Updated: Feb 18, 2021
By Neville and Margaret Davies
Our trail is not intended to be the history of the town and nor is it a guide to modern day North Shields. It is a self-guided walk of about 2 miles focussing mainly on the riverside where the town began. On the way we will indicate some of the points of historical interest.
North Shields is on the north bank of the River Tyne about 1 mile inland, the main town being on a plateau about 100 feet above the river. A steep bank separates it from the narrow strip of land beside the river. The origins of the town are on this riverside strip which is barely one hundred yards wide. In the 13th century the Prior of Tynemouth established a small fishing settlement where the Pow Burn entered the river near the present Fish Quay. This is the burn which flows through the lakes in Northumberland Park and now through an underground culvert to the Tyne. The initial purpose of the fishing settlement was to supply fish to the Priory. The fishermen’s huts were called sheels (or scheles or shiels, various spellings exist) and these eventually gave rise to the name of the town. ‘North’ was added to distinguish it from a similar settlement on the south bank.
We begin at theat the south end of Howard Street. This 1806 building was originally the library of the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society and was for many years the headquarters of the Stag Line shipping company. Their stag motif can still be seen on the gable end of the building facing the river. In front of the building there is a ship’s anchor displayed as a memorial to all those lost at sea.
The plaza commands an excellent view of the quayside area with the ferry landing to the right and the river mouth and open sea to the left. Below you is the narrow strip of riverside land on which North Shields developed. The riverbank was a series of separate but adjacent quays, as many as thirty having been identified as existing along the approximately 1 mile between the present ferry landing and Fish Quay areas. The steep bank was completely covered with terraced settlements, devoid of water or sanitation, accessed by numerous staircases. Several of these staircases still exist and we will use 2 of them on this trail. The many industries which developed along the riverside over the years included fishing, salt making, baking, brewing, tanning, ship building and coal exporting.
The road which runs more or less parallel to the river still has 6 different names along its short length reflecting the originally distinct areas. At one time, along this stretch, there were more than a hundred inns and taverns, many of which were only a room of a house. You can also see the many modern apartments which now exist along parts of the quayside as the area regenerates.
We set off by walking along Tyne Street towards the sea. On the left we soon reach Dockwray Square, now called Laurel Park, a well laid-out grassy park with Victorian style iron railings. The square is built on 3 sides with the south side open towards the river. The square was constructed on farmland at the top of the bank in 1736 providing elegant housing for wealthy ship owners and other business people to move out of the crowded riverside area. These grand houses eventually fell into disrepair and were demolished in 1956, soon to be replaced by grim 1960s flats. These were short lived and the 1980s saw the construction of pleasant modern housing in their place. In the centre of the square, in typical pose, stands a statue of Stan Laurel of Laurel and Hardy fame. Stan was born in Cumbria but lived in Dockwray Square as a boy when his father was a theatre manager in the town.
Immediately after Laurel Park on the other side of the road is the High Light, a white four-storey square tower built in 1808. The seaward side is windowless and plain apart from the lantern stage at the top. If you stand in front of the seaward side of the building, respecting the fact that it is now a private residence, and look directly over a similar building, the Low Light, down on the quayside your line of sight is exactly between the lighthouses on the ends of the piers. This is the deep water entrance to the river. The piers, more accurately breakwaters, are a hundred years younger than the High and Low Lights. In the days before the piers were built, the High and Low Lights were an essential navigational aid for shipping entering the river. It guided ships into the deep water channel avoiding the treacherous rocks, The Black Middens, on the north bank of the river entrance.
On the opposite side of the road is the Old High Light built in 1727 for the same navigational purpose. This lines up with a building at Clifford’s Fort which we will visit later but became obsolete when the course of the river changed.
Continuing along Tyne Street we are faced by a pub/bistro called HDYD (How Do You Do). To the right of HDYD is a staircase leading down to the Fish Quay. At the bottom of the stairs we are in the area where North Shields originated. Directly opposite you is the main entrance to the Fish Quay. This is open to the public but if the main gates are closed there is a pedestrian entrance close to the Low Light which you can now see towering above you. Fish landed at the Quay are sold at wholesale auctions held every Monday to Friday at 7.30am. There is a public viewing area for anyone wishing to observe.
To your left is the site of Clifford’s Fort, an area worth exploring. This was constructed in the 1670s to defend the entrance to the river during the Anglo-Dutch Wars. In 1881 the fort, no longer needed for defensive guns, was developed for other military marine purposes. Over the centuries the site has housed many different buildings including, for much of the 20th century, the fish processing facilities associated with the Fish Quay.
