Teesside’s industrial future is once again in the news. The granting of Freeport status in the government’s budget statement has been portrayed as a landmark moment for the region. The expectation of new jobs from the offshore wind industry has also been raised. But are we doing enough to preserve our industrial past?
Innovation is nothing new to Teesside, the whole region was built upon innovation and enterprise. It was the building of the Stockton to Darlington railway in 1825 that turned Stockton into an industrial port. The railway’s extension led to the birth of Middlesbrough.
Within thirty years, the area had been transformed by Bolckow, Vaughan, the iron ore of the Eston hills and the labour of the thousands who came to work in a new industrial powerhouse of the 1800s. Within a generation the ‘Infant Hercules’ grew up and became ‘Ironopolis’.
Into the 20th century, whilst Teesside has always had much in common with the greater North East, it has always been different too. Unlike the wider region, Teesside enjoyed a second industrial re-invention in the 1920s with the establishment of ICI and a thriving petrochemical industry which brought increased employment and prosperity to the area.
But the long decline of employment in iron, steel and chemicals and the search for new jobs has been the dominant story of the last fifty years.
So might the current developments promised for Teesside be a third re-invention? Perhaps they may, but if it happens it will be built on the sites of and utilise the infrastructure which was created by the iron and steel industry on the South Tees Development site.
But the region does not have the best record when it comes to preserving its heritage, industrial or otherwise. Whilst researching my book, ‘Industrial Teesside Lives and legacies’, I spoke to many people who still mourned the loss of historic parts of the area, particularly the parts of Stockton town centre that were demolished in the late 1960s. This re-development is now generally acknowledged to have been great mistake.
The late Frank Medhurst made the point in his book, ‘A Quiet Catastrophe’, that that whilst Teesside planned extensively for its future with the ambitious ‘Teesplan’ project in the 1960s, those who made the ultimate planning decisions failed to find a place for the past in its vision of the future.
Instead, anything old was seen as having little merit. The attitude was ‘better to demolish and start again’. Medhurst had tried to get those making the decisions to see things differently by proposing the Gjers Mills Ironworks be preserved as part of a riverside development incorporating education, leisure and retail facilities. He failed and the site was cleared.
Such schemes are now realities in post-industrial areas in Germany, the USA and even China, and they show how industrial heritage and new developments can coexist and be mutually beneficial.
Teesside could have taken this opportunity and been one of the first places to adopt such an approach, but it chose not to… it was easier to stick with ‘out with the old and in with the new’.
Preserving the heart of the Redcar blast furnace as a memorial to Teesside’s Iron and Steel heritage is not about today, it is about tomorrow. It is a landmark that could connect future generations to the past. The fact that it was built in the 1970s and is not yet viewed as an antique isn’t relevant… it is the last of its line. It represents an industry that lasted 170 years and brought Teesside into being.
Or to put it another way, as the bicentenary of the Stockton to Darlington railway approaches, we should remember that Stephenson’s Locomotion Number One was once just an old engine, but someone had the foresight to save it for those that would come after them. We now treasure that piece of our history.
The industrial past is not something to be ashamed of, historic sites should not be buried and forgotten. Teesside still has an opportunity to save some of its industrial heritage. This is a privilege which many parts of the North East no longer have.
Photographs by Michele Allan.