The Birth of Middlesbrough

‘Mydilsburgh’ is the earliest recorded form of Middlesbrough’s name and dates to Saxon times. ‘Burgh’ refers to an ancient settlement, or perhaps a fort of pre-Saxon origin which may have been situated on slightly elevated land close to the Tees. ‘Mydil’ was either the name of an Anglo-Saxon or a reference to Middlesbrough’s middle location, half way between the Christian centres of Durham and Whitby.

Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough
Transporter Bridge from Port Clarence looking towards Middlesbrough. Photo © David Simpson 2018

In Anglo-Saxon times Middlesbrough was certainly the site of a chapel or cell belonging to Whitby Abbey but despite this early activity, Middlesbrough was still only a small farm of twenty five people as late as 1801.

In 1829 a group of Quaker businessmen headed by Joseph Pease of Darlington purchased this Middlesbrough farmstead and its estate and set about the development of what they termed ‘Port Darlington’ on the banks of the Tees nearby. A town was planned on the site of the farm to supply labour to the new coal port – Middlesbrough was born.

Joseph Pease, ‘the father of Middlesbrough’ was the son of Edward Pease, the man behind the Stockton and Darlington Railway. By 1830 this famous line had been extended to Middlesbrough, making the rapid expansion of the town and port inevitable. In 1828 Joseph Pease had predicted there would be a day when:

“..the bare fields would be covered with a busy multitude with vessels crowding the banks of a busy seaport”

His prophecy was to prove true, the small farmstead became the site of North Street, South Street, West Street, East Street, Commercial Street, Stockton Street, Cleveland Street, Durham Street, Richmond Street, Gosford Street, Dacre Street, Feversham Street and Suffield Street, all laid out on a grid-iron pattern centred on a Market Square.

New businesses quickly bought up premises and plots of land in the new town and soon shippers, merchants, butchers, innkeepers, joiners, blacksmiths, tailors, builders and painters were moving in. Labour was employed, staithes and wharves were built, workshops were constructed and lifting engines installed. Indeed such was the growth of this port that in 1846 one local writer observed:

“To the stranger visiting his home after an abscence of fifteen years, this proud array of ships, docks, warehouses, churches, foundries and wharfs would seem like some enchanted spectacle, some Arabian Night’s vision.”

By 1851 Middlesbrough’s population had grown from 40 people in 1829 to 7,600 and it was rapidly replacing Stockton as the main port on the Tees. An old Teesside proverb had proven true;

Yarm was, Stockton is, Middlesbrough will be “

Iron and Steel

In 1850 Iron ore was discovered in the Cleveland Hills near Eston to the south of Middlesbrough and Iron gradually replaced coal as the lifeblood of the town. The ore was discovered by John Vaughan, the principal ironmaster of Middlesbrough who along with his German business partner Henry Bolckow had already established a small iron foundry and rolling mill at Middlesbrough using iron stone from Durham and the Yorkshire coast. The new discovery of iron ore on their doorstep prompted them to build Teesside’s first blast furnace in 1851.

Iron was now in big demand in Britain, particularly for the rapid expansion of the railways being built in every part of the country. More and more blast furnaces were opened in the vicinity of Middlesbrough to meet this demand and by the end of the century Teesside was producing about a third of the nation’s iron output.

Statue of John Vaughan near Middlesbrough
Statue of John Vaughan near Middlesbrough Town Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The status of Bolckow and Vaughan reached great heights in Middlesbrough and in 1853 Bolckow became the town’s first mayor and fifteen years later became its first M.P. The development of Middlesbrough as an ‘Iron Town’ spurred on its continuous growth and by 1860 its population had increased to an incredible 20,000. Two years later, the town was visited by the Victorian minister Gladstone who remarked:

“This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules”

By the 1870s, steel, a much stronger and more resilient metal was in big demand and Middlesbrough had to compete with Sheffield. In 1875 Bolckow and Vaughan opened the first Bessemer Steel plant in Middlesbrough. At first phosphorous ores had to be imported from Spain for the making of the steel, but by 1879 methods were developed which could use local iron ores. The Tees was destined to become ‘the Steel River’.

Bridges of Tees, Tyne and Sydney Harbour

Associated with the making of steel on Teesside is the construction of bridges, one of the industries for which the area has achieved international recognition. Chief among the bridge building firms was Dorman Long, a firm which began as an iron and steel works in 1875 manufacturing bars and angles for ships.

A natural progression from this was to become involved in the construction of bridges particularly when Dorman Long took over the concerns of Bell Brothers and Bolckow and Vaughan in the late 1920s.

