One afternoon in the late 1950s, a young boy encountered a man sketching, sat on a stool outside his father’s butchers shop in St Hilda’s, the original heart of Middlesbrough.
That man was acclaimed artist LS Lowry, whose paintings have commanded millions of pounds at auction – but here he was, in Middlesbrough, preparing ‘Old Town Hall and St Hilda’s Church’.
The 1959 painting depicted the scene in the busy market square outside the town hall, which still stands.
By then, the town once dubbed ‘Infant Hercules’ by William Gladstone, had already seen big changes.
The area close to the banks of the Tees had been the location of a monastic cell originally founded in 686 AD, dedicated to St. Hilda, which later evolved into a church and cemetery and provided the name for the boom railway town it would become.
The new church of St. Hilda was built in the 1840s – the decade after Middlesbrough had developed into the world’s first planned railway town.
Filled with thousands who flocked to the area for work, the town boomed and eventually spread away from its original heart – with a new town hall built in what we now know as the town centre on Corporation Road.
But with a little imagination, those walking around the market square or looking across from Commerce House could previously close their eyes and allow themselves to travel back in time to an age of bustling streets and heaving pubs.
Now, thanks to the work of dedicated volunteers with a passion for local history, the people of Middlesbrough no longer need to merely imagine the footsteps their forefathers took – they can recreate them.
Because the St Hilda’s Digital Walk brings to life the town’s fascinating past.
Simply bring your smartphone and start out at the old Custom House, now the fantastic MyPlace, and scan the first QR code on the guided trail.
You’ll find the history of the building – including its ‘secret room’ – with a guide to the next stop on the tour which feature videos and interviews with local historians and former St Hilda’s residents.
The Old Town Hall and marketplace – immortalized by Lowry – also feature on the walk.
Funds have been committed by Middlesbrough Council to make structural repairs to the former Town Hall, which sits empty and derelict, and has made an application to the National Lottery Heritage Fund for further money to help bring the building back into use.
Inside the Old Town Hall
Plans would see the 1970s youth club extension demolished and the original building and clock tower – designed by William Lambie Moffatt in the Italianate style, and completed in 1846 – renovated and split into flexible spaces while the clock tower would be restored and repaired to full working order.
On the guided tour, the now-forgotten St Hilda’s Church throws up some surprises.
Unearthed beneath overgrown grass and bushes sit two original gravestones of early Middlesbrough residents in what would have been the grounds of the Anglican Church.
Visitors survey an uncovered headstone in what would have been the graveyard at St Hilda’s Church
One was placed by Charles Doderlain, the British Consul to Mauritius, in memory of his daughter Lodoiska Doderlain Richmond, who died aged 42. She was born in Mauritius in around 1811 and married Captain Samuel Richmond, giving birth there to their son Louis in 1832, who was baptised in Stepney, London.
This illustrates the melting pot that early Middlesbrough was – clearly the family had travelled extensively before settling at Cleveland Street, close where Bolckow and Vaughan lived.
The tour also takes in what is said to be Middlesbrough’s first passenger railway station, the Captain Cook pub – the town’s oldest still standing – and the Port of Middlesbrough.
And in the garden outside MyPlace, you can hear ‘Border Voices’ – interviews with former residents of St Hilda’s sharing their memories and stories in an incredible digital artefact which is now in place for generations to come.
One conversation captured centres on the term ‘Over the Border’ – a description now given by many to those who lived and worked in St Hilda’s. The border is thought to refer to the later railway line which separated St Hilda’s from the ‘new town’ which stretched south from the Tees towards Linthorpe.
“As kids one of our trips out was over the Transporter,” said one former resident, discussing the term.
“We went ‘over the border’ – into Durham. That was ‘over the border’ to us.”
What was St Hilda’s, of course, changed many times between its inception and the demolition of its final houses.
The original back-to-back houses were demolished and replaced with flats, many of which were demolished and replaced with a new estate of houses, before they were finally torn down in the mid 2000s.
The digital walk which preserves memories of its past was produced by the Rekindle Research group which was born from Rekindle, an initiative started by Steve Thompson, a Digital Inclusion Advisor with Middlesbrough Council’s Staying Put Agency, to get people online and using digital technology around four years ago.
The launch of the walk saw guests including Jane Hackworth-Young, the great-great granddaughter of Timothy Hackworth, taking part.
Jane Hackworth-Young, the great-great granddaughter of Timothy Hackworth, the man who designed the first locomotives later built by Robert Stephenson.
Potentially an under-appreciated figure in Middlesbrough, Mr Hackworth was the man who designed the first locomotives later built by Robert Stephenson.
He was the Superintendent Engineer on the world’s first public railway to use locomotives, the Stockton and Darlington Railway, which was expanded to what is now Middlesbrough’s dockland.
Edna Reddy, one of the volunteers who helped put the walk together, is from Middlesbrough – but says she learnt “an awful lot” about her town while researching the walk.
“People are often surprised when they hear about how the people of Middlesbrough once lived and died, how they entertained themselves, the way things were,” said Edna, a retired lecturer.
ReKindle group volunteer Edna Reddy
“It is lost to time here now, that original Middlesbrough, and although we have things like Middlesbrough College and the other new developments it’s very different here to how it was.
“Researching the history and finding out more, well it has brought Middlesbrough to life for me, and I think it will be fascinating for younger generations to discover their own history too.”
The Old Town Hall and the original grid pattern of streets of St Hilda’s may be empty, but the wider area around them have seen a host of developments in the past 20 years.
The Riverside Stadium and the offices and homes around Hudson Quay are joined by Middlesbrough College, the Boho zone of digital firms with the recently completed Boho X flagship office space, and more than a hundred new homes.
There are also plans for a school and potentially a new Eton sixth form college nearby.
But still, the landscape is quite different to when Middlesbrough was born – and when the original St Hilda’s was demolished two decades ago.
That can be seen starkly through an exhibition of pictures from photographer Richard Clayton, who documented St Hilda’s in the 1970s and returned over the following decades until much of the housing was cleared.
Photographer Richard Clayton, who documented St Hilda’s
“I’m actually from Stokesley, but I was initially interested in this part of Middlesbrough when I was at college because of the Lowry painting,” said Richard, whose photographs are on show in MyPlace as part of the Digital Walk.
“I had this curiosity, and these pictures show what I saw.
“A lot of the young lads and lasses got to know me and they’d pose for these photos but not everyone was as friendly and there was certainly an atmosphere that I knew I’d need to get back to the car quickly, shall we say, if I needed to.
“It was always an eye-opener but I was fascinated by the place, which is why I kept coming back with my camera.”