South Shields

South Shields Beginnings

Historically South Shields was part of an Anglo-Saxon district called Wirralshire – the name of the coastal land between the Tyne and Wear. South Shields has an Anglo-Saxon or medieval name referring to ‘Scheles’ – temporary fishermen’s huts, sheds or shelters on the south side of the Tyne. It is not known when South Shields acquired the name.

Shields Ferry viewed from South Shields
Shields Ferry viewed from South Shields © David Simpson

Anciently, South Shields was the site of a Roman fort and a Saxon monastery (see Roman and Saxon South Shields) but the name South Shields is not recorded until 1228 when the place is called ‘the Sheales upon the South’. It is then recorded as ‘Shelis’ in 1296, as ‘Suthshelis’ in 1313 and as ‘Le Shels’ in 1365. For most of its history South Shields was a fishing village belonging to the Priors of Durham Cathedral monastery.

South Shields, a port in Roman times, was a suitable site for a medieval port but Newcastle legally claimed control of trade on the Tyne and was protective of its status as Tyneside’s dominant port. Newcastle merchants resisted attempts to develop rival ports and were determined the ‘Sheales’ on both sides of the Tyne should remain nothing more than huts. (See also North Shields).

River Tyne looking downstream from South Shields
River Tyne looking upstream from South Shields © David Simpson

Restricting trade at the mouth of the Tyne was a big concern for Newcastle and in 1259 Newcastle made an order to the Priors of Durham that the people in South Shields could only bake or brew for themselves and not for visiting strangers.

Trading of course continued on both sides of the Tyne and intimidation was one means by which Newcastle dealt with the problem. In 1267 a mob of Newcastle merchants attacked the inhabitants over at North Shields and seized one of their ships.

View of South Shields from North Shields
View of South Shields from North Shields. St. Hilda’s church can be seen to the left and to the right of the picture are the ferry landing and Customs House © David Simpson

Another form of redress employed by Newcastle was petitioning the King to restrict trade at North and South Shields. This was put to the test in 1279 by which time the Prior of Tynemouth had developed a well-established small town at North Shields and the Prior of Durham a similar town at South Shields “where no town should stand”.

River Tyne at South Shields
River Tyne at South Shields © David Simpson

That year the King’s Justiciar Itinerant came out in favour of Newcastle. The holding of fairs, markets or selling of meat and drink was banned at both North and South Shields. In 1303 King Edward III also supported Newcastle banning the loading and unloading of ships by the Priors of Durham at South Shields. However, it would not end there and the battle against Newcastle’s supremacy on the Tyne continued well into the 1500s and beyond.

For centuries the whole tidal stretch of the Tyne was regarded as the port of Newcastle and it was not until 1848 that North and South Shields came to be officially recognised as ports that were separate from Newcastle. Customs houses were established at both places but the customs house at South Shields was subordinate to that at North Shields though its jurisdiction extended south to Souter Point which formed the border with that of Sunderland.

South Shields Old Town Hall
South Shields Old Town Hall © David Simpson

The Old New Town

In 1768 during the reign of George III South Shields, with its small chapel dedicated to St Hilda, was still little more than a long narrow street or track running alongside the Tyne. The street was adjoined by a collection of lanes and side roads and was bordered by hills of ballast created by the offloading of visiting ships.

South Shields was in need of major changes to cope with its continuous industrial growth and trade. In 1768 the Reverend Samuel Dennis and the Dean and Chapter of Durham (successors of the earlier Priors of Durham) obtained an Act of Parliament allowing them to undertake the development of eight acres of church land. Onto this land were moved the fairs and markets of South Shields. An extensive market place was built along with several new streets laid out in a grid iron pattern.

Market Place, South Shield
Market Place, South Shields © David Simpson

At the centre of the market place, a small square-shaped town hall was built (1768) by the architect John Wooler. Now the ‘Old Town Hall’, it can still be seen opposite St Hilda’s church. The new streets built in this vicinity included a new principal thoroughfare called King Street which was completed by 1826 during the reign of George IV.

In the 1850s the Town Hall and markets were purchased by the South Shields Corporation from the Durham Dean and Chapter. In the early 1900s a new town hall was built further to the south but King Street is still South Shields’ main commercial street, although it was rebuilt in the late nineteenth and early twentieth century.

St Hilda's church and Market Place, South Shields
St Hilda’s church and Market Place, South Shields © David Simpson

The Market Place at South Shields suffered from a particularly devastating bombing raid during the Second World War. On the night of October 2-3, 1941 the German Luftwaffe dropped bombs over the town which left 66 men, women and children dead and the market place “looking like the ruins of Ypres”, as one local journalist later described the scene. One inconsolable child whose mother was killed in the raid was found wandering the streets in her night clothes. The old town hall which took a direct hit remarkably survived as did St Hilda’s church but the devastation would have a long-lasting effect on the resilient community.

Customs House and Ferry

From the Templetown area near Tyne Dock, the Tyne flows northward before curving around the Lawe and heading east out into the sea. In this respect South Shields might be described as a headland bounded by the North Sea on one side and the Tyne on the other.

Customs House, South Shields
Old Customs House, South Shields © David Simpson

Central to the riverside area is the Old Customs House in the Mill Dam area. Until around 1816 Mill Dam was described as a sort of inland lake, but was was mostly filled in by that year for the building of houses and industrial development.

South Shields had received its own customs jurisdiction that was free from Newcastle in 1848 and its Customs House was constructed in 1864. In later years, having fallen out of use, it was restored in the 1980s. The Old Customs House is now a popular arts venue hosting a theatre, cinema and gallery.

