Stockton Bridge in 1769. Credit: Paul Menzies.

Standing on the Victoria Bridge in Stockton looking downriver, it’s hard not to be impressed by the tremendous transformation that has taken place in recent years. The remains of the derelict factories and terraced houses that once crowded the riverside and which witnessed in the 1980’s the famous walkabout by the then Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, have long gone. Regeneration rules – new offices, new bridges, a new hotel, new waterways, plans for regeneration of the Castlegate Shopping centre and a twenty-first century university campus all stand as icons of achievement, architecturally pleasing and a reminder of what can be achieved when determination is backed by funding.

Clearly Stockton is a community ‘on the move’ as it responds to the demands of the modern age. Yet, as I drove along the riverside recently, I reflected this is not the first time in history that Stockton has reinvented itself. Indeed, this became more apparent as I approached the Victoria Bridge as bridging the river had been an important factor in the development of the modern town.

Stockton High Street in 1908. Credit: Paul Menzies.

Stockton as we know it dates mainly from the late seventeenth century. The original medieval settlement centred on the High Street with Stockton Castle sited between the river and the southern exit from the town to Guisborough. With no bridge across the river the town’s economic development was limited; contemporary reports remark on the ‘poor state’ of many of the buildings along the High Street. Nearby Yarm prospered far more than Stockton and at one time was even considered one of the more important ports on the North East coast! Despite being further upriver Yarm was the lowest bridging point on the Tees and so several important trade routes converged there bringing lots of trade to the town and a degree of economic prosperity.

From the late seventeenth century this began to change; several factors helped promote the regional importance of Stockton – mainly at the expense of Yarm. Greater trade links with London and Northern Europe led to Stockton’s development as a port, a trend which continued throughout the eighteenth century despite the wars with America and France. One indication of Stockton’s increased prosperity was when the Customs Office was relocated to Stockton in 1680 from Hartlepool.

There were also considerable improvements to the general fabric of the town. The area east of the High Street down to the river was developed at this time (including buildings along Finkle Street which we can still see today). Other buildings constructed during this time include the Parish Church in 1712, a new Dutch style townhouse in 1735 and the market cross in 1785. In 1717 the Corporation had ordered the High Street to be paved. The grandeur of Georgian Stockton was epitomised by ‘The Square’ close to Thistle Green which with its elegant houses and ornamental grounds was considered a very fashionable place in which to live. Sadly, little survives today other than the small area close to the Georgian Theatre.

The inadequacy of the old ferry operating from a site close to the old castle led to the building of the five-arched Stockton Bridge in 1771, a saving of six miles for travellers who no longer had to use the bridge at Yarm. Bridging the river was crucial to the Stockton’s increasing economic importance over the next fifty years. The £8,000 building costs for the bridge were soon recovered – although only severe public unrest, including some rioting, in 1819 forced the Trustees to withdraw the tolls!

Church Row in Stockton. Credit: Paul Menzies.

The scene was set for the next stage of Stockton’s economic development. This was based on the opening up of the Durham coalfields and a rapidly expanding trade in the export of coal, particularly to London. A major problem for mine owners was the use of pack horses to take the coal down to Stockton for shipping. The roads were poor and the whole process was inefficient and very expensive. Several proposals were made, including a canal link to Stockton, by then the lowest shipping point on the river. The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 finally solved the mine owner’s problem of getting the coal cheaply to the ships. The price of coal dropped as sales went up; it seemed to offer Stockton the prospect of sustainable economic expansion.

Having reached the gleaming new offices and University buildings, it was interesting to note this was once the site of Stockton racecourse. My mind thought of a copy of a painting of the riverside area in 1832 I’d recently purchased which showed the race meeting in progress – even the cheering crowds in the grandstand! It also showed the new railway with fully laden coal wagons waiting to be unloaded. I imagined the noise – galloping horses, cheering crowds, coal being dropped into the hold of the tall sailing ships berthed at the coal staiths. Money being earned on one side of the river and spent in pleasure on the other!

Stockton soon faced a challenge to this new found economic supremacy. The increasing demand for coal led to the search for a new shipping point downriver which could accommodate the larger ships which would be required. Navigating the Tees up to Stockton had always been difficult. It was not unknown for ships to take a week to reach the port from the sea due to the large meanders at Portrack and at Mandale (although the latter had been straightened in 1808). It was decided to build a new shipping place near Middlesbrough Farm (where the Transporter stands today); this site was much closer to the sea and the river was much deeper allowing larger ships to berth there. The railway from Darlington was extended to the new coal staiths, opening for business in December 1830. It was even called Port Darlington (later renamed Middlesbrough!) and suddenly Stockton found its role as a shipping port for coal largely confined to history.

The protests of businessmen in Stockton were in vain. Like Yarm earlier, Stockton found itself powerless against competition from further down the river. Even the straightening of the Tees at Portrack was unable to help. As had happened with Yarm, Middlesbrough developed at the expense of Stockton, becoming the key port in the coal export trade. That was not the end of trade on the river at Stockton of course but the town would never again be the dominant port in the export of coal.

What happened next?

Well in true entrepreneurial fashion Stockton ‘bounced back’. Today we call it regeneration. The wealth of opportunities for industrial development in Teesside during the Victorian period enabled Stockton to once again recreate its economic identity. In fact, the area where I was now driving (the Thornaby side of the river!) became part of the industrial heartland of the town. The town once again prospered; new shipyards opened to meet the growing demand for ships. Ironworks like Head Wrightson and Whitwell & Co were also located here and with over one thousand employees being employed at the latter in 1897. It was difficult to imagine as I watched the swans glide peacefully along the river that a century ago the air would have been filled with the noise of huge ships being built here and close by, the ironworks which supplied the materials. Once again, the development of the town was capped with a new bridge when the Victoria Bridge was opened in 1887! The epic Cleveland Flour Mill was constructed close to the bridge – many people will recall that building.

Stockton in 1832. Credit: Paul Menzies.

Driving through the University campus I could see the site of one of the landing stages for Kelly’s Ferry which once ferried thousands of workers from Stockton to the iron foundries and shipyards here on the Thornaby side of the river. As I neared my destination, I pondered for a moment the vast changes that have occurred here along the riverside. The sounds of history filled my thoughts, the unloading of the coal, the cheering crowds at the August race meetings, the roar from the furnaces and now the studious quiet of a university campus.

Change has affected areas beyond the riverside. The elegant Georgian houses in The Square close to Thistle Green are no more. They were cleared in the 1920’s after the area became an example of Victorian squalor at its worst. Many other areas of the town have either been demolished or modified. The desecration of the wonderfully atmospheric historic area between the High Street and the river in the 1970’s would never happen now. The Georgian yards and passageways would have been recreated as a modernised representation of history; think of ‘The Street’ in Preston Park and think of the fees the town could have charged filmmakers to use the set for their historical dramas!

Yes change, regeneration as it is now called, is well represented here but Stockton has come through it – as it has many times before. Like life itself, time moves on.

©Paul Menzies
February 2021

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