Bells Iron Works, c1920s

t4093A view of Bells Iron Works in Port Clarence c1920s.

In the 1850’s  houses were built to accomodate the iron and steel workers, many of them being Immigrants. Around 850 houses in Sweethills and Samphire Batts (now the Clarences) were built, council houses eventually followed and and with shops, schools, churches and even a cinema, the area boomed.

17 thoughts on “Bells Iron Works, c1920s

  1. This community of houses is described in the 1907 book entitled “At the Works” by Lady (Florence) Bell, the wife of Hugh Bell (who owned the Clarence Iron Works at that time). She and several other female assistants visited the homes of the iron workers in Port Clarence & Middlesbrough and recorded the day to day lives of the workers and their families. The book is one of the few social commentaries written in the Edwardian period from a female (if priviliged) perspective. Her description of the workers cottages at Port Clarence is a fairly bleak one.
    “The north shore, the Durham side, is even more desolate than the other, since it has left the town (Middlesbrough) behind, and furnaces and chimneys of the works are interspersed with great black wastes, black roads, gaunt wooden palings, blocks of cottages, railway lines crossing the roads and suggesting the ever present danger, and ever necessary vigilance required in the walk to and from the boat (Middlesbrough ferry). A dusty, wild, wide space on which the road abuts, flanked by the row of great furnaces, a space which engines are going to and fro, more lines to cross, more dangers to avoid; a wind-swept expanse near to which lie a few straggling rows of cottages”.
    “A colony of workmen live here actually in the middle of the works”.— “The outlook (for many of the inhabitants) is either on to the backs of the little houses opposite and their yards, or, to those who live at the end of a row, the black plain with the furnaces, trucks, sheds and scaffolding; houses in which every room is penetrated by the noise of machinery, by the irregular clicking together of trucks coming and going, and by the odours and vapours, more or less endurable according to the differing directions of the wind, from the works and coke ovens. it is a place in which every sense is violently assailed all day by some manifestation of the making of iron”.
    (In spite of this) “many of the dwellers in the place have a deeply rooted attachment to it as though it were a beautiful village. From the point of view of the workmen; it means instead of having a cold windy walk to and from their work every day they are on the spot. It is counted as a privilige, therefore to live in this strange wild settlement, and since the number of cottages is limited, it means that the workmen who live there have a claim of some personal nature, usually that of a long service”.
    The book also lists the number of years service the men had at the iron works. Of the 260 workmen living in this community more than half had worked at the iron works for 15 years or above. 43 men had worked at the iron works for 30 years or more. Sadly the book also tells us that widows of the workers had to give up their houses.

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  2. This view of the workers houses, sited within the Clarence Iron works, doesn’t fully convey what a hazardous environment the residents were living amongst. Apart from the works there were multiple railway lines which were used to bring in numerous wagons of coal, iron stone & limestone. These hemmed in the houses. No bridges or under passes were built for the residents if they wanted to go to nearby Haverton Hill. The only way was to cross the railway lines.
    In the 1870’s Bell Brothers built further housing for their workers. This time sited outside the iron works complex, these were known as Bell’s (Clarence) New Cottages (later they became Bell Street, Lowthian Terrace & Saltholme Terrace). Along side these a Roman Catholic School (St. Thomas’) was also built. In the center (slightly to the right) of photo above is Bell Brothers Board school (which dated from the 1860,s). The locations of the two schools created a problem for the children of Port Clarence Old & New Cottages. Catholic children who lived at the Old Cottages had to cross the railway lines to get to St. Thomas’ school and church of England children from the New Cottages had to cross the railway lines to get to Bell Brothers School.
    Tragedy struck on 18 June 1880 when a five year old child, Mary Ann Donnelly, who lived at the Old Cottages, Port Clarence was run over and killed at Port Clarence, whilst on her way to school, by a goods train of the North Eastern Railway. At the inquest it was said that due to the lack of adequate crossings or a road Mary Ann had to cross the multiple lines and then travel 200 to 300 yards along the line in order to get to school. On a daily basis 115 children of Port Clarence had to pass and repass using the same route to get to school.
    Sadly I don’t know if the inquest led to any safety improvements. From reading papers of the time deaths on railways were a common occurrence.

