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  • The Industrial Revolution in the Tees Valley by Colin Wilkinson

    One sunny, warm September day I set off to find any traces of the old lead mines in the upper reaches of the River Tees. After climbing through woodland and fields I arrived at the disused mines in need of a break and certainly not ready to work all day digging out lead ore. It’s no wonder that the miners slept close to the mines in uncomfortable workshops during the week and only returned home at the weekend. I had chosen a fine day to climb through the hills; facing the climb to work on a wet, cold, windy morning must have been challenging and perhaps was summed up in a verse from the time.

    The ore’s awaiting in the tubs, the snows upon the fell

    Company folk are sleeping yet but lead is right to sell

    Come my little washer lad, come, let’s away

    We’re bound down to slavery for four pence a day.

    Low Skears Mine near Middleton in Teesdale. (The Industrial Revolution in the Tees Valley, Amberley Publishing)

    These lines refer to a washer lad, his job was to separate the lead ore from the rock, or bouse as it was called, which had been brought out of the mine. This involved breaking up the bouse and washing it through troughs of flowing water where the heavy lead deposits would sink ready to be gathered and sent to the smelters.

    Continuing the mining theme but much further downstream and still avoiding poor weather, I chose a bright spring day to look for some remnant of the iron stone mines in the Cleveland Hills. This involved another climb through what is now a tree lined path that was once the route of a rail line up to the mines. Eventually I reached the entrance to the New Venture mine.

    The industrial area at Barnard Castle. (The Industrial Revolution in the Tees Valley, Amberley Publishing)

    Later a visit to the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum at Skinningrove brought home the working conditions in the early days of the mines. Protective clothing consisted of a leather cap, a moustache provided a dust filter, candles lit the way through the workings and to keep the rats at bay string was tied around trousers just below the knee.

    In Darlington another museum provides a reminder of the pioneering Stockton and Darlington Railway. The Head of Steam Museum is housed in an old station and displays some early locomotives used on the railway.

    Ayresome Iron Works, Middlesbrough. (c. Beamish Collection, The Industrial Revolution in the Tees Valley, Amberley Publishing)

    But the history of the Industrial Revolution is not just found in museums. I wanted to use the book to describe the great industrial heritage of the area and illustrate where reminders can be found. For example in Barnard Castle there are still some of the old mills beside the river although they have now been converted into flats.

    Barnard Castle had long been a market town but places that had been little more than hamlets were suddenly transformed into major towns. Middlesbrough is an example, initially it was developed as a port to ship coal then it became the centre of an iron industry when ore was discovered in the Cleveland Hills. Soon blast furnaces were lining the banks of the Tees. W. E. Gladstone the Liberal politician who would become Prime Minister visited Middlesbrough in 1862 and spoke of ‘this remarkable place, the youngest child of England’s enterprise, is an infant, but if an infant, an infant Hercules’.

    Colin Wilkinson's new book The Industrial Revolution in the Tees Valley is available for purchase now.

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