Early Middlesbrough had a reputation as a frontier town where there were plenty of opportunities for drinking, and where crime and sin followed as sure as night followed day.
Martin Peagam’s free talk has so captured the public imagination that it sold out days in advance of the Thursday evening recitation at Middlesbrough Library. It has now been move upstairs to the Reference Library – there may be a few seats now available Ring 01642 729409
Middlesbrough: A Town of Rampant Sin is a free talk by local historian and (part) time traveller, Martin Peagam as part of the 2016 Discover Middlesbrough festival.
Following his successful guided walks in the following in the footprints of miserable sinners, Martin has taken his examination of the darker side of the pioneering days of Middlesbrough indoors into the safe bastion of a library.
In this illustrated talk, the audience will be taken on an exploration of why the town acquired this reputation, what the consequences were for crime and sin, and how those responsible for law and order responded.
Along the way he will consider some of the many drinking establishments that once littered the town and the characters that frequented them.
I thought I would take the opportunity to question Martin about one or two details on this sorry tale of squalor and the seedier side of a Victorian town.
Q: Could you tell us where the title of your talk Rampant Sin comes from?
A: The title reflects a statement attributed to a Presbyterian Minister after visiting Middlesbrough that ‘in no town had he seen sin so rampant as in the streets of Middlesbrough’ (quoted by by Paul Stephenson, another local historian, in a book some years ago).
Q: Is it fair to label 19th century as a frontier town? Is there a parallel to the Wild West taking place at much the same time a continent away across the Atlantic?
A: There is every justification for describing Middlesbrough as a frontier town comparable to the Wild West: immigrants seeking their fortunes, substitute an iron and steel rush rather than a gold rush There was little law enforcement and it was a predominantly male population. They were hard working and hard drinking.
Q: Was there really a pub or beer house on every corner?
A: Not only was there a drinking establishment on almost every corner, there were quite a few on the streets linking the corners as well.
Q: How much were people drinking?
A: It is difficult to prove how much people were drinking, but pubs do not make money if people do not drink and the number of drinking establishments grew in line with the massive population explosion.
Q: Work must have been very hard but what would it have been like at home in our worker’s town?
A: The housing conditions of the workers were appalling. The pub was a refuge offering warmth and company, for the price of a drink.
Q: Where were the women in all this?
A: In the early days the population was predominantly male. And the females who were around in the early days were often purveyors of services of a particular kind.
Q: You have conducted walks as well as talks before under this title; do you think there is a fascination to know more about the people and the character of the early town of Middlesbrough?
A: I find that people are fascinated by the people who built Middlesbrough from scratch in the nineteenth century – not just the Ironmasters but the ordinary folk who laboured in the iron-works, on the docks and elsewhere. They came from Ireland, Wales, from Scotland, from Staffordshire and elsewhere to create the ‘Infant Hercules’.
Q: This is all a long time ago what are your thoughts on recent developments in the old centre of the town? Are you optimistic or pessimistic about Middlesbrough’s future?
A: As a historian I am always amazed by the ability of people to transform and adapt. Middlesbrough was a marsh-land before 1830. Thirty years later it was part of the greatest industrial nation in the world.
Today the Middlehaven area is slowly, but surely, developing with new industries and activities.
Whether they will succeed or not remains to be seen, but I suspect that there were people who thought that Joseph Pease was mad to bring a railway line to a salt-marsh alongside the River Tees in 1830.
So I am cautiously optimistic about Middlesbrough’s future.
Martin Peagam is fascinated in the heritage of Middlesbrough, Stockton and Teesside, and who enjoys exploring the past and bringing it to life for people through talks and tours.
Ring Middlesbrough Library now for the last few seats – 01642 729409 Starts 5.30pm – 6.30pm Middlesbrough Reference Library
Discover Middlesbrough is presented by Middlesbrough Council’s Festival and Events Team and co-ordinated by Tracy Hyman and Robert Nichols.
Discover Middlesbrough festival programmes are now available from venues across Middlesbrough, including libraries, community hubs, museums, Middlesbrough Town Hall, Middlesbrough FC and the Transporter Bridge Visitor Centre.
Digital versions can also be viewed at
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