North Shields

Medieval North  ‘Sheels’

North Shields is situated on the north side of the Tyne close to the mouth of the river and just upstream from the town of Tynemouth itself. It is linked to South Shields across the river by means of a ferry. Historically part of Tynemouth, North Shields is the site of the famous fish quay and has much character with many houses of Georgian origin. It also is the terminus of sea ferry cruises to the port of Amsterdam.

View of North Shields from South Shields
View of North Shields from South Shields : David Simpson

As at South Shields, the name ‘Shields’ or ‘Sheels’ derives from an Anglo-Saxon word for a shelter and refers to fishermen’s huts that once stood in the neighbourhood. There were initially three of these huts near the mouth of a little stream called the Pow Burn (now a conduit) that entered the Tyne where North Shields Fish Quay is located today. Situated close to a small wharf, the huts were recorded in existence by the thirteenth century but it is not known when they were first built.

Germanus the Prior of Tynemouth began the establishment of the port at ‘Sheels’ and fishermen were settled there who were provided with boats on the understanding they supplied fish to the priory. A little port of twenty houses, each with its own quay soon developed. Vessels were loaded with coal at the mouth of the Pow Burn while hides of leather were also exported and wine and wool imported.

Newcastle versus North Shields

As at Gateshead and South Shields, the development of port facilities along the Tyne in the medieval era was challenged by the powerful merchants of Newcastle upon Tyne who considered the development of port facilities on the Tyne to be their right alone.

In 1267, under the leadership of the Newcastle mayor, Nicholas Scot, the Newcastle burgesses descended on North Shields. The Tynemouth monks were beaten and the houses of the fishermen set alight along with neighbouring mills. To make their point about ownership the burgesses then made off with a vessel laden with coal.

An official at St Albans Abbey (which owned Tynemouth Priory and North Shields) were outraged, describing the aggressors as ‘Satan’s satellites of Newcastle-upon-Tyne’ and 149 persons were summoned to pay for the damage. It seems that a settlement was privately agreed and the little port was re-established at North Shields.

By 1292 there were around a hundred houses at Shields and this had a detrimental effect on Newcastle’s trade. In 1290 the matter came to the attention of the king who could directly profit from the Newcastle trade but not from the trade of the prior. The Prior of Tynemouth was charged with illegally receiving rent from his busy and growing port at Shields by reaping the rich rewards of due payment from brewers, fishers and bakers. Although the prior attempted to justify his rights on the basis of a charter sealed by Richard I in earlier times, judgment fell in the king’s favour as it was clear the developments at Shields went beyond the simple means of providing fish for Tynemouth Priory. The loading and unloading of ships was then declared illegal at Shields and the port was shut down.

Shields becomes North Shields

As time passed, ‘Shields’ had begun actively trading as a port again in around 1390. It was about this time that it came to be called ‘North Shields’ rather than ‘Shields’ to distinguish it from the other Shields across the river, the town of South Shields that belonged to the Prior of Durham Cathedral. Again ships began loading and unloading and staiths were constructed and then brew houses and bake houses opened that all created wealth for Tynemouth Priory.

In the early 1400s Newcastle launched legal challenges against North and South Shields but the monks persisted in the development of the port and even constructed yares (fish traps) across the river for catching salmon. This obstructed the way for Newcastle-bound vessels. Yet King Henry VI confirmed the Tyne trading rights of Tynemouth Prior in 1446 much to the anger of the Newcastle merchants.

Salt and Assault

Tensions continued throughout the century but it was not until 1530 that the law came down on the side of Newcastle, confirming Newcastle’s right to control the trade of the Tyne. North and South Shields only held on to the right to develop the manufacture of salt and were also permitted to trade in fish and wine. It hit North Shields hard and subsequent decades describe houses falling into decay and rents falling. Rent incentives were instigated to attempt to revive the town but there was a major setback in 1604 when plague ravaged North Shields.

