“The Town of Rampant Sin” -Martin Peagam, 16th July 2019x

“The town of rampant sin “. Most members present at the Meeting on July 16th could have put a name to their own idea of sin city. Local historian Martin Peagam was to refer to Middlesbrough – in particular from of social life in the 1850s. It was an unwanted title but was appropriate as seen and described by the Churches at the time. They saw Middlesbrough as a den of licentious behaviour, of drunkenness and prostitution.

Did it deserve that appellation ? Martin’s meticulous researches , culled from the newspapers and public reports of the time would suggest it was exactly that. The town grew from a village on marshy unwanted land in 1810 to a substantial township of 50,000 forty years later. The prospect of employment in the new portage facilities, and the associated iron and steel industries was a magnet to workers from Germany to Ireland, from East Anglia to Scotland – a polyglot of civilisation, or, as Martin termed it, “a Wild West of lawlessness”. Planned development of the township came early in its history with the arrival of the steam railway and a station. A large block of adjacent land was in the ownership of the Darlington & Stockton Railway Company. Its Engineer planned a graticule of square blocks for shops, inns and residences, open to inward or outside investment. Money moved in and from these blocks, Middlesbrough developed. It became the focus of a profusion of inns, pubs and beer houses, each vying for the abundant trade. Each of the four main roads that encompassed the block became the site of 7-10 such establishments.

What did they sell ? Initially the product was gin, distilled from local feed resources, but, with time and legislation, ale became the drink of the public. It was more pure than the local water supply, it was brewed on the premises with the different “recipes”. Thus inns and beer houses became a men’s recreation ground, away from the often appalling housing conditions and the family workers.

The trade prospered, but led to excesses of behaviour and drunkenness. The back of the inns were often brothels. Together they earned the right for the churches to condemn the place a town of sin.

The churches grew in number in the areas surrounding the block, almost as a structural counter to the activities of the square block opposite, attracting more female than male communicants. They sought to influence town authorities and magistrates to bring the infractions to heel. The town sought some greater respectability as it grew in size and economic significance. Important civic buildings were funded by local entrepreneurs – the Council House, the Library and the Museum arose around the square. Parks were created to provide alternative places for recreation. The Temperance Movement began to gain an influence The Police became a more potent force to handle disobedience. Thus the “rampant” growth of crime, misdemeanour and civil disorder came to an end – but for a forty year period Middlesbrough had lived with a well-founded but unfortunate image.

Martin’s talk was built of a wealth of detail, expertly presented by his slides with ample statistics and pictures of life 150 years ago. It was an excellent and informative talk, presented with enthusiasm and entertainment – leaving only a question “what would historians and sociologists in another 50 years call the same town of 2019” ? Food for thought?