The Industrial Revolution: Industries, Towns, and Personalities
Between the first national census of 1801 and the First World War the population of the county increased almost tenfold. The growth was not evenly spread. The western third of the county, consisting of Weardale and Teesdale with their intervening moorlands, did not share in the increase; neither did those market towns which were unable to attract industry during a century of unprecedented manufacturing growth. Thus centres such as Barnard Castle, Stanhope or Sedgefield, which were in the top 20 by size in 1801, slipped into insignificance in statistical terms. In contrast, other selected centres expanded and other entirely new settlements sprang into being. Apart from coal-mining settlements, there was often dependence on one industry – coal-exporting, shipbuilding, iron and steel, railway engineering. Industrial growth was often spectacular, innovative and directed by energetic Victorian captains of industry who could be both ruthless and philanthropic. The county provides a variety of such examples during the period when it was at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution.
The earliest and clearest example of a single-industry company town is Seaham Harbour. Before its development, the Wear and Tyne were the only outlets for the growing export of coal. In 1819 Charles Stewart, former soldier and ambassador, later the third marquis of Londonderry, married into County Durham aristocracy. His wife, Frances Anne Vane-Tempest, was heiress to extensive property and coal-mines. Londonderry took control of his wife’s estate and in 1821 bought the extensive Seaham estate, five miles south of Sunderland, determined to build his own port for the export of coal. He was stimulated by an earlier plan for the area, by knowledge that Sunderland was unable to cope with the increasing number of colliers and by a wish to bypass the river keelmen to effect a dramatic saving in transport costs. He was well served by his agent or viewer, John Buddle. Together they contacted and engaged the designer of the original dock plan (William Chapman), sought the advice of the leading civil engineers of the day (Thomas Telford, John Rennie), engaged an eminent architect (John Dobson) to design the accompanying town, and arranged loans.
Work eventually began in 1828 and the first coal from his Rainton pit, conveyed on his own railway, left Seaham Harbour in a new collier, Lord Seaham, in 183 1. Increasing demand necessitated enlargement of the dock in 1845. Even so, continued success forced Londonderry to build and operate a railway as an overflow line to Sunderland where new docks had just opened. He died in 1854, but the momentum continued and another dock enlargement was made in 1905. By 1914 Seaham had a population of over 15,000, having been a fishing hamlet in tiny Dalden Creek at the beginning of the 19th century – a ‘desert spot’ according to Dobson. It is a pity that Dobson’s gracious architecture remained on the drawing board, for his twin stone-faced Regency crescents flanking a central clocktower, with the railway.emerging beneath to reach the harbour, would have been a fitting monument to an aristocrat who himself lived in the grand manner. But Londonderry, a determined and astute man, had insisted at the time that resources be directed to completing the harbour.
While Seaham Harbour might have been called ‘Londonderry’, another new town was frequently called after its founder during mid-century. The story of ‘Jackson’s Town’, or West Hartlepool, begins nearby at the ancient borough of Hartlepool, which in 1801 had shrunk to under 1 ,000 inhabitants, with its natural harbour – the only one on the Durham coast – virtually silted up. In 1832, under the inspiration of Christopher Tennant, the Hartlepool Dock and Railway Company Act was passed. Port Darlington and Port Clarence had recently opened on the Tees, but the physical advantages of a dock in a natural harbour as opposed to a terminal in a shallow, tidal river, as well as the charging of lower port dues, brought instant success. The first coal cargo was exported in 1835; within six years its line was carrying more coal than any other and through its dock was passing one-quarter of all northeast coal shipments. In 1836 the Stockton and Hartlepool Railway Company was formed and linked the Clarence Railway to Hartlepool. A dominant figure in the new company was Ralph Ward Jackson, a Stockton solicitor with plans of his own. When the Hartlepool Company proved obstructive, Jackson soon struck out for an independent outlet, and in 1844 the short-lived agreement was dissolved and the Hartlepool West Harbour and Dock Company was formed.
The site chosen was in the same tidal basin as the old borough, one mile to the south-west, consisting of ‘sand-banks, mossy swamps and agricultural fields’. In 1847 the first dock was opened and immediately became the new rail terminus, the connection to Hartlepool being severed. In the same year the settlement was acknowledged as West Hartlepool for the first time. A series of docks quickly followed; by 1860 they constituted overwhelmingly the most important port in north-east England, with the declared value of its merchandise that year being three times that of all the other ports combined. The West Hartlepool Company, under the direction of its chairman, Jackson, boosted coal exports through acquisition of a dozen collieries which were thus tied to the port. A large proportion of the country’s timber imports was received; grain and general cargo traffic were considerable. Jackson built two massive warehouses to encourage commerce and began a steamship line to foster the amount of registered tonnage. Although the wider dream of being the fishport for Leeds and outlet for the West Riding – in short, of being ‘Liverpool on the east coast’ – remained unrealised, important manufacturing concerns were also attracted, especially shipbuilding, iron foundries and iron smelting.
