ONE hundred and 25 years ago this week, a young Darlington solicitor learned that he had passed his legal exams and that the Law Society in London had signed and sealed his fitness to practice certificate.
He immediately rented a room above a stationery shop on High Row and set himself up in business – a business which bears his name to this day.
He was John Fenwick Latimer and so the solicitors, Latimer Hinks, of Priestgate, must be one of the oldest practices in the North-East.
The founder, though, had a more profound impact on Darlington than just establishing a business.
He was born in 1870 in Stanley. His mother was from the Fenwick family of Sunderland shipbuilders; his father was a Primitive Methodist minister, and so the family moved frequently. The boy was educated in York and London but, because his father was now in charge of the Greenbank Road Methodist chapel in Darlington, he decided to base himself in the town when, on July 11, 1892, his articles were signed in London.
The 22-year-old hired a room above the original Dressers shop which was near the northern end of High Row – Dressers didn’t move to its landmark premises in the middle of High Row, where Poundland is today, until 1966.
He established himself as one of the top legal minds in the region. “He was a deadly advocate, slow and deliberate in manner and devastating in cross-examination,” recalled a fellow solicitor who encountered him in court. “Once he had got admissions from a witness to the advantage of his case, he never let the witness off the hook.”
But it was as a councillor that he really made a mark. He was in the Liberal camp with Sir Charles Starmer, the managing director of The Northern Echo, and during the Great Depression of the 1920s and 1930s, they tried to build Darlington out of the economic troubles – the library, for instance, was deliberately extended in this period.
Latimer was chair of the Streets Committee, and he spent £70,000 widening the Bank Top Cut which takes Parkgate under the East Coast Main Line. When it was first dug in 1887, it was a narrow, 22ft-wide road. Latimer put unemployed men to work digging out the north side so that when they had finished, the road was a broad 45ft-wide and congestion was eased.
Latimer had interests beyond the council. He was a Rotarian involved with fund-raising for the Darlington Memorial Hospital, and he promoted the formation of the Temperance Institute in Gladstone Street.
He was deputy mayor in 1932 when Sir Alan Cobham’s flying circus came to Morton Palms Farm. Cobham was a pioneer aviator who toured the country putting on shows and giving people their first flights. Latimer took to the skies in an open-topped bi-plane and then, with his hair blown awry, he addressed the crowd "through a microphone".
“We realise that the future of transport may be in the air," he said. "Darlington is the centre of a great railway system and we want to see, when the air is more largely used for transport, that Darlington retains for itself a primary position."
Perhaps the Tees Valley doesn’t need a directly-elected mayor to get its local airport airborne once again – it needs a latter-day Latimer.
While doing all this public work, the solicitor’s practice was expanding. In the first years of the 20th Century, he moved his office from High Row into a newly-built office in Priestgate, which his firm still occupies. Then, in 1927, he took on a newly-qualified solicitor, Charles Hinks, as his partner, and renamed the firm Latimer & Hinks.
Hinks, 22, was the son of Alderman JD Hinks who served on the council with Latimer during the troubled economic times.
Latimer died suddenly in 1937 having just presided over a lecture entitled Modern Street Lighting at the new Eastbourne School. Aged 65, he collapsed from a heart attack on the school lawn.
His obituary gives a hint at the real man behind the good works. It speaks of his love of rugby and his Old English Sheepdog, and it says: “When behind the wheel of his powerful car with a long straight road in front, he would sparkle with the exhilaration that comes from speed.”
However, it was a slow journey before the full extent of his fortune was realised and his final good work was complete. He had married Annie Dresser, from the stationery family, and their daughter Muriel was a ballet dancer who died unmarried in 1984. In her will, she left more than £700,000, much of which went to the Abbeyfield Society.
Latimer’s great friend, Starmer, had donated his home, Danby Lodge off Coniscliffe Road, to the society which allows older people to live independently. With Latimer’s bequest, the society built Latimer House in the grounds of Danby Lodge, so his name lives on in more than just his solicitor’s practice.
SOLICITORS are sensible people who have no truck with silliness, but it is said that on the top floor of Latimer Hinks in Priestgate there lurks an unearthly presence.
JF Latimer moved his office into Priestgate before 1910. He took over a sharebroker’s office which had just been built on the site of the London Tavern, a beerhouse of no great repute. One of the Tavern’s last landlords was Willie Fawell who, at 27 stone, was the largest man in Darlington. He had previously been landlord of the Help Me Through The World Inn in High Coniscliffe (there were several inns with this odd name in the country, dating from the 1840s – the last Help Me Through The World Inn closed in Gloucestershire in 1995).
Perhaps the unearthly presence dates back to the time of the inn.
Over the course of the 20th Century, Latimer Hinks expanded eastwards down Priestgate, first into a grocery and bootmaker’s shop and then into the Darlington Co-op’s drapery department which had been built in 1931 on top of a little square of tumbledown houses.
One of the occupants of the houses had been Henry Nesbitt, known locally as Harry Boots, who ran the mail cart. On November 26, 1846, Harry had collected mail from the earliest Bank Top station and was on his way to deliver it to the first Post Office in Northgate. He decided to cross the Skerne via the ford beside Stonebridge, but the current was so strong that he and his cart were swept away.
They pulled the cart out of the millpond which used to power Peases Mill (where the TK Maxx multi-storey car park is today), but they couldn’t find poor Harry’s body.
They even tried putting some quicksilver (or mercury) into a loaf of bread and throwing it into the water. This old wife’s tales, mentioned in Mark Twain’s Huckleberry Finn novel, said that the bread would come to a rest above the body.
But it just swirled round and round until, waterlogged, it disappeared.
Two days later, Harry’s body popped up, still swirling round and round in the current.
Perhaps that may account for the unearthly presence in the offices where once he lived.
LATIMER HINKS could be older than 125 years. In 1953, the business merged with Wilkes, Wilkes, Marsham & Little which had been founded in 1881 when JJ Wilkes went into business with his brother RM Wilkes.
The Wilkes brothers, who were based above the Find It Out tobacconist on the corner of Tubwell Row and Bakehouse Hill, were the sons of JK Wilkes, who was mayor of Darlington in 1885.
JJ Wilkes himself became mayor of Darlington in 1895 and, like JF Latimer, was chairman of the Streets Committee. He was responsible for the creation of the “Albert Hill subway”, which is presumably the cutting beneath the mainline, and also for the building of the current Stonebridge which stands in the shadow of St Cuthbert’s Church.
JJ Wilkes was also responsible for lining the yards of Darlington with scoriae bricks – the distinctive, shiney grey slag bricks that were washed down to prevent disease.
JF LATIMER made Charles Hinks a partner in 1927, and he stayed with the firm until he retired in 1969. Towards the end of his career, he was on the Lord Chancellor’s law reform committee, for which he was made an OBE.
His son, Richard, was with the firm until he retired in 1997.
The Hinkses, then, witnessed some of the most memorable events in the company’s recent history.
For example, in the days when you could park in Priestgate, Diana Dors pulled up in a large limo and swore an affidavit to Charles.
Those were different days – a bullock once escaped from a town centre abbatoir and got its horns stuck in the solicitors’ front door.
When there was a mutiny at the Humbleton Camp near Barnard Castle, Latimer Hinks acted for the six mutineers, with armed military policemen manning every exit from the Priestgate office while the solicitors received their instructions.
And finally, and perhaps most famously, Latimer Hinks once defended Laurence Olivier when he was caught speeding through Newton Aycliffe.
In 125 years of business, you certainly see some sights and meet some people.
Article written by Chris Lloyd of The Northern Echo.