Stockton-on-Tees, Billingham and Norton

Stockton’s lost castle

Stockton-on-Tees began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on high ground close to the northern bank of the River Tees. In later times this area became the site of a Norman castle belonging to the Prince-Bishops of Durham.

Above: Old postcard showing Stockton High Street Town Hall and parish church
Above: Old postcard showing Stockton High Street Town Hall and parish church

Dating from at least the Twelfth century this castle was originally a hall belonging to Hugh Pudsey a famous Bishop of Durham. At what date the hall was fortified we do not know although it is first referred to as a castle in 1376. During the Civil War Stockton castle was a Royalist stronghold and in1640 when a treaty was signed making the Tees a boundary between the forces of Scotland and the King, this castle stayed in Royalist hands.

The Scottish forces finally captured Stockton castle in 1644 and it was garrisoned by them until 1646. At the end of the Civil War the castle was destroyed on the orders of Oliver Cromwell and only the castle barn was left standing. Sadly this barn was demolished in the nineteenth century and today nothing remains of the old castle of Stockton on Tees;

“Old Noll in his day out of pious concern.
The castle demolished sold all but the barn.”

The site of Stockton castle is now occupied by a prominent hotel its former presence indicated by Tower Street and the Castle Shopping centre. Some of the stonework from the old castle was incorporated into Stockton’s Green Dragon Yard, just off the High Street.

The Old Heart of Teesside

By the seventeenth century Stockton was beginning to take over Yarm’s role as the main port on the River Tees and was developing an important Baltic trade. It was still nevertheless a largely agricultural district, with farmland described in 1647 as “Champion country, very fruitful though of a stiff clay”.With the increasing size of ships Yarm became an impractical place for vessels to reach and Stockton soon became the main port for North Yorkshire, Westmorland and south Durham.

The main goods exported from Stockton were local agricultural produce and lead from the dales of Durham and Yorkshire. Even at Stockton adjustments had to be made to improve the efficiency of this expanding port and great cuts were made across the river meanders at Portrack and Mandale, shortening the journey of sea vessels to Stockton by three miles. The result was a dramatic straightening in the course of the River Tees east of Stockton and a resulting confusion in the exact local boundary between Durham and Yorkshire particularly with the transfer of the Stockton race course to the south of the river

Stockton and the Railways

The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 brought about further significant increases in the trade and population of Stockton as lead from the dales could now be quickly brought to the town along with coal from mines in the Bishop auckland. The history of this famous railway to Stockton can be traced by those who explore the town.Of particular interest is Bridge Road where two plaques can be found highligting Stockton’s railway history. One plaque commemorates the place where the first section of Stockton and Darlington track was laid by Thomas Meynell of Yarm on 23rd May 1822.

The second plaque marks the building that was arguably the world’s first railway ticket office. In Stockton the railway ran along the course of the quayside by the Tees and linked up with four sets of coal staithes which were jetties from which coal could be loaded into the ships. Staithe of course is a Viking word which originally meant landing place or landing stage but in the coal trade of northern England it signified a loading place.

The railway which brought about such a rapid increase in the development of Stockton was ultimately to bring about the downfall of this port, with the extension of the Stockton and Darlington line to Middlesbrough in 1830. Middlesbrough was six miles nearer to the sea than Stockton and had many advantages over the old heart of Teesside. A nineteenth century writer records the change in Stockton’s fortunes;

“Vessels now anchor at Middleburgh snug and comfortable, which before strove to mount the river and reach Stockton after overcoming the sad surf tossed over the bar by the easterly gales; so that Stockton as a maritime place has become insignificant”

Rope, Sugar, Cotton, Pottery

Ropemaking associated with Stockton’s role as a shipbuilding centre was an industry of significance at Stockton judging from the import of 1,178 tons of hemp into Stockton in 1825. Stockton’s Ropery Street was the site of this particular industry.

Cotton was made at Stockton from a Cotton Mill established in 1839 while an earlier industry located close to the river was the refining of sugar. The Stockton Sugar Refinery situated at a place called `Sugar House Open’ dated from 1780 and was the only sugar refinery between Hull and Newcastle.

Brickmaking was a prominent and well-needed industry in the rapidly expanding towns of nineteenth century Teesside. Some of the clay used in Stockton’s brick works was also a useful material for the local Pottery Industry. In 1825 William Smith opened his `Stafford Pottery at South Stockton (Thornaby-on-Tees) followed in 1860 by his brother James’s factory at Stockton called the North Shore Pottery. Other potteries included the Ainsworth’s white and printed ware pottery of North Stockton and the Harwoods Norton Pottery which specialised in ‘Sunderland Ware’

John Walker – Man of the Match

Considering all the heavy industries for which Stockton is known, it is perhaps surprising that one of Stockton’s most widely famed industrial enterprises can be attributed to a humble High Street chemist. His name was John Walker, the inventor of the Friction Match.

