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The Middlesbrough Meteorite

In March 1881 a meteorite fell to Middlesbrough in what is one of the strangest occurrences for the town, and one that caught the attention of NASA.

Replica of the Middlesbrough Meteorite on display at Dorman Museum. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

It was a relatively quiet afternoon on 14th March 1881 at Pennyman’s Siding in Middlesbrough, a railway line between the town and Guisborough. Three platelayers were working on the line and were overseen by Mr. Ellinor, a permanent way inspector. At 3:35pm Mr. Ellinor heard an unusual roaring sound above his head, followed by a thud in the ground nearby.

No one had seen anything that could have caused the sounds, so Mr. Ellinor and the platelayers began to explore the area. One of the platelayers, Frank Henwood eventually discovered a hole in the embankment, it looked big enough for someone to fit their arm in and was later found out to be 30cm deep. Another platelayer named Mr. Obren searched the hole and retrieved an unusually shaped rock.

Mr. Ellinor, Frank Henwood and the platelayers who discovered the meteorite. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

At the time no one had thought that this strange rock was a meteorite, instead believing that it was a fragment of slag that had been ejected from a blasting operation nearby. The meteorite’s shape was like something between a shell and a shallow pyramid, it measured about 6 inches by 5 inches, and it weighed 3lbs 8oz. It was a dull brown colour with what looked like a black lead-like polish. Since the object had been found on NER Company property, Mr. Ellinor forwarded it to the NER chief engineer in Darlington.

The story made the local newspapers, with journalists already calling the object a meteorite, and this brought the attention of scientists, including an astronomer, Alexander Herschel, who was working at the University of Durham as an observer of astronomical occurrences. Herschel made his way to Middlesbrough and examined the meteorite and the impact site. He calculated that it had been travelling at 281 miles an hour when it struck the earth at a vertical angle. From eye witness accounts, the meteorite appears not to have left any smoke trails or caused a sonic boom when it entered the earth’s atmosphere which was very unusual.

Map showing the location of the meteorite impact site. Image courtesy of Middlesbrough Museums Service.

Reports of the meteorite also brought the attention of the British Museum who wanted to make it a part of their permanent collections. However, perhaps as a way of keeping it within Yorkshire, the NER declared that the meteorite was ‘lost property’ as it had fallen within Company land, and they refused to let the British Museum take the meteorite. It was later donated to the Yorkshire Museum where it has remained a part of their collections ever since.

The meteorite has been recognized as being one of the rarest of its type and important to understanding space travel and was studied by NASA in 2010 as part of their Curiosity Mars Rover mission which began in 2012. The original meteorite was also displayed at Dorman Museum in 2011 in celebration of it’s fall to earth 130 years ago.