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  3. In 1881 Messrs. Bell Brothers provided a coffee palace at Port Clarence for the workmen of the Clarence Iron Works. A building which had previously been a stable and at a later date a school and then church was converted at a cost of £700.
    The ” palace ” consisted of a reading room, coffee room and billiard room. The reading room contained books and newspapers and their was a one penny per week charge for its use. For three pence per week the workmen could also use the billiard room. Frequent users could play billiards, chess and draughts but no gambling was permitted. Because many of the men worked shifts it would be open from 5 a.m. to 10 p.m. for refreshments.
    Mr Isaac Lowthian Bell in his speech at the opening of the coffee palace on 5 December 1881 stated that ” wives and daughters of the workers were also to be welcomed at the palace and as such the men who were their natural guardians and protectors should let their conduct be such as would afford pleasure to all, irrespective of sex “.
    Mr T Hugh Bell also made a speech and joked that it had been suggested that ” the palace would take married men away from their wives and tempt young men to leave their sweethearts and that in consequence their would be fewer marriages “. ” But he hoped young men would meet the young women in the coffee room over a cup of tea and pop the all important question “.
    The coffee palace must have been a success as it was still in existence in 1930. The address at this time was South Wharf Street, Port Clarence. It would be interesting to know how many marriage proposals took place in the intervening years.

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  4. Many of the men who worked at Bells Iron Works enlisted for service during the Great War. One such individual was Private. 13065. John Fox. Durham Light Infantry (2nd battalion). He was born at Port Clarence and his parents were Frank & Rose Fox. who were living at 23 Cowpen Street, Port Clarence in 1901.
    He enlisted at Middlesbrough in August 1914 and was posted to France in January 1915. The large numbers who enlisted created a shortage of workers back home so between 1916 and March 1918 John Fox was attached for duty with Messrs Bell Brothers Clarence Iron Works. During this time I believe he may have got married.
    By March 1918 the losses on the Western Front had increased the demand for front line troops. John Fox was posted to the 2nd Durham Light Infantry. In April 1918 the regiment were west of Poperinghe, Belgium. On 30 April 1918 they were subjected to German shell fire and a gas bombardment. John Fox would be killed during this attack. He is buried at Belgian Battery Corner Cemetery.
    He was 26 and left a widow, Margaret.

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  5. On the 1911 census for Port Clarence there is a James Donnelly (age 29, born Port Clarence) who gives his trade as professional footballer. He is living with his father-in-law, Thomas Loughran (age 71, born Ireland) at 5 South Wharf Street, Port Clarence. He is married to Catherine (born Port Clarence) and has a 1 year old daughter, Mary (born Port Clarence)
    I have been unable to find which football team team he played for do any football experts out there know which team he played for and can tell us anything about his sporting career?

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  6. An unusual addition to the buildings at the Clarence Iron Works was a temporary iron church which seated 120 people.
    In 1914 the vicar of Haverton Hill, Reverend Christopher Wardle, officiated here on Sundays.

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    • The “temporary” iron church was still standing in 1930 and was appropriately situated at the end of Church Street, Port Clarence. This would suggest it is the small building to the centre right in this photo.
      Reverend Christopher Wardle was also still the vicar at St John’s church, Haverton Hill in 1930.

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  7. Back to back houses as the name implies had no rear entrance/ exit. The worst examples of this type of housing in other towns were situated in court yards where the access to sunlight and ventilation were minimal. The numerous inhabitants often shared one water pump and a toilet in the form of an ash privy.
    It appears that although living conditions were cramped Bell Brothers had built a higher standard of back to back at Port Clarence. The houses were built in rows. Allowing light & ventilation. At the front of the properties were a series of brick enclosed yards. These would have contained an ash closet toilet and perhaps washing facilities (a boiler, poss tub & mangle). The yards were shared one to each pair of houses. By 1913 the tenants were supplied with gas by the owners. Judging by the smoke rising from the chimneys coal was still the main fuel used for the house fires. The gas was probably used for lighting.
    In 1914 the Medical Officer For health to Stockton Rural District Council reported that the coke ovens of the iron works adjoined the gables of most of the streets. Negotiations with the owners by the council clerk led to an agreement to close the whole of the houses as soon as possible. The owners had purchased land and plans for 37 new houses had been passed.

