies of four of Mary Anns other relatives who had died in similar circumstances were exhumed in West Auckland. There were traces of arsenic in all of them. They had all reportedly died of gastric fever - the symptoms of which bear a close similarity to arsenic poisoning. Or vice versa.
Although the accuracy of Victorian forensics is now being questioned, Mary Ann was suspected of poisoning between 15 and 21 members of her family, many of whom had had life insurance for which she was the beneficiary. The case received a great deal of national media coverage at the time.
Mary Ann Cotton (nee Robson; formerly Mowbray, Ward, Robinson, and bigamously Cotton) was born in October, 1832. Over the next 40 years, she lived in various locations. And, with changing her surname, it was not immediately apparent that so many previously healthy people who were acquainted with her had died from gastric fever.
Mary Ann Cottons house on the north side of the village green is now a Grade II listed building, but thats because of its architectural significance and not because of its infamous resident.

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