Thursday November 29 2012

Middlesborough review: Rapid development and workers’ struggle

David Douglass reviews: Minoru Yasumoto, 'The rise of a Victorian ironopolis: Middlesbrough and regional industrialisation', Boydell Press, 2011, pp250, £60

Middlesbrough: workers’ recognition

Not for the casual reader, this comprehensive work charts the remarkable rise of Middlesbrough, Britain’s foremost iron town. Middlesbrough was a town which grew like Topsy seemingly overnight. It was said it was not discovered: it was manufactured - “Cincinnati and Chicago are perhaps the best specimens of American-made towns with which Middlesbrough can be compared: but these do not equal in self-sustaining vigour or rapidly of growth of the Pease-founded colony on the banks of the Tees” (L Praed History of the rise and progress of Middlesbrough Newcastle 1863, p3).

When the owners of the estate started planning the town in 1831, it had only 383 inhabitants. As it began expanding, migrants came from Yorkshire, elsewhere in England, Ireland and Scotland. As the process continued, the Irish population would be greater here than any other English town other than Liverpool. Middlesbrough was originally a railway town, used to transport coal from south-west Durham, but after the discovery of rich iron ore deposits in 1850, the town grew swiftly through the expansion of iron and steel manufacture.

A whole chapter is devoted to a case study of the initially voluntary North Ormesby Hospital, and the development of medical facilities provided by workers themselves through popular subscription. The town’s working class spearheaded a wide range of forms of self-organisation, driven by the rapid industrial development, as well as the human causalities of the manic industrial process.

The great strike and lockout in 1865-66 had deep and lasting effects on the industrial relations culture of the steel industry. Iron and steel were among the first industries where workers’ organisations won recognition, but the employers ensured they were tied into a binding arbitration process. However, the nature of the plants and ongoing industrial processes made them highly vulnerable to wholesale unofficial industrial action. The great strike of 1866 had led to the creation of the Board of Arbitration and Conciliation for the North of England Manufactured Iron Trade, aimed at heading off class conflict. From the late 1860s to the end of the 19th century the joint arbitration board had introduced a sliding scale to fix wage rates. Unlike the coal industry where a similar sliding scale had ensured the systematic forcing down of wages to poverty levels and lower, causing mass upsurges of industrial militancy and anti-bureaucratic struggles, in the iron industry, doubtless as a result of the insights gained from observing the coal industry, things did not work in this way. The sliding scale, though tying the union into the corporate body of the industry, seems to have been advantageous to the workers, at least when compared to other industries and regions.

“In 1869 its first verdict was to raise wages from 8s to 8s 6d per ton. In 1872 came an increase in puddlers wages of one shilling per ton, followed by a further rise of 2s, bringing the puddlers pay to 2s 6d per ton. The following year they had a further 9d. While these improvements in pay did not proportionally match the ironmasters increases in profits, and of course there were intermittent falls, the institutions’ effectiveness in rising wage levels should not be dismissed. Between 1870 and 1880 above all in the first half of the 1870s there was a sharp rise in ironworkers pay and in real earnings on Teesside” (p191).

Lest anyone draw the conclusion that paternalist incorporation and kindly employers are the answer, we should note that this response resulted from fear - fear that the workers might adopt militant tactics or develop less conciliatory organisations.

Another interesting fact revealed by the book is that the whole period of migration saw a massive imbalance of gender proportions - overwhelmingly it was young men who were on the move and sinking new roots. The scene must have resembled the frontier and gold rush towns of America and Australia.

Middlesbrough’s contribution to the industrial development of Britain and the world is in many ways pioneering and unique. This study, although largely a statistical and economic history, will doubtless become an authority on the town’s industrialisation and rapid development.

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