At a time when the future of steelmaking on Teesside has never been in more doubt, constantly threatened by the prevailing economic climate, it would seem appropriate to remember that iron and steel was chiefly responsible for the region’s meteoric growth. It was ironstone that drew men from all over the country to work at the mines opened along the Cleveland Hills, and to live in the communities which blossomed rapidly along the south bank of the River Tees where previously there had been only farmland and marsh. Now the grandchildren and great grandchildren of those first iron-workers live in a Cleveland which could possibly see the industry that is their heritage die for ever.
It was ironstone that built Teesside’s first hospitals, landscaped its parks, furnished museums and schools, constructed its housing, developed its seaside resorts and goaded the expansion of Middlesbrough from a coal-exporting community of under 5,000 people to a town with a population of some 200,000 people.
By contemporary standards, the 19th century ironworkers were the best paid in the country. Subsidiary industries sprang up to meet their needs; shops, banks, insurance companies and public houses. Railways which had spawned the iron industry grew alongside it, feeding on it, devouring most of its product to lay ever further-reaching track while simultaneously hauling the ore to the greedy furnaces. The River Tees too, was forced to develop to better serve the growing number of ironworks that suddenly studded its banks. From being a lazy river whose currents and constantly shifting sand-banks meant a ship sailing from Stockton could take almost a week to reach open sea, its bed had to be dredged, its course straightened and docks built to accommodate the increasing number of ships arriving to carry away iron and steel for export.
All of this occurred because a few men had foresight and determination. They saw promise where others saw none, persisted while others jeered their efforts. The iron ore on which the industry was based had lain hidden in a thick seam that ran the length of the Cleveland Hills to the sea since the beginning of time, but it took the ingenuity and spirit of those early iron-masters to raise it to the sunlight, transport, smelt and finish it, then sell it all over the world. Their perseverance was rewarded. Wealth brought smiles as they watched the railways stitch together the thriving mining villages and heard the rumbling of rolling stock heavy with Cleveland ironstone on the way to the Tees where the blast furnaces belched smoke and fire into the sky twenty-four hours a day, performing the alchemy of ironstone to molten metal and prosperity.
You will have heard of those early pioneers even if you cannot quote their names. You will have walked along streets named in recognition of our debt to their enterprise. Henry Bolckow, John Vaughan, Isaac Wilson, Edgar Gilkes, William Hopkins and Isaac Lowthian Bell of the Bell Brothers, to name but a handful. Those honoured in bronze have stood for over a century, their statues acquiring a mantle of honest dirt thrown into to the sky from the successors to the blast furnaces they built. Some, like Joseph Pease, left their name on nothing but gave much, and companies they built still survive.
Although most of the population has since moved into the green suburbs away from the industrial heart of Middlesbrough where the original iron-works stood, we must not forget that today’s community would not be alive but for those steelworks.
A man who is a visionary and dreamer is a fool unless he realises that dream. There were huge financial risks to be taken without guarantee of success, plus mile upon mile of bureaucratic red tape to cautiously negotiate, even without the million and one problems of an area and an industry in its infancy. When a problem had no established solution, those visionaries invented one.
These men, Cleveland pioneers, had a dream and transformed it into reality. For that they deserve the admiration of us all.
- o0o -