How Did Darlington’s Lonely Murder House Get Its Name?

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AEOLIAN HOUSE stands in splendid seclusion on the outskirts of Darlington, built in the countryside in the 1930s so that a singer could practice on his veranda without disturbing the neighbours.

Today, of course, it’s known as the scene of Ann Heron’s unsolved murder, its remote location possibly helping the murderer flee the crime scene. The shocking events of 1990 were the subject of a two-hour documentary on Channel 5 last week (it can still be seen on catch-up), in which the most insignificant of many questions concerned the unusual name of Aeolian House.

The answer goes back to Jack Johnson, who started work around 1890 as a printer with The Northern Echo only to lose a finger in the Priestgate press. He then went to work with his stonemason father, James Peacock Johnson, and they worked at Northgate Technical College, the King’s Head Hotel and the Boer War Memorial in St Cuthbert’s Churchyard.

Beyond the stones, Jack was interested in singing, and in 1906 he formed the Aeolian Male Quartet, a group named after Aeolus who, in Greek mythology, was the ruler of the four winds. Aeolus lived in Aeolus on the Aeolian Islands, near Sicily, where the winds had a musical quality – the Aeolian harp is a box with strings that is left by an open window so that the winds of Aeolus could play tunes in it random.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Echo Memories - Old photograph of Mary Swain from The Wind Male Quartet - D17/05/02AL

The Wind Quartet pictured around 1925, left to right, Jack Johnson of Aeolian House, Fred Bradley, James Johnson (nephew of Jack Johnson) and Jack Cook

On New Year’s Day 1908, the Aeolian Quartet won “first honours” at the Middlesbrough Eisteddfod. Middlesbrough had a large Welsh population in its ironworks, and the eisteddfod was the biggest event on the town calendar and it was probably the biggest annual eisteddfod outside Wales. Winning was a major honor for the Aeolian, and Sir William and Lady Eden chose the Quartet to be the star attraction at their New Year’s Ball held three days later at Windlestone Hall, near Rushyford.

In 1909, the Quartet won the prestigious Blackpool Eisteddfod and then made a record – the Polka Serenade – on the Sterno label.

The BBC called them to London to broadcast to the nation over wireless. The Northern Echo reviewer said: “They did remarkably well. Every word was heard distinctly, which is a very rare thing, even with solo singers broadcasting.

“They did their own little thing with some very clever barnyard effects and then sang the Negro Spiritual Swing Low, Sweet Chariot. Their performance compared very favorably to anything the BBC gave us.”

Darlington and Stockton Times: The certificate of the Aeolian Male Quartet from the 1910 Middlesbrough eisteddfod

The Aeolian’s certificate for winning the Cleveland & Durham Eisteddfod, held at Middlesbrough, in 1910 – they also won the 1908 eisteddfod. Middlesbrough had a large Welsh population, due to the ironworks

The Aeolian had a fluid line-up, although Jack’s nephew, Jim Johnson, was a founding member, and his friend, Fred Bradley, was another key member. Jack Cooke, who had trained at Durham Cathedral, was a regular fourth singer.

In 1933 Jack commissioned Co-operative Stores to build him a house for £800 in Morton Palms, although the A66, Darlington’s outer ring road, runs through Morton Palms, in Jack’s day there was probably no more isolated place in the district. It was in the countryside halfway between Darlington and Middleton St George, with only Morton Palms farm a few fields away and the Wheatsheaf Inn (now called The Old Farmhouse) on the horizon.

Darlington and Stockton Times: A 1930s sale catalog photo of Aeolian House, shortly after it was built in the middle of the countryside at Morton Palms

A photo from the 1930s showing the windmill house shortly after it was built

Jack stipulated to the Co-op that the house should have a large veranda in the back where his Quartet could practice in peace accompanied only by the four winds of Aeolus.

Unfortunately, Jack didn’t live too long to take advantage of his musical location. He died in 1937, at the age of 61, and the Quartet disappeared. He left Aeolian House to his second wife Mary, and she raised their children, Mary, Marguerite and John there.

Darlington and Stockton Times: Echo memory - The Aeolian Quartet photographed around 1925, left to right, Jack Johnson of Aeolian House, Fred Bradley, James Johnson (nephew of Jack Johnson) and Jack Cook

The Wind Quartet pictured around 1925, left to right, Jack Johnson of Aeolian House, Fred Bradley, James Johnson (nephew of Jack Johnson) and Jack Cook

Maybe we should also explain Morton Palms, which sounds extremely exotic even though it takes its name from a guy called Brian. This countryside was once part of the moorland that surrounded Darlington, although harvest marks in the area suggest this place was dry enough to have been inhabited since the Iron Age.

In the mid-16th century, the moor settlement was owned by a man called Bryane Palmes. Unfortunately for him, during the Northern Uprising of 1569, he sided with the Catholic nobles. When Protestant Queen Elizabeth quashed their rebellion, she confiscated Brian’s land, although 450 years later it still bears his name.

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