The Mandale Group
Oral history research
Throughout the medieval and early post-medieval periods, Middleton was a small village with an economy largely based on agriculture. This changed completely in the early 19th century with the arrival of the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which opened in 1825 and had a station at ‘Fighting Cocks’ (Middleton). The new transport link, with direct access to cheap fuel from the Durham coalfields, meant that despite its rural location halfway between Darlington and Stockton the village became a hotbed of industrial activity through the remainder of the 19th and early 20th centuries.
Initial development of a large lineside brick-and-tile works was superseded by an extensive ironworking industry, with the large Middleton Iron Works (established 1864) to the south and two smaller works to the north, the Dinsdale Wire and Steel Works (1882) and the Dinsdale Moor Iron Works (1887). Progressive expansion of the latter site can be followed on successive Ordnance Survey maps up to the middle of the 20th century. By 1940 the works, which by then were owned by the Richards family, had reached its final form, while the adjacent Wire and Steel Works had been replaced by a scrap works which fed raw materials to the Dinsdale Moor site.
By the early 1950s the ironworks had two puddling furnaces which re-smelted scrap iron that had been cut up at the adjacent scrap works. This material was mostly dismantled steam engines, trucks, track and tanks from the railways. The scrap metal was formed into ‘box piles’ which consisted of long plates held together with cramps, filled with small pieces of scrap and covered by a top plate. The box piles were heated and softened in a furnace and then passed through a series of rollers to shape them into round or flat bars. Round bars were used for a variety of purposes including railings, while some of the flat bars were shaped in a wedge mill to make wedges of varying thicknesses for use in shipyards. When the ironworks finally closed in 1954 it had the two furnaces and two rolling mills, which shared a single gearbox and were powered from a single steam engine, housed in a shed that was open on three sides.
In 2004, redevelopment of the ironworks site commenced for construction of three new apartment blocks. NAA was commissioned to carry out an assessment of the site, a watching brief during groundworks, and attempt to correlate any recorded physical remains with the historical records.
Following demolition of the original ironworks the site had been covered by a layer of topsoil. Archaeological recording was limited to any features revealed during the removal of this deposit together with those observed during excavation of new foundation trenches. Nevertheless, some significant features from the ironworks were identified and investigated. A number of brick walls defined parts of several buildings. Finds from various areas defined by the walls suggested the use of several rooms including a possible mess room (indicated by beer- and ginger-beer bottles, porcelain and stoneware) and a workshop that contained metal scrap and tools such as files, chisels, sledge-hammer and pick heads, wedges, chains and hooks. Several concrete blocks were probably used as structural supports, but a more complex concrete base had probably supported shears or a guillotine.
In addition, the base of a furnace was represented by an area of burnt bricks with solidified iron between them and supported by bent sections of railway line. Adjacent to this base was what was interpreted as a rake-off area for slag. A second, similarly constructed furnace, also supported by bent sections of rail, was noted 6m to the south-west during excavation of a foundation trench.
The brick base of a smokestack or chimney at least 2m wide was recorded. Nearby, two concrete blocks had a pair of large wooden beams bolted across them. Together with the presence of a large amount of heavy grease between the blocks, the proximity of these features suggested that they were associated with the steam engine, the wooden beams being intended to absorb the vibration from the flywheel.
The results of the watching brief, combined with documentary research and, above all, communication with some of the local residents who could remember the final days of the ironworks, enabled NAA to shed considerable light on the development and operation of this interesting site.