Salt making became an increasingly important trade at both Shields north and south of the river creating noxious fumes from the steam of the huge salt pans. At North Shield the pans were situated on the riverside at the eastern and western ends of the town. Although Newcastle attempted to challenge the growth of the alehouses and brewing that grew in association with the growing population of salt workers, the salt trade thrived and the brewing continued too.

By the 1600s the Newcastle Hostmen, the successors to the earlier burgesses made Newcastle more powerful than ever in its dominance of the Tyne. The Hostmen were responsible for dredging the river to aid the navigation of ships but allowed the Tyne to silt up around Shields area restricting the activities of the rival port. The building and repairing of ships on the Tyne was also legally confined to Newcastle forcing many vessels to head upstream to that town.

Enforcement of Newcastle’s rights with regard to trade on the Tyne was sometimes brutal. A North Shields shipwright who was not a freeman of Newcastle was imprisoned and his wife beaten to death by carpenters accompanied by sergeants from Newcastle who came to the mouth of the Tyne. During the Civil War and Commonwealth era Newcastle’s position was weakened slightly and in time market forces and the steady increase in the size of ships made North Shields an ever more viable port.

The Riverside Town

The 1700s saw greater expansion of North Shields and even the commencement of shipbuilding here. In the early 1700s North Shields was still largely confined to a single riverside street or its immediate vicinity with some periphery houses clustered on the sloping bank to the north. The main street stretched along the line of present day Clive Street – Liddle Street – Bell Street towards the present fish quay at the eastern end. It was an overcrowded, lively and often insanitary place.

Today much of the north side of Clive Street is dominated by a bare grassy bank that ascends from the river, with the south side of the street being the home to modern flats. In Liddle Street port of Tyne warehouses can be seen on the river side of the street. Further east into Bell Street towards the fish quay are pleasant easting place with a focus on fish and great views across the Tyne.

Fish Quay : The Low Lights and High Lights

The Fish Quay is the best place to explore the story of the port of North Shields. It is home to one of two prominent towers that were ‘leading’ ‘lights’ for guiding ships away from the dangerous Black Middens rocks at Tynemouth and the treacherous Shields Bar at the mouth of the Tyne.

The more prominent, white-painted tower on the fish quay is called the ‘New Low Light’ (or Fish Quay Low Lighthouse). Built around 1807 it was first lit in 1810 and was in operation until decommissioned in the 1990s. Ships entering the Tyne would line up this ‘New Low Light’ with the ‘New High Light’ (or Fish Quay ‘High’ Lighthouse) which is higher up the river bank to the west of the fish quay in Tyne Street near Dockwray Square.

New and Old High Lights (left) and New Low Light (right) with Tynemouth Priory and Collingwood Monument in the distance. Photographed from the Shields Ferry. Photo David Simpson
New and Old High Lights (left) and New Low Light (right) with Tynemouth Priory and Collingwood Monument in the distance. Photographed from the Shields Ferry. Photo David Simpson

North Shields Fish Quay – and we hope this isn’t too confusing – is also home to the ‘Old Low Light’ which is only metres away from the ‘New Low Light’. The Old Low Light building is now a fascinating museum dedicated to maritime heritage and the history of the port of North Shields. Though it was originally painted white, it is now painted pale blue with a black façade facing out to the river to avoid confusion with its nearby companion.

Ships once lined this up with the ‘Old High Light’ a tower now called Trinity Buildings that is situated up the bank on the corner of Tyne Street and Beacon Street. This one is still painted white but is not as prominent as the New High Light further along Tyne Street to the west near Dockwray Square. The old lights were built in 1727 and initially lit by three tallow candles and later by oil lamps. Changes in the course of the river channel around 1805 rendered them useless and necessitated their replacement with the new lights.

There had been guiding light towers at North Shields in earlier times with the first pair being built in during the reign of Henry VIII. This was at the time of the Dissolution of the Monasteries and permission was given to use stone from the dissolved Blackfriars friary in Newcastle for use in their construction.

