Keystone Heads (Middlesbrough, possibly J.C. Adams, c. 1868)

Photograph by Rachel Deakin courtesy of Navigator North

Our followers from Middlesbrough have likely passed these stern heads hundreds of times at the newly-revamped Exchange Square next to the train station. They’re the decorative keystones from J.C. Adams’ (sadly-demolished) Royal Exchange building.

Much has been written about the Royal Exchange; its importance to the town and its demolition in 1985 after years of neglect. We’ll not dwell on it too much here. Instead we’ll focus on the heads themselves, orphaned from the building they once adorned.

The keystones visible on the Royal Exchange building in 1938 (photo from the Northern Echo)

Dropped keystones – like the ones shown in the image above – are vital to the structural integrity of an arch, and because of this importance they were often sculpted to represent solidity and dependability.

This is why we see the rather stately-looking bearded old men in so many of these stones (only one of the heads remaining in Exchange Square depicts a woman) – a Victorian emblem of stability for a new town striving for legitimacy on the national and world stage. The building was a symbol of the town and its trade, and with good reason; it was said that – during the late 19th century – the world’s steel prices were set within its walls.

Inside the Royal Exchange – the building is shown during the jubilee banquet (1888)

Each keystone has a symbolic value. You can notice cogs and tools on the brow of one head, representing the town’s industry. Another has ears of wheat sprouting from it to symbolise the bounty and plenty of trade.

Photographs by Val Jones

We see warriors’ helms (alluding to Britain’s naval power), forked beards and flowers blooming. They tell us a lot about how our town wanted to portray itself in the Victorian era.

For years the heads stood in fairly haphazard fashion – some hidden by weeds and bushes. In 2022 the square was renovated thanks to Historic England’s High Street Heritage Action Zone program and Middlesbrough Council, with the statue of Henry Bolckow cleaned and the heads restored and re-sited.

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