Stockton High Street
Stockton-on-Tees has the broadest High Street in England which runs from north to south with the River Tees just to the east. At the centre of the High Street is the old Town House or ‘Town Hall’ dating from 1735 with additions of 1744. Just to its south is the column of the market cross, built by John Shout in 1768, marking the focal point for the market which Stockton has held since 1310 when it was granted by the Prince Bishop of Durham Antony Bek.
Next to the market cross is the old butchers’ Shambles, now a tiny shopping centre. It dates from 1825 (replacing an earlier shambles of 1768). The year 1825 was a of course a momentous one in Stockton’s history, the year in which the Stockton and Darlington Railway opened and terminated on the riverside near the south end of the High Street.
There are some 18th century buildings in the High Street and lots of plain 20th century buildings occupied by shops. There are 19th century buildings too with the best being the classical style National Westminster Bank of the 1870s on the west side of the High Street close to the Town House.
Near the Shambles is the entrance to Blue Post Yard on the west side of the High Street. A hotel called the Blue Posts Inn (or hotel) once stood hereabouts on the site of an earlier house inscribed with the date 1485. Its front entrance had a gable overhead inscribed with the date and was supported by two large blue posts of marble (possibly of Frosterley marble) that were salvaged from the demolished Stockton Castle in the 1660s by the Burdon family. The house owner was Rowland Burdon, a member of a notable Stockton family. He was a mayor of Stockton in the 1650s, as was one one of his descendants, Rowland Burdon of Castle Eden in the 1790s. The house was taken down in 1811 and the inn was built on its site.
Another famous mayor from Stockton (though not a mayor of Stockton) was Brass Crosby, who was born in the town in 1725. He was the son of Hercules Crosby of Stockton, who was a burgess in the town. Brass Crosby went on to become a Lord Mayor of London in 1770. The name Brass, came from his mother, a Mary Brass of Hesleden.
Streets adjoining the west side of Stockton High Street include Dovecot Street at the mid point and still the principal side street of the town centre. In the late 1850s, the dovecot from which the street was named, was described as “recently removed”.
At the south end of the High Street, another offshoot road to the west is Yarm Lane, the old route to Yarm. A small park just off this road is centred on the ruined shell of the large Victorian Gothic Holy Trinity church. It was built on land donated by the Bishop of Durham, William Van Mldert, to serve the rapidly expanding population of the town. This church, now preserved like a monastic ruin, was built in the 1830s by John and Benjamin Green who were best-known for designing Grey’s Monument in Newcastle upon Tyne and the Penshaw Monument near Sunderland.
High Street: The East Side
The side streets on the east side of the High Street lead down to the riverside and are a focal point for much of Stockton’s history. Stockton began as an Anglo-Saxon settlement on high ground on the banks of the Tees and was the home to a manor house located in this area.
The meaning of the name Stockton, which was originally called ‘Stoctun’ cannot be pinned down with certainty as ‘stoc’ can have more than one meaning. It could mean ‘enclosure made of logs’, or perhaps the estate belonging to a religious house or ‘stocc’. Or, more simply, it could mean ‘outlying farm’. In early times Stockton was part of a large medieval estate dating back to Anglo-Saxon times and this estate included Carlton and Norton with which Stockton had close associations.
The moated manor house at Stockton belonged to the Prince Bishops and became a site for one of their castles. Tower Street just off the south end of the High Street is the best clue to the former existence of a castle nearby and there was once a Moat Street. The name of the 1970s Castlegate Shopping Centre also recalls the castle site which stood approximately where we find the Swallow Hotel.
Dating from at least the 12th century and perhaps occupying the site of an earlier Anglo-Saxon hall, the first known manor house belonged to Hugh Pudsey, a particularly powerful Bishop of Durham. Another Bishop of Durham, Philip of Poitou, who quarrelled with King John is said to have met the king at Stockton and it was possibly at around this time that Stockton received its first charter.
In 1249, a Bishop of Durham called Nicholas Farnham who had suffered from illness resigned and retired to the manor at Stockton for the rest of his days for contemplation.
During the time of Bishop Kellaw (1311-1316), the manor was rebuilt but in 1325 Stockton was attacked and destroyed by the Scots and presumably the manor house suffered at their hands. At what date the manor house was fortified is not known though it was first referred to as a castle in 1376. In that year a John De Carrow (Carew) attacked the castle and abducted a boy called John Seton (of wealthy background) who was a ward of the bishop.
