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Minutes of the 373rd meeting held at 10.00 in Stokesley Town Hall on Tuesday 19th March 2019:

Speaker Martin Peagam: ‘A Town of Rampant Sin’

Martin is an active local historian and is Secretary of the Cleveland and Teesside Local History Society. He aims to research the past and share his findings with people in an entertaining and meaningful way. He certainly succeeded when he described the early years of Middlesbrough as a ‘frontier’ town. While parts of it may be no different from any other town later on a Saturday night, not many of us have thought of it as a Town of Rampant Sin! However, when Alderman Headley unveiled a foundation stone for a new Presbyterian Church in 1874, he said that Middlesbrough needed another 50 to 100 churches.

The town was born in 1830 following the purchase of the farm estate by Joseph Pease and other Quaker businessmen. It was well planned as shown in the drawing of the Town Hall Plots of 1829. The population exploded with the development of the coal, iron and steel industries. From 154 in 1831, it grew to 7,631 in 1851 and 18,892 by 1861. This growth in numbers was almost entirely of men who moved to the town to work in the new industries.

Excessive gin consumption was a national problem at the time and the government restricted production of the spirit and encouraged beer drinking. To produce beer, anybody could buy the necessary licence. There was no requirement for approval by a magistrate and the thirst of working men needed quenching. The first house in Middlesbrough was built in West Street in 1830. In 1831, the first public house, the Ship Inn, opened. By 1868, there were 69 licensed public house and 127 unlicensed beer houses. Many of these were associated with brothels. Early pubs included the Captain Cook on Durham Street, the Royal Hotel at the junction of Durham Street and Lower Commercial Street, the Robin Hood on Commercial Street and the Gladstone on Bridge Street. The Prime Minister of that name had visited the Town when it was booming and described it as the ‘Infant Hercules’

There were several reasons why the beer houses were so popular. The first was that ale was a much more healthy drink than water. Secondly, the beer house where workers were hired. Thirdly that was where social and leisure activities took place. Finally, anywhere was better than home in those days. Martin showed pictures of grim dwellings at the turn of the century. Perhaps inevitably, the drink caused problems. He recounted stories from the press at the time including of a son who assaulted his mother and a police officer and of a publican’s wife assaulted by a woman looking for her husband. Even visitors to at least one church were led astray by liquor according to a report in 1862.

During the 1860s, drunkenness and prostitution were rife in the wilder areas of the town. In that decade, 24 streets accounted for 82% of 1705 court cases of public disturbance. All of these were ‘over the border’. The Quakers and others decided that cleaning up the town was a priority. St. Hilda’s church, built in 1840, was financed by Joseph Pease. Albert Park opened in 1868 – no alcohol was allowed!  The Temperance Movement became active and there was a Grand Temperance picnic in 1861. Amongst others, Amos Hinton, Bolckow and Bell influenced reform. Over time, the Winter Gardens, the Grand Opera House, music halls, theatres, Gilkes Street baths, the Football Club, the Dorman Museum and Central Library were established, making  Middlesbrough a more respectable town.

Was Middlesbrough unique? Probably it was no better and no worse than many other towns at the time. Its very rapid growth meant that the problems associated with an all male population were severe and took some time to sort out. The attitudes of the Peases can be questioned. Which came first – profits or morals? One thing is clear: they understood the need to keep the working man happy.