The Story of the Ironstone Miners of Eston


09 February 2018
Eston-Miners-82705.jpg The Old Bank Gang
In the shadow of Roseberry Topping, family historian Carol Hagland's ancestors had earned their crust as ironstone miners in the Teeside area. Find out how she traced the history of this old occupation and the work her folk once did in the largest ironstone mine of the world.

Carol Hagland spent many happy holidays in this Teesside mining area, but it was only when she began investigating her family history that she discovered what the actual nature of the mining there was, how it changed the area, and how it formed an essential part of her family’s past.

It all began, as so many family history stories do, with my father, Edward Watson. He was born in Eston, near Middlesbrough on Teesside. It was then a small village. These days it is a bit bigger. While I was growing up, his parents, my grandparents, lived nearby, in Redcar. Other family members lived in South Bank and Grangetown, all names and places I was familiar with as a child. I spent many happy holidays in the area as a youngster.

While I was there, I had been told by family members that there had been mining in the area. Nearby is the landmark Roseberry Topping, with its characteristic lop-sided peak. I was told that this was once a mountain, (that is, exceeding 1,000 feet in height), but in 1912 subsidence from mining caused the summit to collapse. This gave it its distinct shark fin shape but rendered it below 1,000 feet, and thus no longer a mountain. What a shame, I remember thinking. Ironstone mining was not mentioned, so I assumed that it was coal mining that had caused it.

Nobody ever told me what the actual nature of that mining was, and what it had meant for the area. My grandfather, Robert Watson, still worked for Dorman Long, a big company that I knew had something to do with making steel, but that was all I knew, and, being a child, I never thought to ask more. My maternal great-grandfather, Thomas Hartley, had just been compulsorily retired from working in the shipyards, where he was an iron driller, working in cradles on the side of the ships. He was 77 when they made him retire - he was too much of a risk, they said. So clearly iron and steel were in the family, but I knew little more about it.

However, some 10 years ago or so, I began to look into my family history in more detail. The idea was sparked by a distant cousin of mine, who got in touch again after many years, and who gave me some information that he had collected which told me a little more about my father's family. The seed was sown, and off I set, into the cyber world of online family history.

I soon discovered that my 2x great-grandfather, John Dixon Watson, and my 3x great-grandfather, Hugh Crawford, were listed in the censuses as "ironstone miners". I had never heard of an ironstone miner, so I did a bit of research, and discovered that ironstone was the name given to the iron ore which was mined in the Eston Hills. The first ironstone was discovered in the middle of the 19th century. It was mining engineer John Marley and ironmaster John Vaughan, both of the Middlesbrough firm Bolckow and Vaughan who, believing that there was ironstone in those hills, made this discovery. This led them to start the mines at Eston.

The development of the Eston Mines was an expansive operation that began with drifts (mines dug directly into the hillside) along the Northern escarpment. By the 1870s these had connected underground to Upsall and Chaloner Pits on the south side of the hills. This created one huge mine that was in fact the largest ironstone mine in the world at the time. Upsall Pit opened in 1865 and the shaft closed in 1943. (The last drift at Eston closed in 1949).

Bolckow, Vaughan & Co, Ltd was founded in 1864, based on the partnership since 1840 of its two founders, Henry Bolckow and John Vaughan. The two men lived next door to each other and were married to two sisters. The firm drove the dramatic growth of Middlesborough and the surrounding areas, as well as the production of coal and iron in the north-east of England in this latter part of the 19th century, and early 20th century. By the late 1860s, Bolckow, Vaughan and Co was the largest iron-making company in the world, and by around 1870, Cleveland had become the world's iron-producing capital with some 100 blast furnaces along the Tees and around 30-40 ironstone mines in operation. Eston was the largest not only in Cleveland but in the world.

Once the mining of ironstone really got under way, Bolckow, Vaughan and Co built their first blast furnace plant on the Tees in 1852, at Middlesbrough, to process the ore from nearby Eston, enabling the entire process from rock to finished products to be carried out in one place. It was the first blast furnace to be built on Teesside, on what was later nicknamed "the Steel River". Middlesbrough grew from 40 inhabitants in 1829, to 7600 in 1851, 19,000 in 1861 and 40,000 in 1871, fuelled by the iron industry.