Tyne Ferry
Tyne Ferry © David Simpson

Not far along the Tyne, upstream from the Old Customs House in the direction of Tyne Dock is an area of South Shields known as Holborn. This part of South Shields has a long association with the local Yemeni community whose first settlers came to the area in the 1890s. Members of this community worked as seamen in British merchant vessels often working in ships’ engine rooms.

Their presence was increasingly needed during World War One when scores of local merchant shipmen had joined the navy or army leaving openings for more Yemeni employment in South Shields.

During the war many members of South Shields’ Yemeni community lost their lives at sea working alongside fellow merchant seamen from South Shields. By the end of the war the community was some 3,000 strong but this had fallen to around 1,000 by the end of the Second World War. In 1977 the community received world media attention when the renowned champion boxer, Muhammad Ali, visited their local mosque for the blessing of his marriage.

Ferry Landing, South Shields
Ferry Landing, South Shields © David Simpson

Just downstream from the Old Customs House is the South Shields ferry terminal where there are regular ferry services across the Tyne to North Shields.

In days gone by North and South Shields were linked by passenger boats called scullers. During strong tides or gales passage could be difficult and could even result in loss of life. In 1829 a successful steam ferry service was introduced and this was followed by another rival service in 1848 which considerably improved the connection between the two places. The steam services provided a much safer ride.

Tyne Ferry, South Shields
Tyne Ferry, South Shields © David Simpson

Museum and town centre

Moving ‘inland’ from the South Shields ferry terminal we find the market place and Old Town Hall of 1768 along with St Hilda’s church on the probable site of an Anglo-Saxon monastery. Extending east from the market place is the now pedestrianised King Street, where notable buildings among the shop fronts are two former Victorian theatres standing side by side. East of the crossroads at the junction with Mile End Road and Fowler Street, King Street becomes Ocean Road which is also pedestrianised.

Ocean Road, South Shields
Ocean Road, South Shields looking towards Kings Street © David Simpson

Ocean Road is home to the South Shields Museum and Art Gallery occupying an impressive building designed by the architect John Wardle. Built in 1858-60 as the South Shields Mechanics Institute, this elegant pink-brick building of three bays became the free library in 1871. The library had included a museum but with the opening of a new library the building became the South Shields Museum and Art Gallery in 1976.

South Shields museum includes a number of interesting features and artefacts associated with South Shields including part of Jobling’s Jarrow Gibbet – not quite a tongue-twister – and a North Eastern Railway wall map from South Shields station which is made from ceramic tiles. This is in addition to the extensive collection of paintings which include a number of port and riverside scenes and Ralph Hedley’s portrait of lifeboat designer William Wouldhave at work.

South Shields Museum and Gallery
South Shields Museum and Gallery © David Simpson

Heading south 500 metres or so along Fowler Street we come into the busy Westoe Road home to the handsome South Shields Town Hall, with modern extensions to the east. It is best viewed from Westoe Road itself with the statue of Queen Victoria in its forecourt. The building, designed by E.E Fetch of London and dating from 1905-06 is rather grand and one of the best Edwardian public buildings in the region. It was described by the architectural historian Nickolaus Pevsner as “somewhat Frenchy” and this perfectly describes its architectural feel.

Town Hall, South Shields
Town Hall, South Shields © David Simpson

Man with the Donkey

Returning to Ocean Road in the centre of South Shields and close to the museum is a memorial by South Shields sculptor Robert Olley, featuring a man with a donkey. It rather surprisingly recalls one of Australia and New Zealand’s greatest heroes.

His name is John Simpson Kirkpatrick and he was born to Scottish parents in South Shields’ Bertram Street in 1892. One of eight children, Simpson Kirkpatrick worked with donkeys as a young lad on the beach in the town.

John Simpson Kirkpatrick,
John Simpson Kirkpatrick, South Shields © David Simpson

In 1910 Simpson Kirkpatrick deserted from the British navy while in port at Newcastle in New South Wales. He settled in Australia where he travelled widely. Under the name John Simpson (Simpson was his mother’s maiden name) he then enlisted in the British army perhaps as a means of returning to his home country.

As a member of the Anzac forces he took part in the campaign in the Gallipoli peninsula from April 1915 where he lost his life to Turkish sniper fire on May 19. His heroic efforts as an army stretcher-bearer commenced on the battlefield where, as he was carrying a wounded comrade, he spotted a donkey that he used to assist in the movement of the wounded.

Simpson subsequently returned again and again to the constant fire of the front line to rescue more than 300 wounded men, returning them to the beach for evacuation with the assistance of the donkeys. There have often been calls for him to be awarded the Victoria Cross, but this has never been forthcoming. His heroics are widely remembered in Australia. Perhaps his earlier desertion hindered the case for rewarding his heroics.

South Shields Industries

Salt Making

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 here – one of the industries for which the town was renowned.

Hand sculpture, South Shields riverside
Hand sculpture, South Shields riverside © David Simpson

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 of Teesside.

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.

Tyne riverside at South Shields
Tyne riverside at South Shields © David Simpson

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 glass works 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 soap works 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.

South Shields Harbour around 1820
South Shields Harbour around 1820

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 the 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.

River Tyne viewed from South Shields
River Tyne viewed from South Shields © David Simpson

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 and stood close to St Hilda’s church. The mine was the site of an explosion on June 28, 1839 in which 51 miners lost their lives.

The later collieries in the South Shields area were West Harton (1844-1969), Boldon (1869-1982), Marsden (1879-1968), Whitburn (1879-1968) and Westoe (1909-1993).

Roman-Saxon ShieldsShields and the Sea 

Villages : Westoe to Whitburn 

Bede’s Jarrow | Jarrow and Tyne Dock | Hebburn

Tynemouth North Shields | Wallsend 

Sunderland Monkwearmouth | Sunderland North



North East England History and Culture