In 1489, a Lionel Bell of South Shields obtained a 60 year lease from the Prior of Durham for making salt near St Hilda’s church. Here he built two large salt pans where sea water was heated with vast quantities of coal to produce salt. These were the earliest known salt pans in South Shields and may mark the beginning of salt making in South Shields – one of the industries for which the town was renowned.
Salt making was a major industry in South Shields for around 400 years and was one of the major factors in the growth of the town. By 1743 there were an incredible 200 salt pans in South Shields. The salt was supplied to towns along the entire eastern coast of England from South Shields to the Thames and was a highly sort commodity essential in the preservation of meat.
South Shields had in fact become the most important salt making town in Britain, having taken over that status from Greatham near Hartlepool, which had been the salt making ‘capital’ in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. There it was in fact the very earliest chemical industry ofTeesside.
For centuries the salt making gave South Shields a horrible, dense eye watering environment and the fumes from the huge salt pans could be seen clearly from Durham, and according to Daniel Defoe from the summit of the Cheviot many miles to the north. So bad was the local atmosphere, that the wife of a local parson compared South Shields to ‘Sodom and Gomorrah’. Fortunately South Shields is a much healthier place to live today.
Chemicals and Glass
As well as salt, the export of coal had become an important industry at South Shields by the early 1600s, with a fee paid to Newcastle of course. Glassmaking and chemical manufacturing became important in the late 1600s and early 1700s. Fishing was another older established industry concentrated to the east of the church with salt making dominating to the west.
During the 1700s, chemicals, glass making and shipbuilding began to eclipse salt making at South Shields. A glassworks was established by a John Cookson in 1690 and others would follow in subsequent centuries.
In the field of chemicals, an alum works was established in 1720 by Cookson whose successors were involved in making glue and sulphate of soda at the site. The works was later converted into a soapworks and then a glass works.
In 1822 a Carbonate of Soda Alkali works was established in the Templetown area. Managed by the Cookson family, the works was involved in making sulphate of copper (blue vitriol) along with iodine, bleaching powder and alum. The Cooksons closed the business in 1844 following a court action from a neighbouring farmer whose crops – in two fields – were destroyed by fumes and pollution. The Cooksons let out the works building to the Jarrow chemical company who found cleaner means of manufacturing so avoided court action.
Shipbuilding and Coal
South Shields shipbuilding was started in 1720 by a noted gentleman called Robert Wallis in Pilot Street. Newcastle Corporation, as fiercely protective of its shipbuilding as it had been of its coal trade, objected to the development and warned Wallis that his first ship would be seized and considered the property of Newcastle from the moment it was launched into the Tyne.
Undaunted, Wallis continued building of his ship and also constructed passenger ‘sculler’ boats in defiance of Newcastle. A legal challenge ensued but Wallis was the victor. He met no further opposition and certainly set things in motion. By the 1850s there were 14 shipyards operating in South Shields along with the associated industries like sail-making, anchor making, boiler making and iron foundries.
Coal mining was another industry for which South Shields was important. Collieries in the South Shields area included Templetown (1805-1826) and St Hilda’s (1810-1940) both founded by Simon Temple Jnr, a member of a local shipbuilding family who gave their name to the Templetown area of South Shields.
St Hilda’s Colliery, also known as Chapter Main, from its location on the Durham Dean and Chapter’s land stood close to St Hilda’s church and was the site of an explosion on June 28, 1839 in which 51 miners lost their lives.
The later collieries in South Shields were West Harton (1844-1969), Boldon (1869-1982), Marsden (1879-1968), Whitburn (1879-1968) and Westoe (1909-1993).