Clifford’s Tower

Part of the North Shields Fish Quay is surrounded by the moat of Clifford’s Fort which was constructed in 1672 for defensive purposes during the Anglo-Dutch wars. The fort was a gun battery and supplemented the defences at Tynemouth Castle. It was named from and MP and statesman called Lord Thomas Clifford. The walls of the fort can still be seen, complete with ports and recesses for guns. There had been an earlier fort on the site in the 1640s but it was destroyed during the Civil War.

Dockwray Square and Stan Laurel

Dockwray Square up bank to the west of the Fish Quay is centred upon a small park and was constructed in 1763 by Thomas Dockwray of Stamfordham in Northumberland. Wealthy ship owners given the opportunity to live away from the crowded riverside town were amongst the residents. The houses were poorly supplied with water however and over time they became run down with better residential options in other new parts of the town. The houses in the square were eventually demolished in 1956 and replaced in 1963 with typically grim 1960s flats that surrounded the square.

Short-lived, these flats were also subsequently demolished and replaced in the 1980s by elegant modern houses that surround ‘Laurel Park’. The park is of course named from the famous comedian Stan Laurel (1890-1965) of Laurel and Hardy fame whose statue stands at the centre of the park. Laurel, who was born in Ulverston, Cumbria lived at Number 8 Dockwray Square from 1897 to 1901.

North Shields’ Georgian New Town

The creation of Dockwray Square in 1763 was one of the first hints that the old riverside town and port of North Shields could be replaced by a new town on the spacious open country up the bank from the river. In the later 1700s this new town developed giving an opportunity for the middle classes who had made their wealth from the port to move away from the crowded riverside.

One of the first new developments was however on the riverside itself. In 1770, the Market Place or New Quay at the west end of the little town was developed by the architect David Stephenson and his row of fine Georgian ashlar houses (near the ferry landing) can still be seen today.

New Quay North Shields
New Quay North Shields. Photo © David Simpson

There are many other Georgian houses of this kind in the upper part of the present town away from the river bank. Here the new town emerged and rapidly expanded on the previously undeveloped gorse and grass land to the north. Most of the extensive developments took place between the late 1760s and 1827 and probably inspired the famed North East architect, John Dobson who was born in the town (at the Pineapple Inn) in 1787 and lived his formative years as the town began to grow.

A series of new thoroughfares led up from the riverside into the new town with a notable example being Howard Street. Here there are still many Georgian houses interspersed with some modern ones that stay in keeping with the general feel of the street.

Howard Street culminates in the extensive Northumberland Square. This square, centred upon a tree-lined park is slightly smaller than Dockwray Square but was a more successful development. It retains its charming original Georgian/Regency era houses on three sides. A fourth side is partly bordered but not intrusively so by a more modern library-cum-council services building and the neighbouring very subtle entrance to the Beacon Shopping Centre.

A little to the north of the square is the attractive church of Christ Church with its square tower. At first glance it looks medieval but dates to 1791 on the site of Robert trollope’s earlie church of the 1660s. In the street opposite the church is the wondrous Keel Row bookstore selling used books.

Royal Quays

Returning to the riverside we have to imagine times past when the Tyne at North Shields would have been a sea of sailing ships in days long gone and just as busy in later times when iron ships first emerged. Ships can still occasionally be seen coming and going from Tyne Dock to the south and smaller craft from the Royal Quays Marina.

The Royal Quays area of North Shields lies upstream along Tyne to the south of North Shields centre. So named in 1990 and developed from thereon, here the focus is mostly on leisure as the site of the Royal Quays Outlet Centre for retail, a hotel, a bowling centre, gym and the Wet and Wild Water Park. This area known as Coble Dene was once a mass of dockside railways and siding leading to the Albert Edward Dock of 1884.

