Bygone Hope – The Region of Decay

Failure to Comply

Pictured above is the South Gare, an area of reclaimed marshland which once housed the vast Redcar Steelworks and accompanying manufacturing plants. With a radius of around 10 miles, the former works once dominated the landscape of the Tees coast, a fitting image for a region whose growth and eventual decline was enacted by heavy industry. Towers visible in the background are all that remain of Dorman Long’s heritage as a steel powerhouse, however, even these solitary monuments to a distant time face demolition in coming days. The sign, now no more than a bitter reminder of the once intimidating nature of heavy industry, sits alone surrounded by former blast furnaces and coal storage land as evidenced by slag and coal rubble littering the land.

Decaying Heart

Redcar Steelworks, built in 1875 and mothballed (discontinued but kept in good condition) only 8 years ago, has been the site of demolitions and deconstruction in the last few years. Residents from across the Tees Valley, likely former workers or descendants of workers, gathered to witness the utter destruction of their livelihood and heritage in a haze of contempt and satisfaction. For many, the industry was a much-needed source of income in the country’s most deprived region, an opportunity to escape the squalor and work with pride as a collective of laborers bettering the region for all. For other’s, the blot of former industry was merely a reflection of the hardships they faced; the rapid destruction of industry mirroring the decaying region and the movement from a vital industrial landscape, to an abandoned region. The machinery pictured above, once an integral part of Teesside’s only remaining blast furnace, is now almost unrecognizable as an aspect of heavy industry. It even has an organic look to it, almost representing the no longer beating heart of Tees sides steelworks in a lovecraftian manner. The white powder, while appearing dangerous to begin with, is actually just ceramic dust from the inside of the furnace wherein steel would be directed into ‘melting pots’ or vessels.

Mal Purchase, a former instrument technician at the Lackenby beam mill which formed a part of the overall Redcar steelworks, details the long process that happened within the now disused and destroyed site.

Steel Meadow

In view of the former steelworks, the relatively new Redcar wind farm situated off the Tees Coast generates electricity for communities along the long stretch of marshland. The wind farm, built in 2013 and set to be decommissioned in only 22 years, makes up part of the new industry being developed in Teesside. Eco-friendly, net-zero energy production has been a key aspect for the redevelopment of Teesside following the decades long decline in employment and regional growth. Carbon capture projects soon to be built on the site of the former steelworks will aim to bring net zero energy production to Teesside in a matter of decades. The area surrounding the South Gare and the Tees coast was once home to marshland full of wildlife local to the region. Now, the area is little more than a wasteland of discarded rubble, former machinery, rubbled slag and steel landscapes.

Shadow of the Transporter

The Tees Transporter Bridge is perhaps the most iconic symbol of the steel production heritage of the Tees Valley. Connecting Port Clarence north of the river to Middlehaven south of the river, the bridge used to ferry workers from their purpose-built cottages across the Tees to the former dockyards and industrial sites dotted along the riverside. Commissioned as early as 1872 and built in 1907, the bridge, now listed as a Grade 2 listed building, made use of a gondola for vehicles ferrying workers and materials. Interestingly, given how small the gondola is and the sheer volume of laborers looking to travel across it to work, many a commuter used the stairs and ladders built up the Transporter’s legs to cross the bridge leading to peculiar scenes where workers would climb to the high platforms visible in the image and climb back down the other side. Unfortunately, the Tees Transporter bridge no longer operates due to a lack of financial support, further symbolizing the decay of Teessides industry and its effect on the local community. I have inverted the images colors for the purpose of altering the aesthetic of the image to give it a more otherworldly feel in a way similar to the remains of Redcar blast furnace seen above.

The North Sea

Pictured here is the edge of the Redcar wind farms and the Adelheid-S, a container ship (the largest to ever visit Teesside) leaving Teesport, likely heading to Antwerp, Belgium. The juxtaposition between the land once untouched and fraught with wildlife and the pollutant and disruptive container ship and turbine symbolize the land lost to heavy industry and the everlasting scars of pollution left along the Tees Coast. 

The Old Town Center

Middlehaven, the original town center of Middlesbrough, now sits along the former dockyards as an industrial estate filled with disused land and failed regeneration attempts. Not pictured in the image but at the center of the grass square is the old Middlesbrough Town Hall, now a rundown shell of what it used to be. Travelers who come and go from the estate and the greater Teesside area often leave their horses and ponies in less populated areas and return for them during the summer months. The area is representative of the true heart of Middlesbrough, both figuratively and literally. The new builds in the background of the photo juxtaposed with the abandoned ponies/horses and decrepit town hall is indicative of false regeneration; not improving areas that need economic investment, but building new high-rises away from the deprived former residential areas as a distraction from the real issues facing the town and the greater region.

Seaside Resort

Along the South Gare pier, caravans and holiday goers park up and stay alongside fishing shacks and small boat docks in an area far removed from the holiday resort you’d typically see them near. Dwarfed by the overwhelming nature of the industry, the idea of leisure in Teesside is far stretched. Attempts to create a sense of escape in a miserable environment are in vain when the depressing remnants of industry are visible wherever you may try to escape to.

Keep Smiling

Photographed in Oxbridge in Stockton-on-Tees near a metals shop, this metal fence was adorned with graffiti and faded paint, the highlight being the somewhat ironic ‘KEEP SMILING!’ sentiment. The neighborhood surrounding this fence is renowned for its high crime rate and high deprivation so the reminder to ‘KEEP SMILING!’ acts as both a brutal reminder of the area you find yourself in, and hopeful encouragement to push through adversity. The decaying paint lends to the former whereas the flowering weeds, regardless of whether they are weeds or not, reinforces the latter.


