This blog post was written by Chris Corbett, Community Engagement Officer at Teesside Archives as part of a series of posts on the theme of ‘Human Discovery: Experiencing Science’ for History Day 2022.
The North East has always been a crucible of scientific innovation and invention, giving the world the railway, fuelling the Industrial Revolution with our hard-won coal, sending our ships across the globe and, here on Teesside, building the world with our iron and steel. All of these have had immeasurable impacts on normal people’s lives, transforming how they moved around, where they worked and lived and what they bought and these stories live in in our collections.
Teesside Archives holds the world-renowned British Steel collection, containing a treasure trove of material about the workforce, the ironmasters, the iron and steel works and the scientists who worked tirelessly to find the best way of making iron and steel from our troublesome, poorer quality ore. Ironstone was first gathered from the beaches in the form of nodules or extracted small scale from the ground but the Eureka moment came when ironmaster John Vaughan and mining engineer John Marley used their geological knowledge to uncover the outcropping of the Main Seam along the face of the Eston Hills in 1850. This readily available source of ironstone, combined with the availability of coal and limestone from County Durham and the proximity of the River Tees, led to an explosion of investment in Middlesbrough. Iron blast furnaces sprang up like monster mushrooms along the riverbank and people poured in to the area in their tens of thousands from across the UK and beyond to take their chances and make new lives for themselves and their families in the new Ironopolis. A small rural settlement and farm on the banks of the Tees grew rapidly in to a town that was at the heart of the global iron and steel trade, and this exponential growth is easily traced in our map collections, oral histories, council records and planning department photographs as well as census records.
The invention of the Thomas-Gilchrist process of creating steel from phosphorus rich iron ore using the Bessemer convertors was adopted readily by the Teesside ironmasters as it enabled the industry to use the local ironstone and so drove another phase of growth as the stronger and more flexible steel overtook iron as the building material of choice. During a community outreach event at the Middlesbrough Institute of Modern Art (MIMA) in town, a gentleman dropped off a small but perfectly formed pair of metal safety glasses, the coloured surface of the lenses long worn away and with foldable mesh sides to protect eyes from the sparks. Dating from the 1950’s, each steel worker always used their own pair of glasses as some of them had to look in to the eye of the blast furnace, a literal inferno, to gauge when the steel was ready to be tapped by its colour alone. To use another’s glasses with a subtly different tint would risk making a costly mistake and while we don’t as a rule accept objects, the glasses add another very personal layer to our record of this industry and its impact on people’s lives.
And where there is fire, there has to be a way of creating that fire, of lighting the spark and transferring it to the hearth and Stockton can proudly boast that one of its sons, John Walker, invented the friction match, which revolutionized this previously long winded and drawn out process. I have first-hand experience of this, having completed Forest Schools training a few years ago and the use of modern fire making steels to light a damp pile of twigs in the middle of a wood made me long for the rattle of a box of matches. Our collections don’t hold any original material relating to John and his chemist business at 59, High Street though an example of one of his early matches is held at Preston Hall Museum (there is a great account of his life at www.teesvalleymuseums.org/blog/post/john-walker-and-the-friction-match). It’s interesting to note that his daybook recording the moment when he sold his first box of friction matches to a local solicitor in April 1827 is currently held in the Science Museum after being rescued from a pile of rubbish in the 1890’s. However, the story of how his experiments with explosive chemicals led to the accidental discovery of a match which when struck along a rough surface, caught light and burned when he knocked a stirring stick against his hearth is still well represented at the archives, thanks to a local historian called Doreen Thomas. After writing a number of articles and booklets, Doreen deposited a collection holding copies of his will, baptisms of his children and many other items, helping to flesh out the story of the man.
We have another collection in a similar vein, carrying the reference U/JW in our catalogue system, which holds an even wider and more eclectic range of material including the Vesta Journal of Matchbox Label Collectors; does such a group still exist? It says much about his character that John Walker refused to patent his invention, despite being urged to do so by eminent scientists such as Michael Faraday. He was keen to see that everyone had access to matches and so never made the expected fortune when others were less scrupulous and cashed in on the back of his discovery. However, in time, the huge benefits of a cheap and easy way of lighting fire with matches were counterbalanced by the terrible working conditions endured by women and children in the match making factories where exposure to highly toxic white phosphorus led to disfigurement, disability and death. Thankfully, the use of this was eventually phased out.
The local council marked John Walker’s achievement with a bust, installed in the Castlegate Shopping Centre near the location of his shop in the 1970’s, which was itself lost to the development. Interestingly, it came out much later that the bust showed the likeness of the wrong John Walker, and now that the Castlegate Centre is in the process of being demolished and replaced by an extensive public park, I’m intrigued as to what has happened to statue. I look forward to seeing how today’s landscape architects mark the spot where history was made….
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