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The Twists and Turns of the River Tees

Tees Valley Museums have been working with local schools and colleges to create artworks for an exhibition this summer at Kirkleatham Museum. The artworks have been inspired by the River Tees and explore the environmental impact of industry on the river.

During this project we looked at the history of the river, using objects artwork from our museum collections.

View of the river tees from Portrack Marsh. You can see the grassy banks and the river which is bending to the right.
Photograph of the River Tees, taken from Portrack Marsh (SSSI) showing one of the river's many meanders.

How did people use the river?

The River Tees is located in the north of England, flowing 137 km (85 miles) east from the source to its mouth, where it joins the North Sea. Over the years the river has seen many changes, as the towns around it developed and people started to use the river for transport and trade.

This hollowed-out wooden canoe was found on the riverbank and dates to the Iron Age, around 3000 years ago!

Rivers served as an essential means of transporting people and goods, and the Tees played a big role in trade within the Tees Valley, even as far back as the Iron Age. Throughout the years, trade continued along the Tees, and settlements grew by the river.

A wooden canoe in a display case.

Iron Age wooden canoe. Image courtesy of the Dorman Museum

In the 1950s, workmen digging trenches for new sewerage pipes in Chapel Yard, Yarm, discovered a ‘Viking’ helmet.

Is this a rare helmet?
Absolutely! In fact, it’s the only 10th-century helmet found in Britain so far.

This helmet is now displayed at Preston Park Museum and Grounds, on loan from Yarm Town Council.

Yarm Viking Helmet. Image courtesy of Preston Park Museum

How has the river changed?

The twists and turns visible on this map of the river Tees may look lovely, but they posed costly challenges for ships, resulting in longer journeys. To solve this, two cuts were made in the river to straighten its course and save time and money. These cuts were known as the ‘Mandale’ and the ‘Portrack’ cuts, both located between Stockton and Middlesbrough.

Map of a section of the river tees. Part of the Bishoprick of Durham

Map of the River Tees, showing part of the Bishopric of Durham. Image courtesy of Dorman Museum

By 1851, the population of Middlesbrough had grown to 7,600 people, and it was rapidly replacing Stockton as the main port along the river Tees. Industries began to emerge along the river, including steel and iron works, shipbuilding, and chemical production.

What impact did industry have on the river?

The rise of industry heavily impacted the river. By the 1970s, certain stretches of the Tees were even declared dead, with the water reportedly turning black. At one point, the Tees was considered the most polluted river in Britain, largely due to the dumping of industrial waste. As a result, wildlife, including salmon, trout, and seals, abandoned the river. In the 18th century, before it became heavily polluted, the river Tees had been a major salmon river.

a landscape abstract painting of an industrial scene with a boat visible in the foreground and tall factory chimneys in the background.

'Shape and Form' © David Watson. Image credit: Redcar and Cleveland Council.

For some time, people didn’t realise the harm they were causing to the river; instead, they viewed their work and the growing industry as progressive. However, in the 1980s, efforts were made to address the decline of salmon. By the 1990s, the salmon population began to increase once again. The Canal & River Trust monitor the number of fish passing through the Tees Barrage, and solutions are being developed to enhance fish passage. Additional improvements were also introduced in the 1980s, and now the river is in the process of recovery. The Tees Barrage, which opened in 1995, controls the flow of the river, preventing flooding and the effects of tidal change.

How are we engaging young people with environmental issues?

A curved piece of wood, covered in blue, green, black and silver plastic. There are also corks from bottles.

Recycled Artwork created by artist Bub Bacon and students at Tilery Primary School.

Tees Valley Museums Group has been collaborating with Tilery Primary School (Stockton), South Bank Primary School (Redcar), and Darlington College on an exciting project called “Recycling the River Tees”. This project involves working with three creatives who have supported students in producing two art pieces and some creative writing. These works will be showcased at the Kirkleatham Museum from July – December 2024.

The inspiration for these artworks comes from the river itself, highlighting its natural beauty and the impact of pollution. We’ve used recycled materials, including plastics harmful to the environment. During this project we have kindly been supported by staff at the Canal & River Trust and Tees Valley Wildlife Trust and in creative sessions with the young people, we looked at industrial artwork by artists such as David Watson. These artworks inspired some of the industrial pieces created by students at Darlington college.

A group of recycled rubbish sculptures, painted in metalic colours, with some blues, reds and yellows.

Recycled Artwork created by artist Anna McIntyre and students at Darlington College.

sculpture of a brown Butterfly on a purple and pink flower

Recycled Artwork created by artist Anna McIntyre and students at Darlington College.