It was here that the busy port activities of North Shields and the Port of Tyne were focused from the late 19th century and into much of the twentieth century. The dock itself is now the Royal Quays Marina with its mass of masts representing a more sedate era in the history of North Shields. Close by is the DFDS terminal for cruise ships to Amsterdam where many visitors to the region from foreign parts get their first taste of the region.

Sea Port in Song

Before leaving North Shields and its rich maritime heritage it seems fitting to recall some of the songs of the sea associated with the seafarers of the Tyne in times since past. Such folk songs of old have a flavour unique to Tyneside and often recall the hardship and dangers of those who resided in the coastal areas of the region.

Shipwrecks and the associated loss of life was a common event along the region’s coast and a particular hazard at the entrance to the River Tyne. Another perilous problem was the threat from the press gangs. Tyneside suffered particularly badly from the Press Gangs, because of its large community of seamen and its reputation for having skilled boatmen such as the keelmen of Newcastle upon Tyne.

During the French Wars at the end of the eighteenth century the towns of North Shields and South Shields would regularly fall prey to press gang raids that were once a common occurrence on the North East. The gangs were often determined to get their men and impress them into naval service.

In one incident in North Shields in 1796, 250 mechanics and seamen were pressed into service during a raid in which the town was cordoned off by troops. One of the naval vessels involved in Press Gang raids such as this was ‘The Peggy’ remembered in the name of Peggy’s Hole near the North Shields Fish Quay.

The Tyneside folk song ‘Here’s the Tender Coming’ recalls the inherent fear of press gang raids:

Here’s the Tender comin’,
Pressing all the men;
Oh dear hinny, what shall we dee then:
Here’s the tender comin’,
Off at Shields Bar
Here’s the tender comin’,
Full of men o’ war.

They will ship yer foreign,
that is what it means
Here’s the tender comin’,
full of Red Marines.

So hide me canny Geordie,
hide yorsel’ away,
Wait until the frigate makes for Druridge Bay,
If they tyek yer Geordie,
whes te’ win wor breed ?
Me and little Jacky
would better off be deed.

Press Gangs were greatly feared on Tyneside, as once a man had been unwillingly pressed into naval service, his wife and family would have to rely on the local parish for support. Indeed the Poor rate in those districts of Tyneside with large communities of seamen and boatmen such as North Shields rapidly increased following Press Gang raids.

Because of their importance to the national coal industry the keelmen of were supposedly exempt from the Press Gangs but even they did not escape the naval raids. The residents of Sandgate, Newcastle, home of the keelmen community, lived in constant fear of the Press Gangs of a certain Captain Bover whose men operated on the Newcastle quayside.

Where has’t the been me canny hinny?
Where has’t the been me winsome man?
Aa’ve been te’ the norrard,
Cruising back and forrard
Aa’ve been te’ the norrard,
cruising sair and lang;
Aa’ve been te’ the norrard,
cruIsing back and forrard,
But daren’t come ashore
for fear of Bover and his gang

The Tyneside region has a rich heritage of songs with a nautical flavour, one of the most famous being ‘Dance Ti thy Daddy’ a traditional song dating to at least the 1820s. The  verse and chorus below is from the original traditional version followed by a chorus and verse written as for the theme tune for the 1970s BBC TV dram When the Boat Comes In which was set in the fictional North East town of Gallowshields and most filmed in North Shields.

Thou shalt have a fish and thou shalt have a fin
Thou shalt have a codlin when the boat comes in
Thou shalt have haddock baked in a pan

Dance to your Daddy, my little laddie
Dance to your Daddy, my little man

Come here me little Jacky, now I’ve smok’d me backy
Let’s hev a bit o’ cracky, till the boat comes in.

Dance ti’ thy daddy, Sing ti’ thy mammy,
Dance ti’ thy daddy, ti’ thy mammy sing,
Dance ti’ thy daddy, Ti’ thy mammy sing

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