I’ve always regarded Teessiders as a welcoming bunch, especially to people who come here from overseas. Perhaps this is because of our own heritage. Let’s not be shy about it. Let’s shout it from the rafters: “We are Teessiders – We are all immigrants!!”
Maybe this history gives us a better insight that most. Be they from Ireland, Scotland, Wales, Poland, Pakistan, Italy, India, Hungary, Ivory Coast, Somalia [the first Somali community was present in Middlesbrough in 1880’s] Iran, Iraq or elsewhere, all of our forbears have come from near and far to come to Teesside. Some of our ancestors have come here from impoverished and sometimes dangerous conditions in an attempt to secure a better life by working in our burgeoning industries. This dates all the way back to the days the coal was brought to the staithes at Port Darlington, the hard graft in the Salt Works, to the firing of the first furnaces of the Infant Hercules’s in the Iron and Steel revolution, and then again with the incredible development of the chemical industries.
The story of Middlesbrough and Teesside is a story of immigration. This is something we should be proud of. In Middlesbrough alone we have: 55 nationalities and multiple faiths and languages all within a population of under 150,000.
We’ve a story to tell. Let’s celebrate it. Like many people, I’ve been impressed with the heritage experiences such as the “Yorvik Centre” and “The Oxford Story” both absolutely fascinating in their different ways: One a story of ancient settlement and the other of great scholarly achievement and the battle of Town and Gown. We can learn from these experiences.
What about the Middlesbrough story? Ours is a story of immigration. What’s the New York welcome at the Statue of Liberty or is it Ellis Island?: “Bring me your huddled masses etc”. And we can’t overlook the Stockton story; an intrinsic part upon thousands of people have enjoyed Craig Hornby’s film “A Century In A Stone” about Estons Ironstone mining heritage. These are just some aspects of our fantastically rich industrial heritage.
It would be terrific to see these events expressed in a heritage experiences. Teesside’s story is right in the heart of the Industrial Revolution of wealth creation and much of it on the backs of many an immigrant worker, working and living in appalling conditions. The inter weaving of these key events of the Industrial Revolution, the workers themselves, where they came from and the conditions they endured in creating this wealth, are all parts of the same story.
It would complete the circle to be able to tell these stories and experience this history within a 21st Century virtual reality context. I’ve no doubt that our wonderful University could play a major role in creating such an experience.
I’ve often felt that unless we as a community understand our own heritage and culture and where in the world our forbears came from, then how on earth can we expect to have any understanding or gain any meaningful appreciation of anyone else’s heritage and culture?
Such a heritage centre and cultural experience could be a great tourist attraction as well as an educational resource. It could also be great fun. Part and parcel of that story is the celebration of our cultural diversity. It would be a permanent fixed tribute to all the men, women and children who made up our history.
By sharing and celebrating what we are and at the same time acknowledging some of the difficulties that many ethnic groups encounter on arrival on Teesside, be they Irish Catholics or Pakistani Muslims, we can all ensure determination not to revisit some of the ignorant prejudices that befell our ancestors, upon our latest arrivals.
Immigration works and we are the living proof.
Andy McDonald, Member of Parliament for Middlesbrough