Victorian Commercial Buildings in the Middlesbrough High Street Heritage Action Zone
Researching an imposing Victorian commercial and civic legacy.
One of the High Streets Heritage Action Zones in Historic England’s North East and Yorkshire region is in the centre of Middlesbrough, a town which was historically part of the North Riding of Yorkshire, then Cleveland. Its position on the river Tees brought immense prosperity and swift development in the 19th and 20th centuries, leaving a legacy of imposing Victorian buildings in the vicinity of the railway station which are at the heart of the High Street Heritage Action Zone. In 2021-22 architectural investigators researched a number of key buildings as part of Historic England’s contribution to the planned revitalisation of this important part of the town centre.
The High Street Heritage Action Zone in Middlesbrough
The Middlesbrough High Street Heritage Action Zone is part of a designated Conservation Area at Risk. Funding is supporting the regeneration of heritage assets and the wider public realm, and the development of community-based cultural activities designed to develop high streets as hubs for local cultural, retail and commercial engagement. Substantial work has already been carried out within the area, with Exchange Square relaid to provide accessible access and to create an inviting meeting space. Some of the carved keystones from the demolished Royal Exchange have been cleaned, repaired and relocated. External building repairs are being carried out at four properties to make the buildings weathertight and to allow for internal reuse and conversion.
Developing a Victorian new town
Middlesbrough was an entirely new town, founded in 1829 and built on farmland bought and divided up into plots by the Owners of the Middlesbrough Estate, which was formed by Joseph Pease (1799-1872), a major initiator and investor in the Stockton & Darlington Railway, coal mining, quarrying and textile production. Middlesbrough was created to support the coal trade of County Durham, the coal being transported by the Stockton & Darlington Railway (its branch line opened in 1830) and then loaded onto ships at a new port on the River Tees
The town swiftly grew in importance as coal, then the iron and steel industry, brought prosperity and further expansion. The first part of Middlesbrough was built to the north of the station: it consisted of a small grid of streets between the railway and the Tees, arranged around a market place containing the town hall and surrounded by places of worship and market buildings (now mostly cleared).
By the 1870s, the area around and south of the station became the town’s commercial and civic centre, due to the construction of the Royal Exchange, designed by Charles John Adams (circa 1838-1879) of Stockton-on-Tees. It opened in 1868, housing shops, a public dining room and a large space for the trading of iron, which could also be used by the public for events. It stood in a triangular space, later named Exchange Square, the western boundary of which was formed by the southern end of Exchange Place; it was demolished in the 1980s for the construction of the A66 flyover. Exchange Place was a key road which linked the old town to the north with the expanding new town to the south. The station was rebuilt in 1873-77 to face the new town. Exchange Place and Exchange Square were, from the start, designed more for business rather than shopping, providing banks and offices to support the iron trading at the Royal Exchange and capitalising on the proximity of the railway station.
Designer of commercial Middlesbrough: William Henry Blessley
W. H. Blessley (1841-1936) was responsible for many of Middlesbrough’s key commercial buildings of the 1870s. Though London-born, Blessley lived and worked in Middlesbrough by the time of the 1871 census, remaining until retirement. His designs for the rows of offices in Exchange Place opposite the eastern elevation of the station and on the northern side of Exchange Square set the tone for this part of the town.
Blessley designed nos 2-4, Exchange Place around 1870 as offices with a number of different businesses operating from there, including a photographer at no. 4.
Around 1870-72 he also designed 2, 2a and 4, Zetland Buildings facing both Exchange Square and Zetland Place, followed by New Exchange Buildings on Exchange Place north of the railway line in 1874; they are all listed at Grade II.
The Zetland name refers to Thomas Dundas (1795-1873), 2nd Earl of Zetland, Lord Lieutenant of the North Riding of Yorkshire from 1838 until his death. He was a key regional magnate and landowner at nearby Marske and Redcar when this part of Middlesbrough was laid out.
Other Middlesbrough buildings by Blessley include further offices on Zetland Place, churches, a Quaker meeting house and schools. He used a variety of eclectic styles, but he favoured the Venetian Gothic revival for his designs in Exchange Place, New Exchange Buildings and Zetland Buildings. Zetland Buildings, also known as ‘New Post-Office Buildings’, were built to house a post office room with the telegraphic department on the ground floor, while the rest of the building was let as offices and also accommodated Jordison’s printing and stationery business (‘Northern Echo’, 21 May 1870, 4).