The most famous bridge ever constructed on Teesside was Dorman Long’s Sydney Harbour Bridge of 1932. This was partly modelled on the 1929 Tyne Bridge, a construction regarded as the symbol of Tyneside’s Geordie pride, but also a product of Dorman Long’s Teesside workmanship. The great example of Dorman Long’s work on Teesside itself is of course the single span Newport Lifting Bridge. Opened by the Duke of York in February 1934 it was England’s first vertical lifting bridge.

With a lifting span of 270 feet and 66 feet in length it is constructed from 8,000 tons of Teesside steel and 28,000 tons of concrete with towers 170 feet high. The electrically operated lifting mechanism allowed the road to be lifted 100 feet in one and a half minutes by means of ropes passing through sheaves in the four corner towers. The Newport Bridge’s lifting mechanism is no longer active.

The Transporter Bridge

The most notable Teesside Bridge is the Transporter Bridge, which was designed by the Cleveland Bridge and Engineering Company of Darlington and opened on 17th October 1911, by Prince Arthur of Connaught. A kind of a cross between a ferry and a bridge, vehicles are transported across the river by means of a moving car which is capable of carrying 600 persons or 9 vehicles across the Tees to Port Clarence in two and a half minutes. Like the later Newport Bridge it was designed to facilitate the movement of ships along the River Tees. It has a 160 feet clearance above the river.

Transporter Bridge Middlesbrough
Transporter Bridge from the Middlesbrough side. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The Incredible Growth of Middlesbrough

The expanding iron and steel industry of Middlesbrough in the 1860s and 1870s spurred on the growth of Middlesbrough with a population of 19,000 in 1861 increasing to 40,000 only ten years later. The residents of this early town came mainly from neighbouring Yorkshire and the North East, but later from Cheshire, Ireland, Scotland, Wales and some European countries.

At the turn of the century Middlesbrough’s population had more than doubled to 90,000 and it must have been hard to believe that only seventy years earlier the town did not exist. Today Middlesbrough has a population of 150,000 and is undoubtedly the heart of the Teesside conurbation and the modern ‘capital’ of the area. In English history nothing compares to Middlesbrough’s rapid growth. It is no wonder that Middlesbrough has been described as the ‘oldest new town’ in England.

Middlesbrough today and ‘over the border’

Middlesbrough’s town centre today is quite different from the original town planned by Joseph Pease and Partners in 1829. The early town, now called ‘St Hilda’s’ after the parish church that stood here until 1969, was centred on a market square, where the first town hall was built in 1846. Immediately to the south of this early town, lay the railway line and station of 1877.

As Middlesbrough grew, its boundaries quickly expanded south of the railway, leaving the old town somewhat isolated between the railway and river. Gradually the centre of commerce, trade and local government shifted south of the railway and in 1899, the old town hall, was succeeded by the grand structure, in Corporation Road.

Middlesbrough Town Hall.
Middlesbrough Town Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

The town hall and its municipal buildings are still an impressive headquarters for local government in Middlesbrough. At the turn of the century, Linthorpe Road, also south of the railway, had become the main shopping street. This road followed the course of an old country route from Linthorpe to Middlesbrough called Linthorpe Lane.

Today Linthorpe Road, along with Albert Road, Grange Road and Corporation Road, form the modern centre of Middlesbrough, with the University, the Central Library, the Law Courts, radio stations, shopping centres, car parks and busy shopping streets all located within easy reach.

‘Over the border’, to the north of the railway, some features of the earlier town can still be seen. Middlesbrough’s oldest pub, the Ship Inn, in Stockton Street was demolished in recent years but still there is the old Town Hall, which has seen better days at the centre of a presently cleared empty square of green that once encompassed the entire extent of early Middlesbrough.

Maps showing Middlesbrough in the late 19th century and Middlesbrough today. The red highlighted area is the original planned town that developed from the 1830s. Map from the National Library of Scotland website’s side by side feature at https://maps.nls.uk/geo/explore/side-by-side/

More impressive are the Georgian style houses, (now offices) in Queens Terrace, which belonged to the first Middlesbrough owners and nearby, the one time house of the ironmasters Bolckow and Vaughan.

From here a short walk leads to the magnificent Transporter Bridge, ensuring that the old part of town still gets some of the attention.

Middlesbrough is the capital of Teesside and the Tees Valley and is famed for its industry, football club and its bridge, including the Transporter Bridge, the undisputed symbol of Teesside.

Middlesbrough Town Hall.
Middlesbrough Town Hall. Photo © David Simpson 2018

Stockton-on-Tees | Hartlepool Billingham Norton

Yarm and Eaglescliffe |  Around Middlesbrough

Guisborough and Cleveland | Cleveland Coast


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