Legacy Of Teesside's Steel Industry To Be Revealed

By 24 Hour Museum Staff | 22 February 2008
black and white photo of an arched steel bridge

Dorman, Long and Co of Middlesbrough built many parts of the Sydney Harbour Bridge, which opened in 1932. Courtesy HLF

The north east of England is rightly proud of its industrial heritage, in particular its proud engineering and steelworking tradition from which sprung the framework of many famous bridges, from Newcastle to Sydney Harbour.

The British Steel Archive contains thousands of records documenting the history of the steel industry: 200 metres of material drawn from more than 40 iron and steel companies active in Teesside between 1840 and 1980. The archive was gifted to Teesside Archives in the 1990s, but has remained virtually unopened to the public and unexplored due to lack of resources.

Now a grant of £250,000 from the Heritage Lottery Fund will change that, opening up the story of how Teesside contributed to landmark structures around the world. The grant is going to be used by the University of Teesside to conserve, catalogue and digitise the archives, building a rich picture of every element of the industry, from the plans that influenced buildings across the world to the men and women who spent their lives working in the steel industry.

illustration of a steel building frame with two 1920s motorcars in front of it

India House, London, 1920s. Courtesy HLF

“This is a wonderful boost for an important project and a perfect start to 2008,” said Dr Joan Heggie from the University of Teesside. “This collection belongs to the people of Stockton-on-Tees, Hartlepool, Redcar, Cleveland and Middlesbrough and tells the story of how the iron and steel industries shaped the growth of Teesside. It emphasises the historical importance and influence of this region both nationally and around the world.”

While much of the archive remains a mystery, it is known that the original plans for the iconic Sydney Harbour Bridge are contained within the archive. Other gems include images showing the construction of other bridges such as Scotland’s Forth Road Bridge, the Auckland Harbour Bridge in New Zealand and the Bangkok Memorial Bridge in Thailand.

“It is amazing to think that the work that took place in Teesside has had an impact worldwide on structures that people still use every day,” said HLF Regional Manager, Keith Bartlett. “Now that the archives can be explored, who knows what other fascinating finds might be brought to light for the public to see and learn about.”

“The documents, drawings and cine films that are tucked away can now be preserved then transformed into exhibitions and events that will bring back to life the stories around an industry that shaped Teesside,” he continued.

sepia photo of men at work in a large iron works

Clarence Iron Works, 1910. Courtesy HLF

In addition to more than 2,000 engineering plans of steel structures from far and wide, the collection also includes social history documents. Employees’ wage books and social and welfare records join over 25,000 photographic images and 70 cine films of industrial processes. Original publicity material is also featured.

Some of the star items include woodcuts featuring men working inside steel and iron works that could controversially have been created by a woman, Viva Talbot, in the 1920s and 30s. Academics have previously traced her family and are now trying to piece together her story with reference to the archive.

“This project will build on the sense of pride and identity which already exists in this area and give the people of Teesside and the wider public the opportunity to become involved, thereby shaping how the collection will be used in the future,” added Dr Heggie. “Everyone in the team has worked very hard to make this happen and now we can begin to put the plans into action.”

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