The Bishops of Durham also owned castles at Bishop MIddleham near Sedgefield and at Durham City and of course later at Bishop Auckland. The twelfth century castle at Bishopton to the west of Stockton belonged to a Roger Conyers but the manor was granted by the Bishop of Durham.
In 1592, a Bishop of Durham called Toby Matthew sought refuge at Stockton castle to escape the ravages of the plague at Durham and presumably developed an interest in the town as he reissued Stockton with a new charter in 1602. A later charter was issued by Bishop Cosin in 1666.
During the Civil War, Stockton Castle was a Royalist stronghold and in 1640 a treaty was signed making the Tees a boundary between the forces of Scotland and the King. The Scottish army was given control of all of Northumberland and Durham except for Stockton castle and the village of Egglescliffe which remained in Royalist hands.
The Scottish forces finally captured Stockton Castle in 1644 and it was garrisoned by them until 1646. After the Civil War the castle was destroyed, in 1652, 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.”
Some of the stonework from the old castle was incorporated into Stockton’s Green Dragon Yard, in Finkle Street. Finkle Street is a side-street just off the eastern side of the High Street to the north of the shopping centre.
Finkle usually means dog-leg in street-names though may be related to the terms ‘fennel’ and ‘vennel’ (vennel is still used for alley ways in Durham City). The plant fennel was often called finkle in the region and further confusion with the old word ‘kennel’ – meaning drainage channel or sewer may have resulted in a confusion of terminologies. Finchale Priory (pronounced Finkle) near Durham is incidentally located near a dog leg bend of the River Wear. Perhaps the term Finkle in Finkle Street at Stockton relates to the nearby bends in the River Tees.
After Finkle Street, the next side-street to the north is Silver Street with a mix of old and new buildings including a Georgian Theatre in a neighbouring yard. The theatre – described in the 1850s as having “no exterior attractions” – was established in 1766 when it was converted from a tithe barn. It was once Stockton’s Theatre Royal and is now a bar and venue.
Next up from Silver Street is Bishop Street and then we have Church Road. The neighbouring River Tees turns eastward hereabouts, so it is Bishop Street (along with the modern A1305 Riverside route) that flanks the river rather than the High Street from this point.
Church Road, once known as Church Row, is home to Stockton’s red brick Georgian parish church of St Thomas, which was built between 1710 and 1712. It was in 1713 that Stockton became a parish in its own right making Stockton independent of Norton parish. Early Georgian churches are rare in the North East, though a church of a similar era and style can be seen in old Sunderland which was also given parish status during this era.
A chapel had stood at Stockton near the site of the present church before the church was built but it was only only an outlying daughter chapel of the original parish church of Stockton which was St Mary’s church at Norton. The Stockton chapel, possibly that built by Bishop Poor in the early 1200s, was apparently in ruinous condition and of little architectural merit. It was demolished following the building of the new church.
Church Road is linked to the parallel Bishop Street and the riverside area by both Thistle Green – once an open space – and ‘The Square’ – once a spacious green. In times long since past there was a lane that led down to the Tees from this point called Housewife Lane.
Today, Thistle Green, The Square, Church Road and the Tees enclose an area that contains the offices of Cleveland Police and Stockton Borough Council. This area was once noted for sugar refining. The Stockton Sugar Refinery situated at a place called ‘Sugar House Open’ dated from 1780 and was once the only sugar refinery between Hull and Newcastle.
Stockton: The Old Port of Teesside
In medieval times early recorded land owners in Stockton included William Tumba and Adam Fitzwalter while a man called Robert de Stockton inhabited Stockton’s ‘Old Hall’.
An early clue to shipping links at Stockton came in the 1190s during the reign of King Richard I when Robert De Stockton sailed the great ship of the powerful Prince Bishop Hugh Pudsey, to London.
Stockton was first mentioned as a port as early as 1283 and belonged to the Prince Bishops of Durham. This reference to the port concerend an illegally trading ship that was arrested and charged customs by the Bishop of Durham’s men.
