The priors of Tynemouth were not just pious clergymen, they were also almost like pirate kings and powerful overlords of the area. They spent much of their effort in securing revenue so they could live in the wealth they were accustomed to. So it was an obvious development that ways would be found to utilise and profit from the natural harbour where the Pow Burn meets the Tyne.
It was nearly 800 years ago, in 1225, that the Prior Germanus had three turf shields built on the sandy spit of land that is now Clifford’s Fort next to the Low Light. He also had a wharf erected on the west side of the Pow Burn, where the Irvin Building is now, and moved a small fleet of boats there. There was a salt marsh behind this land, at the bottom of Tanners Bank, which the Prior had drained. There were also plenty of coal deposits nearby that could now be shipped from here. Both the salt and the coal were owned by the Prior, but the official purpose of his industry was to house a fishing fleet that could supply the Priory and sell any surplus.
Ten years later, a row of shields rose up on the south side of the river with its own fledgling fishing fleet, and ten years after that, the Prior of Durham officially consented to a town charter for this settlement. It was from these sparks of secular enterprise that the two towns grew in tandem.
The early shield huts must have been basic and temporary, almost like a row of lean-to’s initially, protecting dwellers from an easterly wind, with a bit of stone walling to enclose a single room. You can see examples of fishermen’s shields in Scotland, but these are more robust, modern bothies, whereas the turf shields I imagine would have been more like the ‘turfbaers’ that people traditionally lived in in Iceland.
Building these simple lodges, essentially dugouts with sod roofs, was probably the most the Prior could get away with. A row of houses with a street, a boat yard, a bakehouse and a brewery, would represent the beginnings of an unincorporated town, which would bring the ire and indictment of the Newcastle merchants. After a few years though, it was futile to stop the settlement at North Shields expanding along to Union Road and up the Brewery Bank, making it into a real town.
There’s a remarkable story from this early time that has survived down the annals of folklore. When the population numbered around a thousand people living in around 200 houses, a fleet of six boats sailed as far as Iceland, by way of the Faroe Islands, and made it back in once piece. I would imagine this trip was repeated in the following summers.
Shields’ Growth Stifled
The inherent opposition from Newcastle put a cap on the extent to which the two Shields could flourish. In 1258, Newcastle banned the docking of any ships at South Shields. Nine years later, the keelmen of Newcastle set alight to North Shields, burned down the mill and confiscated the coal that was lying in harbour. These attacks and bitter recriminations were a constant theme for the next four hundred years, with the royally-backed Newcastle usually asserting its power. This enmity was famously detailed by North Shields brewer and merchant, Ralph Gardner, in England’s Grievance with the Coal Trade, a petition to Oliver Cromwell to curb Newcastle’s oppression.
So the fact that North Shields was always stifled by its up-river neighbour has meant that to this day it has remained true to what founded it, fishing. The fishing industry, though, is by its nature, permanently vulnerable to economics and the powers that be. Some things don’t change! Which is why in North Shields, it should always be protected and celebrated. If there’s one lesson from the history of Shields, it’s that if the fishing is thriving, the whole town benefits.
The Origin of North Shields and its Growth – William Garson (1926)
South Tyneside Council Archaeological Strategy (2004)
Photo credits: Roger Cornfoot – The Gut. Chris73/WikimediaCommons. British Library, Royal Mss. 2 B VII, folio 73. painting by Simon Dick, reproduced courtesy of University College Dublin