Like many areas of Britain, the Victorian period (1837 – 1901) saw huge changes in people’s lives in the Tees Valley. The advent of rail travel, with the opening of the Stockton & Darlington Railway, followed by the rapid expansion of the rail networks made it quicker and easier than ever before for people and goods to travel around the country. The discovery of ironstone at Skinningrove and in the Eston Hills in the mid 1800s brought thousands of people to the area, seeking work in the mines, and led to the Tees Valley becoming one of the world’s major producers of iron and steel.
Villages that had previously numbered their populations in handfuls now counted them in thousands. The development of new docks and the flourishing shipping industry, linked to the new railways led to the growth of Stockton and other towns and the birth of West Hartlepool. Perhaps most dramatically of all, Middlesbrough became Britain’s fasted ever growing town, expanding from 7,600 inhabitants in 1851 to almost 40,000 in 1871 and over 90,000 in 1901. These developments brought with them enormous social change. For the owners of thriving local industries this brought great wealth and high standards of living. But for the ordinary workers, life was hard and money scarce.
These differences in Victorian society were reflected clearly in people’s homes, the clothes they wore and the food they ate. For the very wealthy, this meant large stately homes, like Preston Hall owned by shipping line entrepreneur Robert Ropner, with opulent rooms furnished with the most fashionable fabrics and pieces from around the world, state-of-the-art gas and (later) electric lighting, telephones, indoor bathrooms and an army of servants to attend to the family’s every need.
But for the working classes, living on a miner or a shipbuilder’s wage, this often meant large families were crammed into tiny terraced cottages with no running water and a shared ‘privy’ (toilet). Some poorer families lived cheek-by-jowel with livestock such as pigs and chickens for food. The men – and sometimes the children – would work as long as 14-hour days, often in dangerous conditions. The women toiled at home, cleaning, washing clothes by hand, ironing, sewing, cooking on wood-fired stoves and looking after livestock. Poor food and the lack of sanitation often led to malnutrition, diseases like cholera and typhoid, and early deaths.