By 1344, Stockton’s shipping activity was enough to attract the attention of the powerful mayor and bailiffs of Newcastle who sent a lengthy letter to the town of Stockton instructing them on the legal obligations of customs and trade. Newcastle had a reputation for bullying rival ports along the River Tyne, often with violence and intimidation (see North Shields) but Stockton was probably too far away and too small to suffer such a subjection and in any case was located on a different river. Furthermore Stockton was too far from the coalfield – coal being the most lucrative commodity for export in the region – to benefit from that particular trade.
Shipbuilding was carried out at Stockton from at least as early as 1470 when Bishop Booth of Durham had a wooden ship built here at considerable cost using timber felled in the extensive forests of Gateshead. Further shipping activity continued throughout the following centuries and there are mentions of port activity in 1543.
Several Prince Bishops – who ruled like virtual kings between Tees and Tyne – seem to have taken more interest in Stockton as a port than they did in say potential ports along their side of the Tyne or at Sunderland but it was Hartlepool that was generally the favoured port of the bishops and traders of Durham in medieval times. In truth, many of the bishops were not commercially minded and this may have stifled Stockton’s trading potential. Stockton was for many years best know for its wool and agriculture with George Bowes describing the area in 1569 as “good corn country”.
When the bishops’ powers declined in the 1500s it may have assisted the town’s development but Yarm on the Yorkshire side of the Tees and Hartlepool to the north continued to be the main ports in the area for some time.
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”.
By 1666 there were around 120 houses in Stockton and a population of about 500 or 136 families who were mainly farmers, joiners, river fishermen and craftsmen of various kinds. In 1683 riverside quays were extended and Stockton’s population had jumped to 350 families by 1692. The principal trade was in agricultural produce, exported notably to Holland, though timber was imported from the Baltic and coal from Sunderland and Newcastle.
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 to London were agricultural products – especially butter as well as an important trade in lead from the dales of Swaledale and Arkengarthdale in Yorkshire.
During 1740 there was a scarcity of grain in Stockton which resulted in much poverty and starvation. A riot broke out in the town under the leadership of a man known by the name of ‘Admiral Haddock’ and a ship laden with wheat was seized. Soldiers arrived and rounded up the ring leaders who were taken to Durham Jail and subsequently transported to America.
One of the hazards of being a busy port was that Stockton could be a target for press gang raids. Press gangs arrived in ships at ports up and down the coast and impressed unwilling men into service at sea. In 1759, the famed Methodist preacher, John Wesley was preaching at Stockton when he witnessed one such possible raid that ended in failure for the gang:
“In the evening I began near Stockton market place as usual. I had hardly finished the hymn when I observed the people, in great confusion; this was occasioned by a lieutenant of a man-of-war who had chosen that time to bring his press-gang and ordered them to take Joseph Jones and William Alwood. Joseph Jones told him, “Sir, I belong to Mr. Wesley.” After a few words, he let him go; as he did likewise William Alwood, after a few hours, understanding he was a licensed preacher. He likewise seized upon a young man of the town, but the women rescued him by main strength. They also broke the lieutenant’s head and so stoned both him and his men that they ran away with all speed.”
The Portrack and Mandale Canals
To improve the efficiency of Stockton’s trade as a port and help it expand, two great cuts were made across the wandering meanders of the River Tees at Portrack and Mandale, shortening the journey of sea vessels to Stockton by three miles.
The first cut was proposed for the massive meander of the Tees at Mandale in 1791. This made sense because although the loop was very broad and wayward and stretched for two miles, the neck of the meander was very narrow and only required a cut of 220 yards. This cut would come to be known as ‘The Old Cut’ but was not made until 1810.
One of the main delays in getting this work carried out came as a result of the objection of Lord Harewood. He owned a water mill (on the Yorkshire side) at the southern extremity of the Mandale meander and cutting off the meander would render his mill useless. He removed his objection after a £2,000 compensation sum was agreed.
The Mandale cut proved a huge success and prompted the similar bypass of the Portrack meander in 1831. This meander was shorter – about a mile – than that at Mandale but with a much broader neck that required a cut of 704 yards.
The name Portrack recalls the old method of hauling the sailing ships around the cumbersome meanders by means of ropes to the port at Stockton. This was known as ‘tracking’ and gave rise to the name port-track – Portrack.
The result of the two cuts or canals in the River Tees was a dramatic straightening in the course of the river east of Stockton and a resulting confusion in the exact local boundary between the old counties of Durham and Yorkshire.
