The investigation into Teesport and Teesworks started this week [12 June] just 19 months after Tees Valley mayor Ben Houchen gathered business leaders, journalists and public relations people in the abandoned Furness shipyard in Stockton on Tees to announce “not only the largest and best freeport but the first in the UK to be operational”. Houchen glossed over the fact that Liverpool Freeport had opened in 1984 and been abolished by the Cameron coalition government in 2012.
Angie Ridgwell, CEO of Lancashire County Council, Quentin Baker, director of law and governance at Hertfordshire County Council, and Richard Paver, former treasurer of Greater Manchester, have been appointed by levelling-up secretary Michael Gove to ‘investigate allegations of corruption, wrongdoing and illegality’ concerning the 4,500 acres of Europe’s largest brownfield industrial site, a project whose short history has been almost as explosive as the early history of Middlesbrough.
Early history of Middlesbrough
No big English town has a history quite as short as Middlesbrough’s.
In 1801 the population was 25, living in four houses on 500 acres of bleak salt marsh south of the river Tees.
In 1829 the whole place was bought for £30,000 by Quaker businessmen from Stockton-on-Tees who wanted to extend the world’s first public railway and carry Durham coal down to ships berthed at the mouth of the River Tees.
This sparked a classic shock city, a Klondike so rough and ready that beer was sold from planks laid on barrels and the mud in the streets was so deep that, “Sea-faring men – living next door to each other in what was soon to form a street – used to talk to one another from their own doors, when at home, through their speaking trumpets, same as they did at sea”.
By 1862, 19,000 were living in the shock city when the chancellor of the exchequer, William Gladstone, told assembled ironmasters in their new town hall:
“This remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise… is an infant, gentlemen, but it is an infant Hercules.”
In 1871-1872 the death rate ran consistently at 23.95 per thousand, with 40% of the dead being children under the age of 12 months and another 20% of the dead being under five years old. The whole of Europe had heard about work between the coal heaps, iron mines, blast furnaces, steel mills and shipyards that were known as Ironopolis. Four thousand of the first workers to arrive were Irish.
A seam of ironstone in the hills around Grosmont, known to the Romans, had led Cleveland iron miners to a 14-foot [4.26m] thick seam at Skinningrove on the Yorkshire coast.
The Newcastle ironmaster John Vaughan, trained at Dowlais ironworks in South Wales, together with his lifelong business partner, Henry Bolckow, born Heinrich Bölkow in Mecklenburg, arrived on Teesside in 1833 with £150,000 of Bolkow’s capital to invest in an iron foundry and rolling mill in Vulcan Street.
They had married a pair of sisters and lived next door to each other in Queens Square, Middlesbrough. Bolckow became British by act of parliament in 1841 and in 1846, at the suggestion of Joseph Pease, the Quaker originator of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, Vaughan and Bolckow opened Witton Park ironworks to smelt ironstone from Grosmont into pig iron for their Vulcan Street foundry.
Four years later, Vaughan and the brilliant mining engineer John Marley found an outcrop of the Cleveland Ironstone Formation in the Eston Hills overlooking the River Tees.
By 1864, with 40 furnaces in blast, Bolckow, Vaughan & Co Ltd was registered with capital of £2.5mn, making it the largest company ever formed, a £5.5mn combine of iron mines. limestone quarries, coal mines, brickworks and iron works, where the entire process of steel making was for the first time centred in one place, South Bank, Middlesbrough, now re-christened as Teesport.
Middlesbrough: the town that built the world
Bolckow was elected as Middlesbrough’s first mayor and elected unopposed in 1867 as its first MP. Sir Hugh Gilzean-Reid, founder of Britain’s first halfpenny newspaper, the North-Eastern Daily Gazette, once thundered that:
“The iron of Eston has diffused itself all over the world. It furnishes the railways of the world; it runs by Neapolitan and papal dungeons; it startles the bandit in his haunt in Cilicia; it stretches over the plain of India; it surprises the Baluchees; it pursues peggunus of Gangotri; it has crept out of the Cleveland hills, where it has slept since the Roman days, and now like a strong and invincible serpent, coils itself round the world.”
Arthur Dorman, arrived from Kent in 1870 to make iron bars and angles for shipbuilders in partnership with Albert de Lande Long, from Ipswich. Dorman Long, designed and built the world’s greatest bridges – Sydney Harbour, White Nile, Tyne, Storstrøm, Lambeth, Volta River, Chien Tang River. They absorbed Bolckow and Vaughan after the Wall Street Crash of 1929 and by the 1960s it was claimed that Dorman Long girders rolled on Teesside can be found in half of the world’s great bridges. In Ian Horn’s poem Ironopolis, The Town that built the World…
Fighting the decline of the 1930s
The 1930s world slump was devastating and in 1934, J B Priestley in his English Journey called it ‘a dismal town, even with beer and football’. In an earlier article, Priestley had written:
“I attacked a certain industrial town, which I did not name, for its miserable appearance and lack of civilised gaiety. The actual town I was describing was not Middlesbrough, was not even in the same part of the country, but at once an official angrily protested in the local paper against my writing in such a fashion about Middlesbrough. I did not tell him that I had not had Middlesbrough in mind at all, if the cap fits, I thought, let them all wear it.”
In a single act of total contempt for their history, in that same year, the people of Teesside allowed the very cottage in which James Cook, the greatest of all European explorers, was born, to be dismantled and shipped stone by stone from Marton-in-Cleveland to Australia.
Teesside fought back from the thirties slump with petro-chemicals, pioneered in 1918 at a secret government ‘nitrogen factory’ at Grange Farm, Billingham, initially fixing atmospheric nitrogen for armaments but converted after the war to produce fertiliser for Brunner Mond, later ICI. Five thousand people worked there in the thirties when Aldous Huxley visited the plant before writing Brave New World. ICI produced the ammonia feedstock for thousands of products, conducted secret atomic research for the Tube Alloys project and developed the methyl methacrylate that became Perspex in the fighter cockpit canopies of Spitfires and Mustangs.
The ICI plants at Wilton and Billingham brought the highest rate of post-war industrial growth in Northern England and in 1986, when the last Tees shipyard, Smith’s Dock, was closing, the riverside chemical plants alone were valued at two billion pounds,
Another Middlesbrough Ironopolis?
The new Teesworks outfit, with offices in Redcar on the site of Dorman Long’s open hearth steelworks, say £200mn has already been invested in preparing 2,000 acres for re-development but those with long memories of industrial success and failure on Teesside are saying openly that they fear the Sunak / Houchen creation of Teesworks and Teesport will be another Middlesbrough Ironopolis.
They don’t mean a vast industrial creation like ICI, Dorman Long or Bolckow, Vaughan & Co, they are talking about the brave but ultimately hopeless venture known as Middlesbrough Ironopolis Football Club.
In 1893, after winning the Northern League Championship three years in a row, Ironopolis reached the quarter final of the FA Cup. They lost to Preston North End after a replay but were elected to the second division of the Football League for the 1893-4 season. The Nops finished that season respectably, 11th out of 16, winning eight matches, drawing four and beating both Rotherham 6-1 and Ardwick, now Manchester City, 2-0. But Ironopolis were short of money. They lost their stadium, Paradise Park, and were not re-elected to the Football League. They are now remembered, not only for that wonderful name, but for that single season in the football league, a record matched only by Bootle Football Club in 1892.