The Historic Town of Stockton-on-Tees

Stockton was described in the Boldon Book of 1183AD as having ‘eighteen farms, three families with a cottage but little land, a smith and a ferry across the River Tees’.  At this time Stockton was an agricultural village rather than a town.   

At some point in the 1200s Stockton was granted Borough status, meaning that the Crown granted it self-governance.  The borough was controlled by the Bishop of Durham who developed the wide High Street lined with tenements or burgages on either side.  The burgages would have contained a commercial property fronting directly on to the High Street.  To the rear would be yards and outbuildings where commercial and industrial activity might take place.  The pattern of long narrow plots with rear yards can still be seen in the town today.  Burgage holders would pay rent to the Bishop and were taxed on the goods bought and sold.  In a survey of 1382AD there were 46 recorded burgage tenements.

The plan to the right shows the relative location of the original agricultural village, the borough or town with its wide High Street and the Bishop’s residence or castle.

We know that the Bishop had a residence in the town which became known as Stockton Castle.  Archaeological excavations in the 1960s in advance of construction of the Swallow Hotel and multi-storey car park recovered evidence of high status Norman stonework dating from 1150-1170AD.  These stones would have been part of a high status hall.   King John stayed here in 1200AD, 1210AD and 1212AD.   The Bishop’s Hall was rebuilt in 1316AD and a moat was dug around it.  The site is described as a castle from this period onward.

During the English Civil Wars of the mid 17th century the castle was held by Scottish forces on behalf of Parliament, but in 1647 the House of Commons gave the order that Stockton Castle be ‘made untenable and the garrison disgarrisoned.  It was destroyed shortly afterwards.

In the 1660s the town was described as having only houses of thatch and timber and the impression is of a dilapidated medieval town. However from about 1680 to 1710 there was a major rebuilding of the houses of Stockton using brick and tiles and quite probably stone salvaged from the castle as is supposed to be the case in Finkle Street.

Stockton boomed as a commercial centre in the 18th century and the buildings reflect this. Numbers 28-29 Silver Street are typical small 18th century houses, although now heavily re-built.

The novelty of using brick is shown by the decorative string course above the first floor windows and at eaves level.

On a grander scale, buildings such as 16 Church Road represent high status town houses built for wealthy merchants and other notable townsfolk. This example is built in the symmetrical style of the 18th century and is highly decorated with an elaborate doorcase and heavily dressed first floor windows which lit the more social rooms of the building. 

The servants would have been accommodated in rooms in the roof or at the back of the house and would have used a separate side or rear entrance. 

Notable public buildings were added to the town at this time including the Town House (now the Town Hall) in 1735.  The parish church was also completely rebuilt in this period.

The early 19th century saw a continuation of the 18th century prosperity but as the century passed Stockton became increasingly industrialised with the development of the railways, local ironworks and foundries, shipyards and a variety of other industries. This led to an increase in population and more intensive use of properties in the town centre to house the growing population.

Purpose built buildings start to appear to house specific needs such as banks, public houses and department stores.

Nineteenth century buildings were more highly decorated and different coloured brick was often used to pick out detail or to add decorative bands to buildings.  Advances in transport meant that slate could be imported relatively cheaply and this material became widely used for roofing rather than clay pantiles.

The 20th century started with a commercial exuberance in Stockton as buildings were constructed with ever more elaborate fronts and the designs of the Art Nouveau movement began to be translated into mass architecture.

This phase of Edwardian extravagance came to a shocking halt with the First World War. After the First World War we see the development of new styles based on Art Deco and a more functional approach to architecture.  The Globe Theatre at the northern end of the High Street is a good example of this.

In 2009 Tees Archaeology began to work with local volunteers to create a snapshot in time of the buildings in the historic town centre.  Teams of volunteers photographed the buildings of the town on a street-by-street basis.  They then carried out research using historic maps, local directories and written histories to reveal more about the origin of each building and its past uses.

The project finished in Autumn 2013.  Highlights of the project included a dayschool held at Arc in 2012 with local broadcaster John Grundy providing the keynote speech and acting as chair for the day. In Spring 2014 we published a booklet about the historic buildings of the town.

Further Information

Further information in relation to the history of Stockton-on-Tees can be found in on the resources page including a booklet dedicated to the businesses of Stockton-on-Tees.

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About Tees Archaeology

Tees Archaeology provides archaeological services to the people and local authorities of Hartlepool and Stockton-on-Tees.

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