Effectively the two counties each gained an isolated slice of each other. The Stockton race course, situated within the Mandale Marshes area of the larger loop, now found itself on the south of the Tees. Today this land is now occupied by Teesside Golf Club and Teesside Retail Park which are both located within the old loop of the River Tees. The Showcase Cinema to the east is however just outside the loop and the land there was always on the old Yorkshire side.
The severing of the smaller Portrack meander resulted in the creation of Portrack Lake (a kind of man made ox bow lake) which was situated roughly where the white water course of the Tees Barrage and and its car park is now located. The remaining part of the old Portrack course of the Tees is filled in and occupied by Portrack Industrial Estate. There was once an island here between the Lustrum Beck and the River Tees which this beck joins nearby.
The side streets and narrow lanes off Church Road and High Street leading to the riverside of the Tees would once have taken you into a busy industrial district of warehouses, wharves and quays such as the busy Corporation Quay. In the 1850s there were 22 private quays and four public quays at Stockton.
The Tees continued to be a hive of industrial activity at Stockton until around the middle of the twentieth century but then subsequently saw gradual decline. Things are different today following an era of regeneration that began in the late 1980s. The clear waters of the Tees at Stockton are now flanked by modern buildings, are crossed by impressive new bridges and the overall feel is that this a place for a leisurely urban stroll along riverside walks bordered by neat modern offices, new houses and educational establishments.
There is quite a large area of riverside to explore at Stockton and the best place to begin is at the Tees Barrage about a mile to the east of Stockton centre. It can only be approached on foot or by car (though only from the south side of the river). Here a road crosses the barrage to reach the Tees white water course on the riverside on the north bank of the Tees.
The old course of the River Tees and the Portrack Lake was situated somewhere in the area of the white water course but has been lost through re-landscaping.
Back over on the south side of the barrage along a riverside path just to the east, a large stream enters the Tees. This is in fact the old course of the Tees that was cut off by the Mandale Cut in 1810.
The Tees barrage was built across the river between 1991 and 1995 to prevent flooding from tidal changes and to control the river’s flow and also has the benefit of limiting pollution downstream. Its construction helped facilitate the development of the Stockton riverside area. Designed by Ove Arup and the Napper Partnership, the barrage includes a road bridge and a separate cycle path bridge as well as a fish pass to allow the free passage of fish and a barge lock that enables small craft to pass beyond.
The most unusual feature associated with the barrage is the International White Water Course near the north side of the barrage where water from the river is channelled around a winding course for the exciting pursuit of sports such as canoeing and jet skiing.
Along the river half a mile to the west of the barrage is a beautiful pedestrian footbridge across the Tees called the Infinity Bridge. It is so named because its design is similar to the mathematical symbol for infinity. The bridge opened in 2009 and is designed by Expedition Engineering and Spence Associates. Notable firms like Balfour Beatty, Cleveland Bridge and Dorman Long were involved in its construction.
The buildings on this south and east side of the Tees (the Thornaby side) around here are all situated within a bend of the river and include a business park and a college campus which together occupy an area that was once the site of the Teesdale and Thornaby ironworks from the 19th century as well as the home to shipbuilding yards on the bank of the Tees. Less than half a mile to the west, where the river bends away from the Stockton High Street is the Princess of Wales road bridge of 1992. It is a plain ‘slab and girder’ bridge that is sometimes referred to locally as the Diana Bridge.
Continuing south, the next bridge we encounter across the river is the pedestrian Teesquay Millennium Bridge that links Stockton centre to the business park across the river. A cable-stay bridge, it opened in December 2000 and was designed by the famed Ove Arup architectural design company.
Finally we have the Victoria Bridge, a road bridge across the Tees near the south end of the High Street that links Stockton to the northern part of Thornaby. The Victoria Bridge is a wrought and cast iron bridge built in 1887 by Hayter and Neale. It superseded an earlier stone bridge of April 1771. Previously Stockton had been served by a ferry. A ferry was first mentioned at Stockton in the 1370s. There are two further bridges to the south in Stockton. One carries the A66 across the Tees and the other the railway but the riverside cannot be explored on foot beyond the Victoria Bridge.
Stockton and the Railways
The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 brought about significant increases in the trade and population of Stockton as lead from the dales could now be quickly brought to the town and coal from the mines in the Bishop Auckland area could now be brought to the port. The history of this famous railway to Stockton can be traced by those who explore the town.