In 1864, Bolckow, Vaughan and Co was registered with capital of £2,500,000, making it the largest company ever formed up to that time. This was an enormous amount of money for that period. By then, the company's assets included iron mines, collieries, and limestone quarries in Cleveland, County Durham and Weardale respectively, and had iron and steel works extending over 700 acres along the banks of the River Tees. Its success in this period makes it all the more surprising, and sad, that it did not endure.

However, sadly the firm failed to modernise sufficiently in the early part of the 20th century, and was absorbed by rival Middlesbrough firm Dorman Long in 1929. This was the same Dorman Long where my grandfather worked. It was responsible for the building of the famous Sydney Harbour bridge, as well as a number of other well known bridges. In 1967, the company became part of the British Steel Corporation, and the bridge building part of that company continues, although not on Teesside. In 2015, iron and steel making on Teesside came to an end after 165 years with the closure of the last blast furnace at Redcar. 

Ironstone mining was gruelling, dangerous work. The men who did it worked long hours underground, and it was hard, physical work, blasting the rock from the earth, then breaking up the stone with sledgehammers and wedges, to be carried in wagons up to the surface. In the early days, the stone could be mined near the surface of the ground, but this was soon exhausted, and gradually tunnels or 'drifts' began to follow the ironstone seam underground. Miners dug into the rock in a very systematic way, producing a grid of tunnels as they went. Gradually the squares within the grid were also removed, and as they were, wooden pit props were put in place to support the roof.

After all the ironstone was removed, a large open area remained, where the stone had once been, with the ceiling supported at intervals by wooden pit props. In order to save money, these had to be reclaimed, so in due course, the miners had to go into the farthest reaches of this open area, and remove the props, so that they could be re-used. They would then gradually work their way back to the beginning of the mined area, removing props as they went. The unsupported roof, of course, often collapsed, and not necessarily in an orderly fashion, so it is easy to imagine how hazardous this procedure was! Many men died in these mines - around 375 in the 99 years that Eston mine was open.

In these days of what some regard as excessive Health and Safety regulations, it is hard to imagine that people were allowed to work in such dangerous conditions. Not only were they at risk from rock falls, but also from the blasting that was often necessary to loosen the rock, so it could be broken up, and from the wagons that carried the ore out of the mine, which travelled rapidly along the narrow tunnels where the miners could be working. Once outside, these wagons travelled speedily down the hillside to the river, where the ore was transported to the blast furnaces. Several children were killed because they got in the way of these speeding wagons.

Miners began their careers young. Some as young as 11 or 12 in the early days. The lucky ones lived long enough to retire as old men, often having spent all their lives as miners, with thousands of hours underground.

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As I investigated more closely the lives and families of these ironstone miners who had been part of my family, I discovered that many of them lived in an area called California. Their addresses would be given on the census forms as 55 California, or 27 California, for example. In each case this was followed by "Eston", and not much else, although Yorkshire or Yorks was usually added. No road names were given, however, just California, Eston. For a number of years I just accepted this. Perhaps, I assumed, it was a hurried person who recorded the addresses and was using a shorthand, not bothering to add "Road" to them. I thought little more of it.

However, more recently, I have been revisiting a lot of my early research, wishing both to verify it, and to add detail. I knew that the previously mentioned Hugh Crawford, my 3x great-grandfather, was born in Kirkcudbright in Scotland, and spent his early years as an agricultural labourer. He moved to Eston sometime between 1857 and 1860. His two daughters were born on these two dates, but the older one was born in Scotland and the second one in Eston. I had speculated as to whether this move was to do with the Scottish clearances, although they were coming to an end by this time. We shall never know for sure. However, it is likely than an agricultural life in Scotland at this time, was still very hard, and Eston must have appeared an attractive proposition.

