THE Northern Echo frontpage headline acclaimed ‘Dorman Gone’ and crowds thronged the area around the Dorman Long Tower’s demolition area at South Bank in the early hours of Sunday morning.

Teesside said goodbye to an iconic landmark with standout lettering that had provided a striking ‘advertisement of modernity and confidence to people travelling along the railway line’ or, conversely, a ‘rotting coal bunker’ that didn’t represent the area’s heritage.

The Northern Echo:

My own interest in the ‘Dorman Long Tower’ has evolved and grown as the industries around it have deteriorated and disappeared. I grew up in the shadow of the bunker in South Bank in the 1980s and 1990s and had a passing awareness of the structure. As my interest in history grew and eventually led to studying history at college, then as a degree, masters and finally through a doctorate working on the British Steel Collection at Teesside Archives and with it writing about the area’s steel magnates.

Study and writing about the area have been inspired by and spurred further interest in the buildings, communities and companies that shaped Middlesbrough, South Bank and the surrounding areas and with it strengthened emotional, personal attachments.

The Dorman Long Tower at a personal level represented a connection to my past and was a tangible link on the site of the former Dorman Long works that despite its limited functional life (it hasn’t fulfilled its primary function for decades) and had become a structure aligned with brutalist beauty as a concrete monolith to a lost industry all less than a mile from the street where I grew up.

The Northern Echo:

There is of course a need not to romanticise– the structure during its short fully operational life was just one part of a much larger industrial cluster that saw the Tees around Middlesbrough transformed from a river skirted by small hamlets in the early 1800s to a ‘Steel River’ gushing past and powering the Ironopolis.

It is also important to remember and respect other opinions that the Dorman Long coal bunker was considered a harsh reminder of an industry of fatalities, function and best left in the past, or another financial challenge of repairs and dangers that community enthusiasm for industrial heritage – even Grade Listed sites – would fail to convert into cold, hard visitor numbers and cash spent in the local economy.

Moreover, having grown up in South Bank – a town consistently cited as high in deprivation, low educational attainment and with limited employment opportunities, I am all too aware of the severe need for good jobs and opportunities for future generations in the area having lived through and experienced the economic hardships and social consequences of unemployment, deindustrialisation and dereliction.

The Northern Echo:

Regardless of stance, what is an undeniable feature of the fallout from the demolition is the highly emotive nature and power of Teesside’s industrial heritage. It has prompted and reignited bitter political divide, led to misplaced accusations, attracted national media coverage and in a world where social media is king, served as the touchpaper for debates and recriminations with few positive outcomes.

Personally, it has had impacted on me, most notably when ahead of the demolition I filmed with ITV Tyne Tees discussing the sadness, sorrow and potential missed opportunities all whilst recognising the need for jobs. It was the hardest media interview I have ever participated in and left me feeling emotionally drained - not least as I was all too aware of the disappointment felt by many who had campaigned to preserve the building and the profound emotional impact this had on them.

Some have put their efforts into discrediting the validity of moves to retain (or indeed remove) industrial heritage through a range of arguments.

The Northern Echo:

One popular stance has been to suggest those involved having not worked in the steel industry should not get involved but such an argument’s credibility is questionable and would leave the fate of our built industrial past and retention of landmarks such as the Baltic or the Tate Modern left exclusively in the hands, hearts and minds of former employees of Rank Hovis or the City of London Electric Lighting Company.

Such buildings can serve as mechanisms to understand the workings of past communities, how they shaped the local area and provide much-welcomed quirks in urban centres that arrest the all too familiar monotony of off-the-shelf, drag-and-drop regeneration schemes. The future of such heritage assets should be shaped as far as possible by the broader communities that might benefit from and support these links to yesteryear.

The Northern Echo:

Pointing the finger at political opponents and aligning destruction or preventing regeneration with rivals– both prominent in recent days - is too simplistic and counterproductive. It serves to polarise people who, from their viewpoint, wanted the best for the area’s past, present and future albeit through different means. No one should be told to leave Teesside off the back of seeking to preserve something important to them or be accused of legitimising loss of heritage when their aim is to achieve positive outcomes for our area.

Instead – whilst not straying into naiveite of assuming political and cultural acquiescence across well-established battlelines - if the pride in our past, organisation in the present and passion for the area’s future can be harnessed positively and coupled with significant investment in cultural and heritage infrastructure, and continued collaborative working with the fantastic Historic England, this can create numerous opportunities for engaging communities with and through our industrial heritage.

Whether it be through empowering people to get involved in, advocate for and support the Tees Transporter Bridge during its latest crisis, visit the fantastic Kirkleatham Museum’s exhibitions, put a date in the diary for the reopening of the Cleveland Ironstone Mining Museum, delve into historic collections to learn more about the area’s industrial past or just visit a neighbour to listen to their stories about working at Dorman Long, these can all contribute to shaping a positive future for our area’s industrial past.

The Northern Echo:

Despite the bitter loss of the Dorman Long Tower, by coming together rather than creating further divide, there can and should be positive outcomes across communities, generations and political persuasions for iron and steel heritage on Teesside.

  • Dr Tosh Warwick authored this article in his independent capacity as a local historian. Pictures courtesy of Teesside Archives - British Steel Collection