The story of the commute is a dual story of the development of transport and cash. In my family, until around 1900, you had to live in walking distance of work.

If you were an agricultural labourer, you usually got a cottage on the farm you worked on. If you were a navvy, you lived in huts supplied by the organisation doing the construction. If you were a labourer in the steelworks or a glassworks, you lived near the factory. If your were a miner you lived next to the minehead. If you were a Tyne keelman in Newcastle upon Tyne, you lived at North Shore, on the quayside. Mariners seemed to have more choice!

Sometimes your home was startlingly near to heavy industry. In the 1890s, William Blewitt and Harriet Harper lived in Cleveland Street, Darlington, just a few doors away from their daughter Mary and her husband Hugh. Cleveland Street had houses on only one side of the road. William and Hugh, and their sons still living with them, just had to cross the road to go to work.

Map of Cleveland Street. Houses to the south, 3 large steel and iron works to the north. Railway lines to east and west.
Cleveland Street, Darlington — houses on the south side, 3 steelworks on the north

In 1911, my great-great-grandmother, Sarah Hesslewood (married name Clubley), born in rural Kirkburn in the East Riding of Yorkshire, was living with her unmarried son at the delightfully named Forest Place, Cargo Fleet. Forest Place was actually inside the steelworks — it was the housing built for supervisory staff at Cargo Fleet.

"Cargo Fleet Iron Works in its heyday in the 1930s." Offices in foreground. Row of houses to the right of, and behin the offices. River behind steelworks.
Cargo Fleet Steel Works — Forest Place to the right of the offices

Occasionally, you come across someone who had a longer walk, usually an adult child still living with their parents. In 1865, 17 year old Jeptha Bowyer was working as an ostler at the Plumbers’ Arms Inn, Denston, and was walking back home to Stradishall when he had a fight with 11 year old Solomon Simpson. There seems to have been some history between these two, but the bruising on Solomon’s face led to Jepthah being convicted of assault and fined 6d with 8s costs. This was a walk of 2 km.

Petty Sessions, Thursday January 19. Court report (summary in text). Map of walk home and view of the bridge where the incident took place.
Jeptha’s commute, 1865

Cargo Fleet Iron Works was where most of the men of my Middlesbrough family worked, either for all or some of their working life, and one of the women. My mother worked as a secretary in the offices show in the aerial photo above. My father worked there immediately after marrying my mother. My maternal grandfather, both maternal great-grandfathers, and one of my maternal great-great-grandfathers, plus numerous uncles and cousins, all worked at Cargo Fleet, which linked the two industrial townships of Cargo Fleet and North Ormesby, to the west of Middlesbrough.

My grandfather, Albert Shields, worked there for his entire working life, first as a labourer, then as a crane driver, operating the crane that poured the molten steel. This was a job you wanted a teetotaller on. After ill-health prevented him from doing this job, he worked there as a messenger in the Electrical Shop at Cargo Fleet. But where did he live during this working life?

Albert worked at the same place from leaving school in 1903 until his death in 1957. But over those years he moved further and further from the steelworks. When he left North Ormesby in 1933 to go and live on a new council estate out of town, he was just within walking distance, but bicycles were highly affordable by this point, and made greater distances achievable. A motorised bus service also became available and was the more usual means of transport when he moved further out in 1949, to another new estate, beyond reasonable daily walking distance. He lived only one year in his final home, far away from Cargo Fleet on the western side of Middlesbrough. This was a distance only achievable by motorised transport and was actually a rather inconvenient journey, involving a long walk to the bus stop and changes of bus, though works buses were sometimes available as an alternative. Albert Fraser did not live to see the next development of transport, which was the purchase of a car in 1960.

Over the years, it became possible to move away from the dust and smell of heavy industry. But, despite mechanical transport alternatives, the commute took up more time and required more organisation.