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    • It would appear that Bell Brothers were a Victorian employer who looked after their workers. They built a school attached to this community and a reading room for the workers. I believe they also tried to form a temperance society among the Port Clarence residents.

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  8. I believe the row of houses at the bottom of the photo facing the camera is Samphire Street. In 1911 at the right hand end of this street, as we view it, was a Grocers & provision dealers (1 Samphire St) run by Thomas Thompson. Also a shop & post office (2 Samphire St) run by John James Fishburn.

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  9. These houses were sited to the west of the Clarence Iron Works and were referred to as Clarence Old Cottages. In 1911 the streets (including some streets out of shot of the photo) were named North Wharf St, South Wharf St, Samphire St, Church St, Martin St, Cleveland St & Cowpen St. They were mainly back-to-back houses. The 1911 census gives some idea of how cramped the living conditions of some of the residents were at the time. The census lists how many rooms each property had excluding the kitchen, scullery & bathroom.

    John Lafferty, 14 Church St (4 rooms), 11 persons (including 4 boarders)
    Michael Mulloy, 19 Church St (3 rooms), 10 persons (including 2 boarders)
    Patrick Tierney 21 Church St (4 rooms), 14 persons
    Harry Davies, 5 Martin St (2 rooms), 10 persons
    Edward McDonagh, 13 Martin St (2 rooms), 9 persons
    William Goghan, 19 Martrin St (2 rooms), 9 persons
    Patrick Donaghy, 8 Cleveland St (3 rooms), 13 persons (including 2 boarders)

    In 1937 a slum clearance commenced involving 92 houses in old Port Clarence. These consisted of six rows of back-to-back houses, two rows of houses and two lock up shops. 40 houses were constructed at Port Clarence to accommodate a portion of of the tenants who were to be removed.

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    • According to Minnie Horton in her book “The Story Of Cleveland” the layout of many of these houses consisted of a big kitchen, a pantry equally as large which could hold a bed, one good sized bedroom and a landing at the top of the stairs which had a bed on it. Privacy must have been in short supply and some households even took in lodgers to boost the family income. Fortunately these were shift workers at the iron works and probably used the same bed but took it in turns whilst the other lodger was at work.

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  10. Could this be the “Clarence Old Cottages” shown on the OS maps of the time? The layout seems to look very similar, a school (disused by 1917), a mission, the proximity and angle to the river and the number of streets. What a lovely place to live! right in the works more or less. If this is the area then these streets are shown as “Clarence Old Cottages” on 1894 town plans but they are not on the 1858 map.

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  11. Hello, not the first time I’ve done this… question… Does anyone know what BELLS did, i.e. What did they make? It’s not the first time I’ve seen the name, but as I’m not from these parts (a southerner)! I should be forgiven for not knowing.

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    • Bells both manufactured iron and mined the ore from the Cleveland Hills.

      Rushpool Hall at Saltburn was their home in the 1880’s, and interestingly enough, they also had a holiday home in Algiers. Rushpool was designed by Cuthbert Brodrick (who also designed the iconic Leeds Town Hall) and he was asked by Mr Bell to incorporate several Moorish, or Arabic, architectural references within it’s design.

      Their offices in Zetland Road, Middlesbrough (opposite the railway station) were designed by the eminent Victorian architect Phillip Webb, being the only non-residential project he ever carried out.

      Gertrude Bell, their daughter, was an explorer and she played an important diplomatic part in the political settlement of the pan-arabic states, particularly Syria and Iraq. Indeed, she was reputed to be the only British representative that the leaders of the Arab states ever trusted. She was also a close friend of Lawrence of Arabia.

      Her home, ‘Red Barns’ at Redcar still exists, having been converted to an hotel.

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      • Many thanks Mr Bailey. Since putting finger to keys I found reams of stuff online, so much so it took me well over 2 hours to go through it all. And the size of the company too!
        It got me wondering as to if my Granddad worked for Bells, he is listed as being “an iron pipe moulder” on several of his kids birth certs. He died in 1931 and lies in an unmarked grave in Acklam Road. I plan to put this right come some Spring-if we get any!

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