A plaque on the Town Hall in the High Street recalls a meeting that took place there that helped set in the motion the development of the railway. Further along the High Street to the south is Bridge Road – the approach to the Victoria Bridge – on the Stockton side where two plaques can be found highlighting Stockton’s railway history. One 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 is on 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.
Today there is no station in Stockton as it is served by a nearby station on the other side of the river at Thornaby. The town of Thornaby has been the home to the station that serves Stockton since the first half of the nineteenth century. There was a goods station on the Stockton side of the river though a terminus on this side served passengers when the Stockton and Darlington railway first opened.
The railway which brought about such a rapid increase in the development of Stockton would ultimately see the status of the port as the principal town of Teesside eclipsed by Middlesbrough.
It was the extension of the Stockton and Darlington line across the Tees by means of a suspension bridge en route to Middlesbrough in 1830 that resulted in the birth and growth of Middlesbrough as a town. Middlesbrough was six miles nearer to the sea than Stockton and had many advantages over the old heart of Teesside. A 19th 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”
John Walker – The Man of the Match
Considering all the heavy industries for which Stockton was once 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.
A sign on the Victoria Bridge as you enter the town of Thornaby-on-Tees informs that you have crossed the River Tees into the ‘historic county of the North Riding of Yorkshire’. Strangely there are no signs on the Stockton side to tell you that you are entering the historic County of Durham or old realm of the Prince Bishops.
Thornaby was indeed historically in Yorkshire and like many places on the old Yorkshire side of the Tees, its name ends in the letters ‘by’ which indicates that it was a Viking Danish settlement long ago.
It was the settlement given to a Viking called Thormoth who gave his name to the place, most likely some time after the Danish conquest of Yorkshire in 866 AD. Thornaby is mentioned in the Domesday Book in 1086 where it was called ‘Thormozbi’. Places over on the Stockton side of the Tees weren’t included in the Domesday Book and had to wait until the Boldon Book survey of the Prince Bishops of Durham was undertaken in 1183.
The original part of Thornaby-on-Tees is Thornaby village centred upon a leafy village green. The village includes a small church of Norman origin dedicated to St Peter. Thornaby village is the place mentioned in the Domesday Book in which its land holders included Ulchil, Edmund and Robert Malet. The Priory of Gisborough and abbey of Byland also held land at Thornaby in medieval times. Other owners during this era were the Hiltons and Gowers.
In 1838, the Reverend John Gilpin, a Benjamin Ord and a William Skinner purchased 110 acres of land to the north of the village of Thornaby from Lord Rokeby, for the construction of a new town. The industrial developments that followed the opening of the Stockton and Darlington meant that riverside land on Teesside was highly sought for industrial and urban development. The land near Thornaby was a prized site facing across the Tees to Stockton. The new town on the Thornaby side was initially called ‘South Stockton’ but was renamed Thornaby on Tees later in the century although at first it remained separate from the village of Thornaby (also on the Tees) to the south.
In 1825 William Smith opened his brown ware ‘Stafford Pottery at South Stockton but the biggest industries at Thornaby were the ironworks. In 1856 Thomas Howard Head started the Teesdale iron Works at South Stockton. Later, in 1866 a Thomas Wrightson (who trained at Armstrong’s works in Newcastle) joined the firm and formed a partnership with Charles Arthur Head to establish the Thornaby company of Head Wrightson. Another iron works – the Thornaby Iron works – was established by Whitwell and Co at Thornaby in 1859 but was closed by the 1930s.
The Head Wrightson works came to be noted for building bridges in the later 19th century and in the later 20th century employed 6,000 people, mostly specialising in making boilers and heavy engineering. Taken over by the Davy Corporation in 1977 the Head Wrightson Works finally closed in June 1987.
It was June 1987 that saw the re-election of Conservative Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and in the September of that year she came north to visit the derelict industrial site of the former iron works near Thornaby creating an opportunity for the famous photo of her walking across the land that came to be known as her ‘walk in the wilderness’. It was one of the most famous photo images of her time as Prime Minister.
A response to the dereliction was the setting up of the Teesside Development Corporation in 1987 which oversaw the redevelopment and regeneration of the riverside areas of Teesside. The Corporation was chaired by Sir Ron Norman with Easington Labour MP Jack Dormand as Deputy Chair and Duncan Hall as the Chief Executive.
Our YouTube channel explores the Viking history of the River Tees.