The settlement accompanying the industrial growth can also be seen as the response to Jackson’s drive, both directly and indirectly. On the streets running south from the docks the leading civic buildings were on sites and built of stone given by the company, perhaps with an additional personal donation by its chairman. When, on his initiative, a Board of Improvement Commissioners was established in 1854, Jackson, as founder and leading citizen, became the obvious chairman. Within six years, however, his reign in West Hartlepool ended in ignominy.
An investigation into the Company revealed excessive borrowing, but, more significantly, the original Act had empowered the raising of capital for the railway and harbour only. The Company had therefore acted illegally in acquiring collieries and ships. Although it was acknowledged that Jackson’s zeal had been for company, rather than personal, gain, resignation was inevitable. Jackson’s town, however, continued to grow, with iron, steel and rolling mills linked to a major shipyard providing the industrial background. By 1914 the population of West Hartlepool, at 64,000, was more than three times that of the old borough nearby; its civic status was also superior, having been elevated to a County Borough in 1901. Within the town the founder’s name lived on, from Jackson Dock, Memorial Park, school and imposing statue, to a hotel and public house.
If West Hartlepool was a Victorian new town, Jarrow, of ancient foundation, became a Victorian company town, dependent on the shipyard of Charles Mark Palmer. Born in South Shields the son of a ship-owner, Palmer was subsequently knighted for his contribution to industrial and civic life. He was Jarrow’s first mayor, following his successful campaign to achieve borough status in 1875, and was M.P. in the 1890s and at the turn of the century. He was chairman of his shipbuilding company until retirement in 1893, having begun the venture jointly with his brother in 1851.
The Jarrow Yard became renowned for its rapid rise, vertical integration and innovative product. Palmer recognised that the future of navigation lay with iron vessels powered by steam, and in 1852 his yard launched the first iron, screw-driven collier, the John Bowes. His confidence and conviction were reflected in the scale of the celebrations for the 300 guests invited to the birth of the world’s first tramp steamer. What Stephenson had demonstrated with rail transport a quarter of a century earlier, Palmer was about to demonstrate on the sea. The John Bowes was of special significance to the North-East, for it signalled the region’s reply to the advantage which railways were bestowing on Midland coalfields in supplying the London market. The new steam collier cut the time of the round trip to London to five days, compared with the traditional sailing vessel which required a month or more, depending on weather conditions. The new vessel was not only faster; it was bigger and took water as ballast rather than earth and stone. The former, naturally, was more easily and cheaply loaded and disposed of.
In 1854, under the stimulus of the Crimean War, the yard constructed the first iron-clad battleship, The Terror, which had rolled armour plates. A wide variety of naval vessels was subsequently built. In 1872 Britain’s first oil-tanker, the Vaterland, left the slipway. By now the yard was a complete shipbuilding factory in a mighty, integrated industrial enterprise. Coke came from the company’s collieries in north-west Durham. Ore from the company’s mines in Cleveland and Spain was conveyed in its own steamers to the wharf at Jarrow, where blast-furnaces, steelworks and rolling mills produced plates and bars. A series of workshops, from engine- to cabinet-makers, completed the finished article. Thus, ore was taken in at one end of the yard and the finished ship came out at the other; locals joked that they built ships by the mile and cut them to required lengths.
Over 10,000 were employed at the height of the yard’s operation around the turn of the century. By 1914 ‘Palmer’s Town’ had a population of over 33,000, a tenfold increase since the shipyard opened. A hospital had been built in 1870, initially for the use of shipyard employees, maintained by a company subsidy and contributions from the workforce. Earlier a building society had been started in the yard to enable skilled craftsmen to buy their own houses; a large proportion responded. Such facilities help to explain how a working-class electorate could reject a local Labour Party candidate in 1892 and elect a captain of industry for their M.P. In the two subsequent elections Sir Charles Mark Palmer was returned unopposed.
The most spectacular industrial and urban growth in absolute terms in the last century was at the mouth of the Wear. In 1801 there were three separate settlements in the area – Monkwearmouth on the north bank and Bishopwearmouth on the south, with their names revealing ancient origins, and Sunderland, on the south bank on land ‘sundered’, or separated, from the monastery. Their combined populations totalled 24,000; by 1914 the total of a unified County Borough had grown to over 150,000. The twin activities of coal exporting and shipbuilding were the basis of this expansion.
For over two centuries Sunderland, at the mouth of the Wear, had been a trans-shipment point between river keels and sea-going colliers. In 1800 some one thousand keelmen and boys were plying the river, between wagon-way terminals and waiting sea vessels, but as the 19th century progressed, continued success of the coal trade at Sunderland, as with its competitors, depended on the attraction of railways and the creation of port facilities.
