Victorian Cities Revisited: Heritage and History Conference (Day 1)

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It was a big coup for Middlesbrough to stage this conference and to get speakers and visitors from all over the country and, indeed, the world. A number of the talks were about Middlesbrough and even those that weren’t, I found myself relating to my own thoughts on this town and its history.

The first day of the conference got off to a flying start with Mayor Mallon, in the very Council Chamber itself no less, waving the flag for Middlesbrough and our industrial heritage. He started by saying that “this particular topic [Victorian heritage], to me, to this town is more important than what people realise… too many people have forgotten where they come from and who they are. We should never forget who we are and where we came from. This conference is important to me because I want to get the subject of the past on everybody’s mind in Middlesbrough, because if not, we will lose our way.”

Barry Doyle, now with the University of Huddersfield, but formerly at Teesside University and once my tutor on the Local History MA course, gave a talk on the health of Middlesbrough’s population in the late nineteenth century. This showed that although most comparable towns and cities in the industrialised north were making improvements in public health, with significant falls in death rates and increasing life expectancy, Middlesbrough went against the norm by actually having worsening health. This was mainly due to poor sanitation and drainage, with people living in overcrowded conditions and in close proximity to heavy industry and the pollution it produced.

Although Middlesbrough did make improvements in the health of its population, this was not until much later, in the first half of the twentieth century. Even now, the health of people in Middlesbrough is generally worse than the England average. For example, life expectancy for males is 76.3, compared to the average for England of 79.2 and for females life expectancy is 80.2, compared with an England average of 83.0. What is even worse is that in the poorer parts of Middlesbrough, life expectancy for males is about 68 and for women it is around 75. Deaths from cardiovascular disease and cancer are also significantly higher than the England average.

After that fun-packed lecture, I made my way to the Mandela Room, where Helen Frisby was giving a talk about “magic and modernity in the English urban funeral.” This examined superstitious beliefs about death and funerals that were transferred from rural to urban settings with industrialisation, as agrarian workers moved to the expanding towns and cities. The stories of overcrowded cemeteries, with bits of decaying bodies poking through the soil were gruesome, but it made me wonder what the graveyard at St Hilda’s looked like. This graveyard was small, enclosed by the urban development of Middlesbrough and had to cater for a large and fast growing population, which was also unhealthy and had a high death rate! Last Saturday I had been at the old Holy Cross Church at Whorlton, near Swainby, and photographed the overcrowded gravestones there. Would St Hilda’s have looked something like this in the late 1800s?

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Shane Ewen, editor of Urban History magazine gave a talk on the great flood of Sheffield which occurred in 1864. This looked at how disasters have a “major impact on a place’s political, social and economic makeup.” This was followed by Charlotte Mallinson dissecting (ouch!) the misplaced sensationalist values of Jack the Ripper tours. Thankfully, Middlesbrough has largely avoided major disasters and sensationalist crimes, but does that make us culturally the poorer, is our identity lacking in some way because of this?

After lunch, some of us embarked on a guided tour of old Middlesbrough, led by Tosh Warwick. This took in the statue of Henry Bolckow in Exchange Square:

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The New Exchange buildings and the Tees Port building (now PD Ports):

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The homes of Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan:

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The National Provincial Bank of England:

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The Captain Cook pub:

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Before arriving at the Transporter Bridge, with a very informative talk by former Bridge Master Alan Murray (I never knew it was made from Scottish steel!).

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Back in the Council Chamber, I opted for the mental health strand, with Rob Ellis explaining how London County Council, in the late nineteenth century, was influenced by European and American ideas in its design of asylums and Carolyn Gibbeson discussing how the now defunct large county asylums of England are being utilised by developers for residential use. Again, having a one-track mind, I could not help wondering about the fate of Middlesbrough’s asylum, St Luke’s. Should this have been closed down and its red brick buildings reutilised by developers to create aspirational homes to attract middle class families into the town? Or should it be obliterated to make way for a cash-generating, modern secure mental health facility? I guess that’s the trouble with hosting such an event in a place of multiple deprivation and chronic long term health conditions, it cannot help but throw up a lot of very uncomfortable questions.

The closing speech for the day was by Professor Robert (Bob) Morris, from the University of Edinburgh. I had spoken to Bob earlier in the day, on the way to the Transporter Bridge, and explained how the recent development at Acklam Hall had removed the ugly school buildings that were added in the twentieth century, but also threatened the medieval archaeology that still exists, for the time being at least, across the site. I did not know that Bob had been taught at Acklam Hall in the early 1960s, before studying at Keble College Oxford, the Nuffield College and then spending most of his academic career at the Department of Economic History in the Social Science Faculty of Edinburgh University. He even included in his presentation a slide of the quadrangle at Acklam Hall, with huge mature horse chestnut trees growing in the middle, a sight he remembered from his chemistry classes. Now, of course, it is all gone.

I think Bob’s talk was probably the most successful of the day. He spoke of how other post-industrial areas, such as Bradford and the Calder Valley, had managed to regenerate themselves by adapting former factories to business and niche marketing uses. He explained how Germany had even managed to turn its old steel making blast furnace sites into nature parks and industrial heritage trails.

Bob also talked about the internet, about specialist local history sites, their interactive nature and how they collected information outside the normal academic rigours. I must say I was taken aback by his remark to the audience that “most of you will know someone who has done their family history research.” I, like many people who have since gone on to “proper” academic research at university or wherever, have spent many years studying my family history and this has led to an appreciation and interest in local history. However, Bob obviously loves the amateur research produced by the internet and spoke with a deep conviction when he said that the loss of some community websites was akin to book burning.

I found Bob’s concluding remarks most affecting. He said that the way to attract a well informed and educated public to an area, was to provide them with an interesting historic environment in which to live. It is not enough to just provide aspirational houses, you need to provide an environment in which people feel engaged, in which they feel at home and in which they belong. Mere bricks and mortar do not provide this. You need a cultural identity and without that, in the words of Ray Mallon, “We will lose our way.”

Written by Richard Pink

Posted in Historic Environment.