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 fisherman’s huts, sheds or shelters on the south side of the Tyne. It is not known when South Shields acquired the name.
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 pport. 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.
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.
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”.
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 Shields. In 1303 King Edward III also supported Newcastle banning the loading and unloading of ships by the Priors of Durham at South Shields. 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 separate ports. 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.
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.
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 wa 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 19th and early 20th century.
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.
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. One inconsolable child whose mother was killed in the raid was found wandering the streets in her night clothes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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 scenres and Ralph Hedley’s portrait of lifeboat designer William Wouldhave at work.
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 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.
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, Kirkpatrick worked with donkeys as a young lad on the beach in the town.
In 1910 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 frontline 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.