Early railways were the Newbottle, or Lambton (1815), and Hetton (1822) lines which terminated at adjacent staiths, followed by the Durham and Sunderland (1836) westwards into the middle part of the coalfield, and BrandlingJunction (1839) northwards. Its potential as a coalport, however, was handicapped by the crowded nature of the river and by navigational difficulties made worse over the years by the dumping of ballast. Formation of a Sunderland Dock and Railway Company in 1833 brought early promise, but rivalries between the north and south bank ended with a North Dock (1837) which proved too small with difficult access. A bolder plan was required if Sunderland was to compete with successful schemes elsewhere. The solution was to invite George Hudson, the ‘Railway King’ from York with known parliamentary ambitions, to stand as M.P. on the understanding that he would press for the necessary Acts. Hudson immediately rescued the Durham and Sunderland line from bankruptcy and pioneered a new large dock (Hudson Dock, 1850), which was excavated to the south of the river mouth. When its own southern outlet was opened, shipping was able to avoid the hazardous river mouth bar. Arrival of the Londonderry line from Seaham Harbour confirmed the need for the docks. Meanwhile collieries opening in the vicinity of Sunderland further boosted exports, which reached a peak of over 5,000,000 tons early in the present century.
The coal trade on the river encouraged the evolution of a shipbuilding industry, from river keels to sea-going wooden sailing craft to iron and, later, steel steamships. Although Sunderland came to be known as the largest shipbuilding town in the world, it did not innovate and, unlike the previously described examples, was not characterised by the dominance or drive of one particular entrepreneur. The first steam tugboat, for instance, had been built on the Wear in 1825, but it was not until the 1850s that sail began to give way to steam in the number of vessels launched. Similarly, while the first iron ship left the slipway in 1852, – it was only in the late 1860s that the iron shipping tonnage exceeded that of wood. The reason is related to the small-scale structure of the industry: there was a tradition of family firms, small groups of self-employed shipwrights engaged in a craft industry. Many at the same z .de Hall time were also timber merchants; on the other hand few had the different
skills, or the capital required, for a metal-based industry. As a result, there was a proliferation of shipyards during the first half ofthe century, many building on a speculative basis. In 1800 the yards numbered two dozen; in the peak year of 1840 this figure had trebled and a record number of 263 vessels was launched, with a grand tonnage of 66,700. ‘Every place where they can build a ship, almost, is a yard’, is how Lower Wearside was described in a Royal Commission report. Among the many yards were the bulk of the family concerns which were to survive the wide fluctuations in demand, and change in scale and technology to become well-known names in the world of shipbuilding – Laings, Austin, Bartram, Pickersgill, Doxford. Following half a century of scale increase and amalgamations, as many as 13 firms were still operating in 1914. At that time, shipbuilding and its marine-related industries were employing some 20,000, over two-fifths of the male workforce of Sunderland, and launching around 300,000 tons of new shipping in peak years.
Early centres of the iron industry evolved towards the western edge of the coalfield, where there were shallow deposits of coking coal, also local or easily accessible supplies of ore from the Dales in the railway age. Of centres such as Tow Law, Witton Park and Consett, it is the last-named which deserves to rank among the county’s list of Victorian success stories. Before the establishment of the Derwent Iron Company in 1846, the area of high moorland supported two small farms; by 1914 there was a town of 11,000. In industrial terms, the works grew within five years to be the largest iron-producer in England; the reputation for its quality of product was enhanced by its exhibits at the 1851 Great Exhibition. When after 1 852 it turned to steel production, the company became the country’s leading producer of steel plates for the shipbuilding industry.
Three of the four founding partners at Consett were Quakers. Their work ethic was reflected in the efficiency of their vertically-integrated organisation, with its own collieries, ore mines and limestone quarries. The last-named were in Stanhope and took advantage of the Stanhope and Tyne Railway. In the 1850s a branch line was built via the Stockton and Darlington Railway to give access to new ore mines at Upleatham. Both line and mines were other Quaker enterprises. Quaker philanthropy was seen in the early provision of 1,300: cottages, also the provision of elementary education, reading rooms, a company surgeon – and policemen! Their influence remained, even though in 1864 there was new management and a new name, the Consett Iron Company. By 1914 the number of tied cottages exceeded 2,700. The workforce by now was over 6,000, while the works themselves included seven blast-furnaces and over 1,000 coke ovens. It also incorporated one particularly tall chimney which pinpointed the location of Consett for miles around. Already highly visible on the edge of Durham’s high moorland, this landmark symbolised the remarkable ascendancy of industry in the county during the preceding century. That ascendancy, however, and the series of notable enterprises to which it gave rise, was soon to be rudely shaken.