ON SUNDAY JUNE 12, a private garden created by one of Teesside’s pioneering Victorian industrialists is open to the public to raise money for the British Red Cross and the people of Ukraine.

It is Southlands, a remarkable villa at Eaglescliffe, between Stockton and Yarm, which has so many stories tumbling out of it, from slag concrete to Adolf Hitler’s nemesis.

The Northern Echo: Southlands, the home of Sir Samuel Sadler, is built of \"slag concrete\"

The house (above), which is now owned by Ian Waller whose name people may recognise from his Dollery Waller estate agency, was built in 1876 for Sir Samuel Saddler, the man who started Teesside’s chemical industry. He made his fortune by manufacturing all manner of noxious-sounding substances: Benzole, Tulole, Xylol, plus naphtha, carbolic acid, caustic soda, sulphuric acid and coal-gas. He was thrice mayor of Middlesbrough and the Boro’s first Conservative MP.

The Northern Echo: Sir Samuel Sadler, chemist, of Southlands

Sir Samuel Sadler, who built Southlands

Southlands is built of “slag concrete” – it may be one of the very first houses to be built of this curious compound.

Slag was the waste that dropped to the bottom of the blast furnaces that made iron in Middlesbrough. It was initially dumped in the River Tees, but the ironmasters were always looking to make money out of their by-product. As Memories 568 told, exactly 150 years ago, a Darlington entrepreneur, Joseph Woodward, perfected the art of making slag bricks and these super-hard, shiny grey bricks still line many of the back lanes of the Tees Valley.

Someone else noticed that the chemical composition of the slag was practically the same as Portland cement, so they ground it into a powder to make “slag cement”. However, it was soon discovered that slag cement rapidly absorbs carbon dioxide from the atmosphere and becomes useless, so it has to be used extremely quickly.

Sir Samuel is believed to have put it on a barge, sailed it down the Tees to his building site, where it was quickly mixed with aggregate and water to make slag concrete.

Ian reports that the Southland walls have various strange bits and pieces in them, from glass to bitumen, and are very hard. “When you hit the walls, they give off a smell of rotten eggs, and if you try and make a hole in them, they blunt your drills,” he says.

Because slag cement has to be used so quickly, its use never caught on. The only other construction made from it in this area that we are aware of is the jetty at Skinningrove, which was built in the North Sea directly beneath the ironworks.

Memories 570 told how the largest concentration of slag concrete buildings in the world is in Mariupol, a Ukrainian city we’ve all recently learned has a huge iron and steelworks. In the 1950s, when building materials were in short supply in the Soviet Union, a Ukrainian scientist, Victor Glukhovsky, followed the Teesside example and ground up slag to create the concrete residential blocks that went up around the ironworks – blocks that Russia has now obliterated.

The Northern Echo: Sir Samuel\'s newly restored fountain in the grounds of Southlands

Back at Southlands, Sir Samuel and his second wife, Mary (the sister of his first wife, Rachael, who died in 1873) laid out the grounds, utilising the slope towards the river for the lawns and borders. At the bottom One of their original features was a fountain (above) which hasn’t worked since Lady Sadler died in 1937, but Mr Waller has spent lockdown having it restored so tomorrow, its dolphins will be spouting once more.

Mr Waller and his late wife, Maureen, bought Southlands in 1980 from Friedelind Wagner, who was the grand-daughter of the composer Richard Wagner and great-grand-daughter of Franz Liszt.

The Northern Echo: Richard Wagner (1813-83), whose Germanic music was hugely admired by Adolf Hitler

Richard Wagner (1813-83), whose Germanic music was hugely admired by Adolf Hitler

In the 1930s in Bavaria, her family became close friends with Adolf Hitler, who admired the stirring, Teutonic nature of Wagner’s operas. Her mother, Winifred, an Englishwoman, was a great admirer of the fuhrer – perhaps even a lover – who so regularly dropped in for tea that Friedelind knew him as “Uncle Wolf”.

Friedelind, though, turned against Nazism and was forced to flee Germany in 1937. She made it to England, where she was interned on the Isle of Wight, but then she wrote for the Daily Sketch newspaper lampooning Hitler. The family of any other writer of anti-Nazi articles would have been taken in by the Gestapo, but Hitler protected the Wagners because he loved their music so much.

Her mother ordered her to come home, telling her that if she refused, “you will be exterminated at the first opportunity".

The Northern Echo: Adolf Hitler, who was known to Friedelind Wagner as "Uncle Wolf", but she hated his political views. She said:  "I had only to listen to Hitler rant and rave to be disgusted and horrified."

After the war, Friedelind was unable to return to Germany, and so lived a nomadic life, teaching music from Buenos Aires to New York until in the mid-1970s she was enticed to settle in Teesside. She had ideas about designing a new kind of experimental theatre and Middlesbrough had plans to build a 2,000 seater one which Friedelind came expecting to take charge of.

She lived first in Norton and then in Southlands, which became her music school, and she used the grand lawns for full blown orchestral concerts.

However, the Middlesbrough theatre project collapsed – the newly formed Cleveland County Council didn’t like the idea and then an article in a national newspaper dragged up Friedelind’s mother’s Nazi sympathies and any backers of the theatre got cold feet.

In 1980, she decided to return to Germany and when she put Southlands on the market, the Wallers bought it.

“She should have been out by lunchtime but when we arrived at 12 she was still waiting for the German removals firm to come along,” says Ian. “She felt a bit guilty and gave us these roses, which were made from an early form of plastic and painted gold, and she bought us fish and chips.”

The Northern Echo: A rose from the tomb of Richard Wagner

It is understood that the circlet of roses (above) came from the tomb of her grandfather, the great composer, in Bayreuth in Bavaria. They had been placed on the tomb in the 1930s – which was when Hitler’s admiration for Richard Wagner was at its height.

The Northern Echo: Ian Waller in his gardens at Southlands which are open to the public on Sunday

Ian Waller in his gardens at Southlands which are open to the public on Sunday

  • The Southlands gardens are in The Avenue, Eaglescliffe, TS16 9AS. They are open from 2pm to 5.30pm on Sunday, June 12. Admission: adult £5, under 16s free. Parking in the grounds. Dogs on leads welcome. Homemade refreshments available. Proceeds, which Mr Waller will double, to the British Red Cross and the Ukraine Crisis appeal.