The man pictured above is Jammy. A second generation mod, Jammy now owns multiple stalls in the Stockton-on-Tees flea market, a small brick square tucked away on Stockton high street filled with market stalls selling vintage and retro trinkets. Beginning in 1813, the market has remained a staple of Stockton and is almost symbolic of the need for affordable market stalls amidst a deprived area. Nearby, through a back alley towards the end of a market, one can find the former site of the Castlegate shopping centre, soon to be developed into a waterfront park forming a key part of the regeneration project of Stockton high street. Jammy, having spent most of his life working in the flea market, is both concerned and excited for the project; concerned that the regeneration process may soon target the flea market for reconstruction, and excited over the prospect of more visitors to the high street.

If you think is bad…

Taken near the ‘KEEP SMILING!’ fence in an alley filled with needles, baggies and junk food packets, this graffiti states ‘IF YOU THINK THIS IS BAD THEN YOU SHOULD SEE WHAT OUR GOVERNMENT IS UP TOO!’ Symbolising the failure of educational institutions in deprived areas of the UK, the grammar for this sentence is incorrect in numerous places; uncapitalised ‘i’s, too is spelt incorrectly and the tag itself isn’t equally split across panels but is instead listed on one and trailed across 4 more. Conversely, the idea that the government is doing something worse than a community with a high crime rate displays a deeper level of knowledge on national politics as well as a sense of awareness of the area you live in and the reasons for it.

This, then, is a powerful statement in relation to Teesside, especially when considered in relation to both recent events unfolding around PD Ports and reported crab deaths, and past events regarding austerity and social funding cuts. Juxtaposing the stone and concrete fence with the lush green trees sheltered behind it, the image also conveys a trapped feeling, imprisoned away from natural beauty and peaceful serenity by fencing and barbed wire. This is reinforced by the truth of the garden behind the wall, which is in fact a train yard, somewhere equally as drab and industrial. The illusion that there is ‘greener grass on the other side’ when in reality even the trees are almost artificial in a sense implies that there is no escape from the misery of industrial Teesside. A mirage of beauty guarded by a grey wall tagged with a powerful sentiment all represent the feeling of hopelessness and imprisonment felt by many across Teesside and the neglect felt as a result of government abandonment.

This Is England

This image was taken next to the site of the old Middlesbrough Town Hall in Middlehaven. A man in a high visibility jacket can be seen clearly living in this shack made of recycled material and, for lack of a better phrase, dumped junk, symbolic of the abandonment of Teessides industry and in turn its workforce. Further symbolising regional decay, the Union Jack flying against a rainy background next to a homeless man’s shack and derelict road surfaces all surrounded by a modern looking fence all contribute to the ‘false regeneration’ seen so often around places once considered vital to the town and the region. Whilst not visible from this angle, the factories housing ICI (or Imperial Chemical Industries) can be seen past the shack, dwarfing the real problems facing the region, homelessness, unemployment and societal neglect, and reminding the abandoned generations of workforces of their previous financial stability.

Shortly after this photo was taken, a chained box van manned by 2 men arrived and began taking palettes and metal wires from the shack’s owner, paying him in cash while cautiously eyeing me with my camera. Evidently up to some illegal if not questionable business, the idea that a homeless man would have to turn to such lines of work to make do further identifies the impact that industry closures and regional decay has had. Even more illustrative of such problems facing Teesside, the area around Middlehaven square has begun gentrification; new builds, apartments under construction and active nightclubs dotted around Middlesbrough train station only 2 blocks away from clear signs of poverty and underdevelopment. This bitter irony is even further expanded upon due to the nearby Middlesbrough police station, further symbolising the apparent lawlessness present in Teessides society.

Interview with Sally Lavender

Sally, a former worker at the ICI plant in Redcar and the Tioxide plant north of the river in Billingham, details her experiences working in Teesside’s industry.

Where did you work and what did you do?

I worked for Tioxide UK Limited from 1995 to 2002, firstly as UK Accountant and then as UK Financial Controller managing the finance processes for plants at Greatham and Grimsby. Tioxide manufactured titanium dioxide pigment used as a whitener in paint and other products. Tioxide was a subsidiary of ICI when I joined but was sold to Huntsman  (a US Corporation) during my employment.

From 2007 until 2012, I worked for Ensus Limited as Financial Controller. Ensus was a start up company with private equity funding to build and run a bioethanol plant on the Wilton industrial site.

What was your experience like working in Teessides industry? As a woman, how did your experience differ from your male colleagues?

In my roles at Tioxide and Ensus, the workforce was probably 80-90% male, with the female staff largely employed in support functions such as Finance, HR and procurement.

At Tioxide, I was fortunate to work for a male boss who was very supportive of all his staff whether male or female. I did experience some frustration in my interactions with the male Plant Manager who didn’t appear to respect some of the female managers such as myself. He was more comfortable interacting with the plant team and didn’t value the role Finance played in supporting the business.

The original directors of Ensus were mainly ex-ICI senior managers. My Tioxide experience and Chemistry degree did mean that I was more respected by the largely male plant team. However, there was a feeling of a ‘boy’s club’ that I was excluded from. As at Tioxide the Finance and HR functions were mainly staffed by women. I was the most senior woman out of 100 employees and had to speak up on several occasions to ensure fairness in pay and bonus compared to my male counterparts.

Were you affected by industry closures during your time working there?

The Ensus plant had to close on a number of occasions due to design issues and also because market conditions made it uneconomic to run. The plant staff were therefore often under utilised. The Finance team were often even busier during shutdowns creating forecasts and supporting efforts to raise finance. This could be very stressful.

Having worked with GP Practices in Stockton and Middlesbrough and seen the high levels of deprivation and poor health, I don’t feel very hopeful for Teesside.