A History of Stockton on Tees

By Tim Lambert

Early Stockton on Tees

Stockton began as a small village belonging to the Bishop of Durham. Sometime in the 13th century (the exact date is not known), the Bishop made the village of Stockton 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, Medieval Stockton On Tees was a small town with a population of only around 1,000. Stockton did not grow any larger in the 16th century.

In 1642 came the 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 from ever falling into royalists’ hands.

However, in the late 17th century, Stockton On Tees 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 sailmaking industry and a rope-making industry. Another industry in 18th century Stockton was brick making.


The port of Stockton 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 On Tees 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:

‘Stockton is finely situated and most beautifully laid out. The principal street is about 50 yards broad with a townhouse 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 On Tees as ‘a neat, well-built market town with a considerable trade.’ The first theater in Stockton opened in 1766 and the first stone bridge across the Tees was built in 1769.

Modern Stockton on Tees

Then from the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution changed Stockton from a small and quiet market town into a flourishing center of heavy industry.

From the late 18th century there was an ironworking 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 On Tees 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 the business now moved downriver 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 in Stockton improved during the 19th century. In 1820 an Act set up a body of men called Commissioners with responsibility for lighting and cleaning the streets. From 1822 Stockton-on-Tees was lit by gas. Preston Hall was built in 1825.

Furthermore, a hospital opened in Stockton in 1862. A public library opened in 1877.

Steam trams began running in the streets of Stockton On Tees 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 centuries Stockton On Tees 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’s town centre was rebuilt in the 1960s. The Green Dragon Museum opened as an art gallery in 1968. It was converted later. Fountain Shopping Mall opened in 2011.

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. In 2023 the population of Stockton On Tees was 197,000.