Fifty years ago, after 150 lucrative years involving 83 mines, thousands of miners and millions of tons of ore, a proud industry ground to a halt

“Seven hundred feet below the green whaleback hills of Cleveland, the strong and proud heritage of the ironstone miner yesterday passed quietly into history,” said The Northern Echo 50 years ago yesterday. “The North Skelton ironstone mine, the last in Cleveland, died at midday. Its passing ended a way of life which brought industrial might to Teesside and moulded generations of men of iron.”

AND so, at noon on January 17, 1964, after 150 years of digging, the Great Cleveland Orefield came to an end. During those one-and-a-half centuries, 83 mines had employed up to 10,000 miners at any one time, produced hundreds of millions of tons of ore, created scores of little communities and one large conurbation, and started an industry which still employs thousands of men today.

Ironstone was to Teesside what coal was to Durham.

The last mine still digging was North Skelton. It had been sunk in 1870 during the great iron rush, when railways chased each other across the Middlesbrough salt flats in search of new lucrative sources of ironstone in the Cleveland Hills.

The railways then transported the ironstone back across the flats to the furnaces where it was blasted until it was a molten metal ready to be rolled into railway tracks to run round the world.

North Skelton was the deepest of all the Cleveland mines, and at its peak in the 1930s and 1940s, it employed nearly 600 men. It shared its demise with the rest of the orefield, overtaken by cheaper and better quality ores from abroad – principally Australia. “A few minutes before noon, a dozen old men in cloth caps and mufflers stood at the pit head,” wrote the Echo’s talented reporter, Geoffrey Sumner, who must have been one of the last people to go underground.

“In silence, they remembered the years of their youth given to the mine. With them stood miners’ wives, children and two women who still remembered men who were crushed to death in the mine.

“They had come to see the end of a magnificent, roaring century. They had come to see history made.

“But 700ft down in the damp, deserted galleries, this historic passing of an era had an air of anti-climax.

“A jerking and groaning mechanical loader snaffled up the last three tons of ore that will ever be mined in Cleveland – the last of 25 million tons from this mine alone.

“The ore, now in two iron tubs, rattled in the page cage to the surface. Then two dozen men – the last of the tough, dedicated, larger-than-life miners who for a century have ripped iron from the Cleveland earth – stepped blinking into the sunshine.

The Northern Echo:
North Skelton ironstone mine in its heyday

“It was all over in 12 minutes.

History could not be less exciting.”

Yet it was the end of the era of ironstone.Ore had been collected in the Cleveland Hills and along the beaches on the coastline for centuries, yet no one had really understood the riches beneath their feet.

That changed on June 8, 1850, when John Vaughan, of Middlesbrough, and John Marley, of Darlington, were out walking on Upleatham Hill above Eston. Marley stumbled in a rabbit hole and as Vaughan helped him up, the topsoil fell away, revealing a thick seam.

“Eureka,” he supposedly screamed.

Or so the fairytale goes.

There was probably a lot more mathematical and geological method to their madness which led them to discover the main seam which was 16ft wide – wide enough to be commercially exploitable, especially when their friends the Peases started building railways to help them.

All the way down the coast, from Saltburn to Whitby, and deep into the interior at Guisborough, Great Ayton, Glaisdale and Grosmont, mines were opened up.

NORTH Skelton became viable once the North Eastern Railway had agreed to build a 783ft long, 150ft high viaduct above Skelton Beck so that the railway could run from Saltburn through its area to Brotton (strangely, North Skelton is to the south of the old, agricultural village of Skelton).

The Northern Echo:
Cleveland’s ironstone miners collect their last pay – and a £100 bonus for losing their jobs

Engineers began test bores in December 1865. These revealed that the main seam took a saucer-like dip deep beneath Skelton and that the engineers would have to burrow through an underground lake to reach it.

It was going to be very expensive, and not just in terms of money: one of the early spoil tubs fell back down the shaft and killed Robert Wilson at the bottom.

Railway engineer TE Harrison began work on the 11-arch viaduct, near Saltburn, in 1870, and sinking at North Skelton started in earnest. As the sinkers burst through the lake, 15 tons of water a minute gushed into their excavations until they could line the shaft with cast iron to seal it off. Fifty cottages were thrown up at North Skelton, at the cost of £80 each, to house the early workers, followed by a further 156 houses in 1871.

Miners came from Durham and Cornwall to live in this boomtown.

The railway opened on June 1, 1872, soon followed by the mine – it had taken threeand- a-half years to reach the main seam 718ft (218 metres) at the bottom of the saucer, and it had cost £100,000.

Yet North Skelton was soon one of the most consistent and productive mines in the orefield – most years it produced nearly 300,000 tons to feed Middlesbrough’s voracious blast furnaces.

Strange traditions grew up: whistling was forbidden underground as it was the Devil’s music; wives had to hide in the morning as it was considered bad luck for a miner to see a woman before the start of a shift.

The Northern Echo:
Today, some of the mine buildings are used as light industrial units. This picture is from the Hidden Teesside blog which delights in finding curious corners of the area

The ironstone miners needed all the luck they could muster. Theirs was not quite as fatal an occupation as mining in the Durham coalfield, but an average of 20 men a year were killed in the Cleveland orefield between 1870 and 1890.

In the course of North Skelton’s life, a further 29 followed Robert Wilson to an early grave – the last three were killed in a roof fall in February 1949.

It was probably their relatives that reporter Sumner encountered on the final day at the pithead.

“I don’t know how we’ll ever get used to the mine being closed,” said Meda Sanderson, of 27 William Street, North Skelton, whose uncle had died down below.

“It will always feel strange.

Our village and our lives have always revolved around the mine. It is part of us. And now it is gone.

“I shall miss the rattle of the trucks in the morning and the sound of the hooter.

“When you live with a mine all your life, these sounds become music.”

The last trainload carrying the final 200 tons of ore that Cleveland ever produced left North Skelton for the blast furnaces three days later. And that was that.

Geoffrey Sumner concluded his report: “The spokes of the pit wheel stood still and stark against the sparkling winter sky. A page in history turned over.”

And the music of this industry died forever.

The Northern Echo:
The Northern Echo’s exclusive underground picture of the last shift at North Skelton