I thought it was time to move on from politics and weighty issues, and as we are now in spring and good walking weather, to return to the ‘lost communities’ of Teesside. The whole of the North East – especially in mining districts – has them in scores. Indeed, in Co Durham there was for a time a whole category of villages and settlements that County Hall declared surplus to requirements, designated them as ‘Category D’ in harsh bureaucratic nomenclature, and then bulldozed. The policy was scrapped in 1977, but the scars still remain to this day as this vivid account by Tom Kitching suggests.
For my Teesside lost community of this spring (I have a couple more in mind for later) I want to go to probably the last one to be demolished by a Town Hall edict – Graythorp, Hartlepool, a village tantalisingly close to that magical never-never land of Sneaton Snook that I described here last year. Even I can remember walking round Graythorp, as demolition didn’t get going until the early 1980s.
The village, a planned settlement, lay on the west side of the main A178 Tees Road, over the way from Sneaton Snook, and close to the reason for its existence – the early 20th century shipyard set up by Hartlepool engineering magnate Sir Willian Gray, and opened in 1924. He wanted a spacious yard, not one crammed into the tight space of the enclosed Hartlepool docks, and he also envisaged a new community to house his valued workers. Setting up in the teeth of a recession was never going to be easy, but by 1925 the first houses were springing up for an estimated population of some 180 to 200 men, women and children in the 92 houses of a tiny community where what was described at the time as “a tight-knit spirit of togetherness” could be found.
A tight-knit community is fighting for breath
But by 1978, the Hartlepool Mail described a village “fighting for breath in one of the country’s biggest growth areas”. The Mail continued “There was talk of the village being demolished” and Mrs Pat Kears, secretary of the Graythorp Community Association, spoke of her fear that the camaraderie of a whole neighbourhood would be lost if residents were split up. One of the association’s founders Beryl Hall said at the time:
“We have something precious that we do not want to lose and that is the warmth we have among the people. Everybody knows everybody else and all the families here have grown up together. I for one would not want to lose that.”
There were 70 houses left in Graythorp at the time (wartime bombing which hit the school had also caused irreparable damage to a lot of nearby houses on the south west corner of the village – but with no fatalities) and residents were so keen to protect what they had, they carried out their own survey of their village. It was to be all change for the community on the outskirts of Hartlepool which, under the 1966 re-organisation of local government, had gone from a former Stockton Rural District Council area to the control of Hartlepool Borough Council. It was ironic that the new council, seen initially by local residents as more ‘local’ to them, was to be their executioner.
As the Mail article of the time put it, the council’s rationale was that the ‘march of industry’ had put Graythorp in danger with earth embankments and huge factories dominating a skyline which had once provided a view all the way across the fields to Greatham. This was somewhat specious. A photograph used to illustrate that assertion was displayed, but it was a classic ‘long lens’ shot taken from the western end of the shipyard, and with the massive sheds of the British Steel rolling mills looming over the houses. In reality, the village was well away from both the industry on the riverside and from the steelworks – there were big open fields in between.
Graythorp still remembered
Less than five years ago and into the age of the internet, a 2017 feature post on Graythorp still attracted the hits and comments of more than 14,000 Hartlepudlians on social media. They remembered the days of the village club where live entertainment was a regular attraction, the local darts team and the ships in the nearby repair yard. They remembered the industry which kept the area alive and the names of the villagers who lived next door. They remembered the school and its playing field where holiday galas were held and the communal holidays the villagers took to places like Scarborough.
But all that had cut no ice at the time with the Hartlepool planners and with their Borough Councillors, and the demolition of the late 1980s began, scattering the community to the winds – or more prosaically to the Fens or Owton Manor estates. My memories were walking through what was left of Graythorp; derelict, muddy and fly-tipped quagmires where houses had once been, a few rows still standing, some ‘tinned up’ waiting for the demolition squads, others with defiant householders still – for the present – in place.
You can still walk that long gone street pattern. But instead of interwar semis and terraces built to garden city standards, you have the neat tin sheds and security fences of a 1990s trading estate; cablemakers, small steel fabricators, warehouse pallet building and storage and – most bizarrely of all – a company specialising in the repair, rebuilding and resprays of classic cars from 1930s onwards, and much prized for film period shoots.
Time heals. The shipyard has long gone, closing in 1962. Afterwards it had a decade long renaissance from the mid 1970s when Laing Offshore built oil and gas rig jackets and topside modules under the direction of a local engineering manager, Robert Cummings. I wonder if, when those massive structures were floated out into the Tees Channel, did he bring along his primary school age son, Dominic?
It’s gone full circle now; those same structures along with age expired ships are dismantled in the same shipyard basin, but this time by workers bussed in from Tyneside and urban Teesside – not from the village over the road. But it’s still sad.