The Tarry Beck

The becks that started as small rivulets or springs in the surrounding moor land hills, cut their way through meadows and fields, meandering past leafy suburbs, then through more densely populated areas to eventually empty into the River Tees. The closer to the river these waterways ran, the more polluted they became until they were nothing but putrid open tidal drains confined within concrete walls servicing the jammed in terrace houses and the steel and chemical works.

As the appearance of these waterways changed, so did their names. Middle Beck, which passed the bottom of Granddad’s garden, became known to the locals downstream as ‘The Tarry Beck’. The Tarry was now a tidal waterway with steep concrete sides. We could climb down at low tide with the aid of horseshoe rungs embedded in the concrete. It was so fouled up with oil, tar and unknown chemicals, that when a twelve-year-old lad from North Ormesby stripped off and waded through the ooze to rescue an unfortunate dog that had fallen in and was stuck in the black mud, he was awarded a bravery medal by the RSPCA.

On foggy nights the air hung heavy with the smell of tar and you could feel the fumes burn your throat and lungs as you inhaled. During the long summer evenings, the sunsets were magnificent with the sky ablaze with red, orange and yellow from the airborne steelworks pollution.

The days were short in winter and it was often dark by the time we got home from school. After tea, our gang played around the streets in the dark. Every so often the sky would glow red as coke-oven doors were opened or molten steel and slag was poured into ladles in the nearby steel works. If it snowed, a crust of grey/black dirt and soot soon settled on the white surface.

The air, the becks and the river are now pretty clean. Salmon have been seen in the upper reaches of the Tees. Open fields and a few rusting deserted sheds replace the rows of coke ovens, blast furnaces and shipyards. Sterile housing estates, where the next-door neighbour is practically a stranger, stand in place of the old terraces. One single giant blast furnace remains, one of the biggest in Europe.

Thankfully since then new industries have been developed around Teesside to rejuvenate the area, along with the establishment of Middlesbrough University. Traditional industries, primarily steelmaking and chemical manufacture (Imperial Chemical Industries), have been replaced to a large extent by high technology activities, science development and service sector roles.

Gail Storm – ‘Dark Moon’  1957
Dark moon
Way up high up in the sky
Oh, tell me why, oh, tell me why
You’ve lost your splendour

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