Walker’s day book for the period 1825 to 1826 shows that he was regularly selling mixtures of combustible materials in the form of separated powders to young men and to a gunsmith from his Chemist and Druggist outlet in the High Street. In 1826 while at his home on the Stockton Quayside experimenting with a mixture of these combustible materials he happened to scrape the mixing stick against his hearth which caused the stick to catch fire.

Walker’s scientific mind was quick to realise that the substance used in this way could have a number of potential applications and he appears to have handed out bundles of matchsticks dipped in the substance to various people in Stockton. Walker seems to have perfected the mixture consisting of specific portions of Potassium Chlorate and Antimony Sulphide as he put the substance on sale in April 1827 in the form of friction matches. They came supplied with a piece of folded sandpaper for scraping against. The price was a shilling plus 2d extra for the tin. The sandpaper was supplied free.

A Stockton solicitor by the name of Mr Hixon was the first buyer, purchasing a tin box containing one hundred. The day book records the sale of what Walker described as Sulphurata Hyper-Oxygenata Frict though at a later stage he renamed his invention `Friction Lights’. Walker’s first matches were made of paste board which was later replaced with three inch wood splints cut by elderly people in the neighbourhood who were generously paid by the chemist.

In 1830 Walker was visited by Michael Faraday who is thought to have encouraged Walker to patent his invention. Sadly Walker seemed to have no interest in developing a wider market for his development and in 1830 his idea was taken on board by a Londoner called Samuel Johnson who patented the friction lights as Friction Matches. Johnson termed the matches Lucifers, which is perhaps appropriate because he was a bit of a devil for taking all the credit for the invention of a Stockton man.

Thomas Sheraton, the furniture maker and designer is another of Stockton’s famous sons. He was born in the town in 1751 where he learned his trade before moving to London. Sheraton’s work did not become fully appreciated until after his death in 1806, so unfortunately he died in poverty.

Norton on Tees

For many centuries Stockton was the most important settlement in the north Teesside area, but in more ancient times Norton and Billingham were places of significance forming important agricultural settlements in the Anglo-Saxon age. Norton, across the Lustrum or Lustring Beck to the north east of Stockton is believed to mean the northern settlement and may have fallen within one of the earliest parts of the North East to be settled by the Anglo-Saxons. It was certainly a place of importance in Anglo-Saxon times, and still has an Anglo- Saxon church. In 1984 excavations at Mill Lane, Norton revealed a large Anglo-Saxon pagan cemetery. More than one hundred burials were discovered at the site.

An interesting assortment of personal items were found in the graves including shields, spears, combs, brooches, belt buckles, beads, keys, pots, and tweezers. One of the most interesting finds was a Frankish style silver plated buckle found in the grave of a female. All the objects found date to the early 6th century and are thus pre-Viking and pre-Christian. They nevertheless demonstrate that the people of the Dark Ages were more culturally advanced than is often thought.

Norton today is a large subburb of Stockton but at its centre stands the unexpected haven of old Norton village, which still retains a rural atmosphere with cottages, a duckpond and a village green. For centuries, old Norton and its Saxon church were the centre of an important parish which included Stockton. Today the status of these towns has been reversed and Norton is now a part of the borough of Stockton on Tees.

Ancient Billingham

Billingham, across the Billingham Beck, to the north east of Norton is very much a modern town, best known as the site of the huge petro chemical works of ICI but like Norton it also has ancient origins and its church has an Anglo-Saxon tower dating from arbout 1000 AD. The name of Billingham is also Anglo-Saxon and means – `the homestead of Billa’s people’. In the late Anglo-Saxon period Billingham belonged to the followers of St Cuthbert until it was captured by the Irish-Norse King Ragnald in the tenth century A.D. Ragnald gave Billingham along with other lands in the vicinity of the north Tees vale to one of his men, an Irish-Viking knight called Scula or Scule who was probably encouraged to exercise patronage in favour of his own people. Scula’s territory included School Aycliffe to the north of Darlington, the name means Scula’s Aycliffe. There are a small number of Viking place names in the Billingham area, notably those beginning with Thorpe, such as Thorpe Thewles which means the ‘farm of the immoral’.

