History of Stockton on Tees


EARLY STOCKTON-ON-TEES Stockton began as a small Saxon village belonging to the Bishop of Durham. No one is certain where Stockton got its name. However the Saxon word stoc meant a hamlet dependent on a larger village nearby. The word tun meant farm. So it may have been a farm by a stoc or hamlet.

Stockton grew into a large village. Sometime in the 13th century (the exact date is not known) the Bishop made the village into a borough. In the Middle Ages most peasants were serfs, halfway between slaves and free men. The Bishop freed the serfs of Stockton and craftsmen came to live in the new town. The Bishop had a residence in Stockton called the Castle (although it was really a fortified manor house).

From 1310 Stockton had a market. (In those days there were very few shops and if you wished to buy or sell anything you had to go to a market. Stockton grew into a busy little port exporting wool and importing wine (the drink of the upper class). However even by the standards of the time Stockton was a small town with a population of only around 1,000. It did not grow any larger in the 16th century.

In 1642 came civil war and in 1644-46 Stockton was occupied by the Scottish army. After the civil war the Bishops Castle was destroyed by parliamentarians to prevent it ever falling into royalist hands. However in the late 17th century Stockton began to flourish. There had been a shipbuilding industry in Stockton since the 15th century and in the late 17th century and the 18th century the industry prospered. There was also a sail making industry and a rope making industry. Another industry in 18th century Stockton was brick making. The port also flourished. However much of the trade was coastal. In those days it was much cheaper to transport goods by water than by road and so many goods were taken by ship along the coast of England from one port to another.

Goods imported into Stockton included wine and raisins, coal, glass and household goods. Goods exported included wool, butter, bacon and lead. In the early 18th century the writer Daniel Defoe said that Stockton had greatly increased in size lately. It probably had a population of about 2,000. Another writer said that ‘Stockton was a few years ago all thatched houses, now of brick with sash windows. It has a spacious, paved High Street, very clean.’ The Town House was built in 1735. About 1760 another writer described Stockton: (I have changed his words slightly to make them easier to read) Stockton is finely situated and most beautifully laid out. The principal street is about 50 yards broad with a town house and market in the middle of it and it is a quarter of a mile long. Two streets are parallel with it from the east for about two hundred yards and there are three or four streets, which lead from it to the quays. Beyond the church (handsome and well built) is a bowling green with buildings on three sides of it.’ Yet another writer described Stockton as ‘a neat, well built market town with a considerable trade.’ The first theatre in Stockton opened in 1766. The first stone bridge across the Tees was built in 1769. From the end of the 18th century the industrial revolution changed Stockton from a small and quiet market town into a flourishing centre of heavy industry.

(Addition by Dave Hodgson)

JOHN WALKER – Inventor of the Friction Match?

John Walker was a chemist who set up shop at number 59 High Street in Stockton on Tees. Walker regularly experimented with various combustible powders and soon found a business in selling the separated powders to the local town-folk and the local gunsmith. Records indicate that in 1826 whilst working in his home on the Stockton Quayside, experimenting with a mixture of his combustible powders of potassium chlorate, antimony sulphide and gum, by chance he scraped his mixing stick against the kitchen hearth, which caused the stick to flare and set on fire.

Being a chemist with an analytical mind, Walker as quick to realise that he had discovered something that had commercial value, and he prepared bundles of matchsticks coated in his scientific formulae, and sold them to the local people of Stockton. Records indicate that he first sold them in 1827 to a Mr. Hixon, a local solicitor in the town.

They came supplied with a piece of sandpaper for striking the match which Walker called ‘Friction Lights’. The price for a bundle of 100 matches was one shilling and 2 old pence if you wanted a tin. Walker unfortunately did not appear to realise the world-wide potential of his invention, and in 1830 his idea was commercialised by a Londoner called Samuel Johnson who patented Walkers invention calling them ‘Friction Matches’

Walker died in 1859 at the age of 78 and is buried in Norton Parish Churchyard.


From the late 18th century there was an iron working industry in Stockton. In the 19th century it boomed. Shipbuilding also prospered. A large engineering industry also grew up in the town. Stockton grew rapidly. By 1851 it had a population of 10,000 and by 1900 of 51,000.

Industry in Stockton was greatly boosted when the Stockton and Darlington railway opened in 1825. It made it easier to bring coal to factories in Stockton. However the port declined as business now moved down river to Middlesbrough. Like all 19th century cities Stockton was unhealthy. In 1832 there was an outbreak of cholera and 126 people died. Another outbreak in 1849 killed 20 people. However conditions improved during the century. In 1820 an Act set up a body of men called Commissioners with responsibility for lighting and cleaning the streets. From 1822 Stockton was lit by gas. Preston Hall was built in 1825. A hospital opened in Stockton in 1862. A public library opened in 1877.



This magnificent building stood on the North side of Wellington Street and was used by Stockton Freemasons until 1873, when it was sold to Stockton Borough. From 1877 until 1970 it was used to house the towns Free Library. Sadly the building was demolished in 1972.

Steam trams began running in the streets in 1881. In 1897 electric trams replaced them. Ropner Park opened in 1883. Victoria Bridge was built in 1883. In the 1920s and 1930s the first slum clearance took place in Stockton and the first council houses were built. The trams were replaced by buses in 1931.

In the early and mid 20th century Stockton was still dominated by the engineering industry. From the 1920s there was also a chemicals industry in the town. However in the late 20th century manufacturing industry contracted severely. Fortunately the service industries grew and today they are the main employers. Preston Hall Museum started in 1953. Much of Stockton town centre was rebuilt in the 1960s. The Green Dragon Museum opened as an art gallery in 1968. It was converted later. Castlegate Shopping Centre opened in 1973. The University of Teesside was formed in 1992. The Open Technology Centre opened in 1998. Princess of Wales Bridge was built in 1992. Tees Barrage opened in 1995. Today the population of Stockton-On-Tees is 178,000.