These long ranges of commercial buildings by Blessley cover many urban plots and their three-storey elevations are eye-catching and colourful, with triangular gables sometimes adding interest to the roofline. Though most are on straight streets, the curvaceousness of Zetland Buildings particularly adds value to Exchange Square, with a rounded corner facing Zetland Place (see the first two illustrations above). Exchange Buildings similarly has a curved corner, allowing the repetition of the arched windows to flow across two elevations.
The prolific use of Venetian Gothic style makes this part of Middlesbrough a homogenous and colourful place.
Blessley used constructional polychromy by combining red brick walls with white brick, stone and terracotta accents. This use of colour was inspired by John Ruskin (1819-1900), a leading light in the promotion of the Gothic style in the mid-19th century and author of ‘The Stones of Venice’ (1851-3). And while the choice of a Gothic revival style was not unusual for the period, the prolific use of Venetian detailing – paired or longer runs of windows divided by stone colonettes or brick piers, a variety of arch shapes for window heads and relieving arches, all emphasised by polychromy – makes this part of Middlesbrough a homogenous and colourful place.
A new post office for a growing town
The Post Office soon outgrew its space in Zetland Buildings as Middlesbrough expanded, the town’s population and businesses outstripping the organisation’s ability to deal with the resulting increase in correspondence. Consequently, the town’s worthies met the Postmaster General in London in 1877 and the construction of a dedicated post office building for Middlesbrough was agreed. A site was found further east on Exchange Square, cementing the commercial success of the area, and the new post office opened in 1879.
Now known as Exchange House (listed Grade II), the post office was not designed locally but by the Office of Works in London, as was usual for this government-run institution. The architect responsible was James Williams (1824-92), designer of head post offices all over the country during the 1860s-80s; he also designed some county court buildings. The choice of red brick was unsurprising, bearing in mind the Middlesbrough context, but the three-storey elevation facing Exchange Square was considerably grander although perhaps more conventional than Blessley’s work. Williams used elements of classical Italianate design which are typical of his Post-Office style – rustication, vast cornices, pediments, moulded doorcases and window surrounds, all in stone – to set this building apart from its Venetian Gothic neighbours. In addition, its basement and raised ground floor made the building substantially taller than Zetland Buildings.
It contained all the functions one would expect in an up-to-date Post Office building of the period. The ground floor housed the main public post office, with a smaller room for the post-master. The sorting office lay behind, with access from School Croft to the rear. The basement contained the batteries required for telegraphy. On the first floor was a ‘telegraphists room’ for transmitting messages, with two retiring rooms for the superintendents and the clerks; the second floor housed the ‘instrument room’ containing much of the technical apparatus for the telegraph. The building and its layout were described in an article in the ‘Daily Gazette for Middlesbrough’, published on 17 September 1879 during the week of its opening, as a ‘lofty, handsome, and substantially-built edifice’.
The expansion of the post office mirrored the growth of the town, by then a renowned centre for iron and steel production.
The Post Office soon outgrew this building too. An addition was made at the rear, along School Croft, around 1913, perhaps to increase space for sorting and parcels, providing more room for the loading and unloading of vehicles and possibly also housing the telephone system which had become a Post Office function in 1912. The third, and final, addition was built in 1926: a three-storey neo-Georgian wing to the west replaced the earlier Post Office Chambers of the late 19th century, with elevations facing Exchange Square and Zetland Place. But in 1984, the Post Office departed to new premises, Exchange House became Teesside Archives, and since their relocation to the Dorman Museum a new use is being found for this part of the building.
Revitalising this distinguished part of Middlesbrough
The buildings around Exchange Square and the adjoining streets are individually important, as recognised in their listed status. But they are more than individual structures, for together they give a distinct character to the area and strongly reflect Middlesbrough’s emergence as a town of regional and national significance. Along with the railway station and the offices and hotels lying within the High Street Heritage Action Zone, they define the nature of the nineteenth-century town – thriving, commercial, modern – and their lively architecture is an adornment to the contemporary scene. Targeted building research will underpin a listing review, for the time is right to reassess their significance within the town’s history.
Within the wider High Street Heritage Action Zone, grants, redevelopment of the railway station and private sector investment will combine with Historic England’s architectural research to revitalise this distinguished part of Middlesbrough and, with a new purpose, help it to become a destination for residents and visitors.
About the author
- Name and role
Lucy Jessop PhD
- Title and organisation
- Senior Architectural Investigator North East and Yorkshire region at Historic England
- Lucy has worked for Historic England and its predecessor for over 15 years, researching and investigating buildings and places. Her research interests are wide-ranging, but they include the design and construction of 17th- and 18th-century houses, and architectural patronage.
Johnson, M, 2020: Ironopolis: The Architecture of Middlesbrough (Stroud).
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