What I then discovered was much more interesting. Not only had Hugh moved to Eston from Kircudbright at this time, but so had several of his relatives and neighbours. They all came from the village of New Abbey, where his eldest daughter was born. They had moved to California, Eston, to become ironstone miners, or to do other work associated with the mines. In all, I discovered that there were nine families who were my relations in one way or another, all living in California in the period from 1860 to 1900, and all working in the mines.

So then I began to wonder about California. What exactly was it? A road, an area, a separate village even? However, it was always recorded as part of Eston, and Eston at that time was not very large. I was puzzled. So I did what every good family historian does these days - a Google search!  

This led me to the work of a gentleman called Craig Hornby. Craig was also born in Eston, and has a love for the area. He is a film-maker by trade, and I discovered that he had made a film called A Century in Stone which charted the story of Eston and the surrounding areas, via the development of the iron and steel industries. He had traced the last surviving ironstone miners and some of their family members, and interviewed them. It is because of Craig's work that I have much of the information that I have recorded here. From him I also discovered that California was indeed a "mini-village" within the Eston area, but separate, although it was always recorded in the censuses at Eston. Apparently there were also street names, but the numbers were always consecutive for the whole settlement and still are!

The new village was built by Bolckow and Vaughan for their employees and families exclusively. If you lost your job you had to move. It was built specifically to house the influx of workers moving into the area to get work in the mines. They came from all over the country, and if you look at the censuses for Eston in that period, you can see people recorded as ironstone miners, who have come from places as far afield as Cornwall, Scotland and Wales.

California was built from sandstone from Eston Nab from 1850 to around 1870. Eston Nab is a local landmark in this area of north-east England. A nab is a rocky promontory, or outcrop, and the Nab, marking the highest point on the escarpment which forms Eston Hills, appears as a sandstone cliff on the northernmost edge of Eston Moor.

The original village of Eston was an old farming village dating way back to the Domesday book, recorded in the 11th century. The oldest buildings, down by The Ship Inn and the blacksmith shop, date back to this time. California was built a mile east from there, on fields on the bottom of the hills, close to the first mine or incline. In between these two villages was then built South Eston, around 1850-1880, with its brick terraces, and high street of shops and pubs etc. This part was built by private builders though Bolckow and Vaughan bought a few of them to add to their housing stock. The original Eston farming village became known as 'Old Eston' as a consequence.        

I have not yet been able to visit Eston again, to see for myself, but Craig tells me that some of California still remains. The houses were very basic by modern standards, so many have been upgraded, and some demolished. Astonishingly, the influx of workers was so great that in the early days the rate of building  could not keep up with the number of people wanting accommodation. For some time, people were living in tents and other makeshift constructions until the houses could be built.

So why California, in north Yorkshire?  Apparently it was because people likened the massive influx of people wanting work in this rapidly expanding industry, to the California Gold Rush, so California it became. Eston ironstone was discovered a year after the gold in California USA. That had become famous, and hence the California nickname for this area, which once given, stuck!  

Sadly, in 1949, the day came when the last Eston ironstone had been extracted. It had become more cost effective to import much better quality ironstone from abroad. Iron and steel-making using imported ore continued in the area until the industry's end in 2015. The loss of this industry has left a big hole in the lives and economy of the area. It may have been a hard life, but ironstone mining and iron and steel making were a source of great pride, as well as work, for the local people.

Maybe you also have ancestors who were part of the ironstone story. Or maybe my story has just aroused your interest. If so, you can still get hold of Craig Hornby's fascinating documentary "A Century in Stone." Just visit his website to find out how.

(Many thanks to Craig for his help, photos and detailed information. Thanks also to Google and to Wikipedia for some of the statistics and general background to the story of the ironstone miners.)

Carol Hagland began researching her family history about eleven years ago. Her roots are in the north-east of England, parts of the Scottish borders, and also in parts of Derbyshire, Nottinghamshire and Lincolnshire. Because of difficulties in visiting the areas where her family originated, most of this research has been conducted online. Given the constant increase in the amount of information available online, together with inspiration from Family Tree Magazine, she has recently decided to revisit much of her early work, to develop it further and fill in more gaps. It was as a result of this that she uncovered the story of the ironstone miners of Eston.