Salt – the first Teesside chemical industry

The earliest chemical industry in the Billingham area was salt making which may have very early origins as an ancient salter’s track ran through this area, north to Wearmouth and south to Whitby. Salt may have been made in this area in Roman times. Whatever its early origins, salt exploitation was not specifically mentioned until the year 1290 when a certain Robert de Brus (grandfather of Robert the Bruce King of Scotland) granted a salt pan in Hart village to Sir John Rumundebi formerly held by Adam the Miller “at the rental of a pair of white gloves or a penny at Easter”. The large Salt Pans were used in the production of salt through the evaporation of sea water.

The De Brus family were important land owners in the district called Hart which extended along the east coast from the Tees to the valley of Castle Eden. Hart, also known as Hartness is thought to have included Billingham and the port of Hartlepool.

The salt pan granted by De Brus may have been located at Cowpen near Billingham as this is known to have been an important centre of the salt making industry in the fourteenth century. It is recorded that 35 quarters of salt were bought at Cowpen in 1330 at different prices with a total cost of £5,7s and 6d. An early account of salt making at Coatham near Redcar describes the working of salt pans

“And as the Tyde comes in, yt bringeth a small wash sea-cole which is imployed to the makinge of salte, and the Fuell of the poore fisher Townes adjoininge; the oylie sulphurousness beinge mixed with the Salte of the Sea as yt floweth , and consequently hard to take fyre, or to keepe in longe without quenchinge, they have a Meanes, by makinge small vaults to passe under the hearthes, into which by foresetting the wynde with a board, they force yt to enter, and soe to serve insteede of a payre of bellowes, which they call in a proper worde of Art, a Blowecole.”

The process of making salt was quite simple, it was extracted by perpetual boiling and reboiling of sea water. The water was boiled in huge shallow salt pans made of lead. Often this necessitated eight boilings before the salt could be obtained. Salt making continued in the area in the later part of the fourteenth century. In 1381 a salt pan in the area is recorded as belonging to the Lumley family. It is difficult to assess how many salt pans there actually were in the area but a manuscript of 1396 lists at least twenty four at Cowpen.

The local salt making industry achieved great heights in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries when Greatham between Hartlepool and Billingham became a salt making centre when `Salt De Greatham ‘ was famed throughout the land. By 1650 the salt cotes were rendered useless by the tides of the sea and the centre of salt making in Britain had moved to South Shields where there was a plentiful supply of coal for heating the salt water. Large scale exploitation of salt did not return to Greatham until the nineteenth century when the salt was extracted in the form of brine extracted from 1000 feet below the earth.

Billingham chemical industry

In the fourteenth century Billingham was a little village noted for a small brewery and the making of fish oil. In 1834 an extension of the Stockton and Darlington Railway called the Clarence Railway was brought to the deepwater dock on the north bank of the Tees. The railway passed close to Billingham and helped stimulate industrial growth. In 1837 an iron works opened nearby at Haverton Hill and was followed by a glassworks, a blast furnace and more iron foundries. Despite this industry, Billingham was still largely a village in 1857 noted for a brewery and skinnery

World War One and the need to produce nitrates for the manufacture of explosives provided the spark which brought about the incredible development of Billingham as the great chemical centre of Britain. In 1917 Billingham was chosen as the site for the production of Synthetic Ammonia to be used in the manufacture of explosives.

A site of several hundred acres occupied by the flat farmland of the Grange Farm at Billingham was chosen because of its good supply of essential resources – namely air, water, cheap coal, labour a power generating capacity (the Nesco B Power Station) and good access by road, rail and sea.

The war was over before the Billingham Chemical plant was completed, but the works were taken over in 1920 by Brunner Mond. This company adapted the production of synthetic ammonia to the manufacture of fertilisers and their plant formed the basis of what was to become ICI’s agricultural division at Billingham.

In 1926 Britain’s four biggest chemical manufacturers including Brunner Mond merged to form Imperial Chemical Industries Ltd (ICI) and this considerably helped with the development of Billingham. The number of workers employed at the Billingham plant had reached 5,000 in 1932 when the population of Billingham was 18,000. In 1921 Billingham’s population had been 8,000.

With the onset of World War II the production of synthetic ammonia at Billingham for explosives was in big demand. Other products were also needed and the plant also became heavily involved in the production of high performance aviation fuel for RAF aircraft. The production of plastics established in 1934 became increasingly important at Billingham during the war and was used in the construction of aircraft cockpits. Other work relating to the war time hostilities included secret work carried out in relation to the development of atomic bombs. This work was given the code name `tube alloys’.

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