Several of the buildings, including the smokehouses to the north of the site, have been restored and are now used by small businesses. The Fishermen’s Mission, providing emergency and welfare support to fishermen and their families, is located here. Buildings within the fort area include the Low Light and the Old Low Light which is now a heritage centre. It’s this Old Low Light building, with its now black gable end facing the sea, which lines up with the Old High Light we passed at the top of the bank.
Between the eastern walls of the fort and the river mouth is a memorial to those who have been lost at sea. It depicts a fisherman sitting in reflective mood looking out to sea and is called Fiddler’s Green, the name seafarers give to the afterlife for mariners and fishermen, a kind of heaven for seafarers. The statue is modern (2017) but it is modelled on a much older photograph taken on the Fish Quay by local photographer, the late Harry Hann.
Next to the site of the fort, away from the river, is a pub now known as The Staith. This was formerly called the New Dolphin referring not to the marine mammal of that name but to the 3-legged mooring points which used to be used in the Tyne. A model of such a dolphin, designed as part of an art project at John Spence School, stands outside the pub. The bronze cormorant on the top was sculpted in the Fine Art Department of Northumbria University. Across the road from the Staith is the Irvine Building, one of the major fish processing factories associated with the Fish Quay. This has been converted to apartments with a restaurant on the ground floor.
From here we take a short diversion along the road away from the river to the base of Tanners Bank, named after tanneries on it – the kind of tannery which makes leather not the kind that gives you a suntan! After passing the ship’s chandlers and the garage, the grey painted building on the right, now a private residence, is a former stable. Horses stabled here were used to pull fish carts up the steep bank to the road at the top. You can still see the beam at the front which was used to lift hay to the first floor loft from where it was fed into the mangers of the stables below.
Retracing our steps towards the river we take a sharp right turn into Brewhouse Bank just before the Irvine Building. On your right is the Low Lights Tavern, the oldest pub in North Shields, believed to have been an alehouse continuously for over four hundred years. It is now well known locally for its home cooking, real ale and live performances.
Continue up the steep bank. Take the first fork left and walk along the straight flat road for a few hundred yards until you pass a mini roundabout. The red brick building on your right is the former Post Office. Next is the old Town Hall designed by John Dobson. It included the Borough Treasurer’s Office, the Magistrates Court and the Police Station. It now houses The Exchange, a thriving cultural Arts Centre. Prior to 1974 the Local Authority for this area was the County Borough of Tynemouth which, despite its name, was administered from these offices in North Shields. On the opposite corner of this crossroads is the former town library, now a Business Development Office.
We turn left at this crossroads into Howard Street and then right into Union Street with the Magnesia Bank pub on your right. The housing on your left at first appears to be a low level modern development but closer inspection when you reach the iron gates reveals an imaginative and attractive recreation of living on the steep riverside bank. A pleasant stepped walkway through the development leads down to the quayside level but unfortunately for us the gates restrict access to residents only. This spectacular development is best appreciated from the road below as we will soon see.
Straight ahead of us at the end of this short street is a set of steps. At the top of the steps go left and follow the road as it turns right, revealing another commanding view over the river. When the road turns right again go straight on, down the steps to Borough Road. On the left as we descend are the remains of St Peter’s Church and School. The church, known as the fishermen’s church, was built in 1862 and the school added later. The whole structure was demolished in 1936.
Turning left at the bottom of the steps we can see on the right hand side the old Customs House. This was originally a Sailors’ Home as the image visible on the stonework above the main door testifies. It continues around the corner into New Quay from where the ferry to South Shields operates. The elegant stone-faced buildings facing the river were built in the early 19th century when the Duke of Northumberland cleared the area to build a new quay and market place. They included a hotel, post office, customs office and sailors’ home. The facades were retained when they were converted into apartments. On the west side of this square, by the bus turning circle, is the 1871 warehouse of the High Brewery which existed on this site.
In 1890 High Brewery was one of 5 breweries which formed Newcastle Breweries Ltd, later to become the famous S & N Breweries.
Next door are 2 new apartment blocks which are part of the Smiths Dock regeneration programme. Note how the silhouettes of these blocks mimic the smokehouses in the Fish Quay area. There was an electric tram service from this area to the Links at Whitley Bay passing through North Shields, Tynemouth and Cullercoats. The service was discontinued in 1931.
As our trail approaches its end we head eastwards along Clive Street. Looking up to your left you can see the modern version of bank-side living which we saw from above earlier on. On the right we can see the Prince of Wales pub with a Wooden Doll standing proudly outside. A Wooden Doll, or Dollie or Dolly, is the carved figure of a buxom female often used as the figurehead on the prow of sailing vessels. In folklore it was considered unlucky to have a woman aboard a ship but a female figure looking down at the sea was considered to have a calming effect on the waves.
Immediately before the pub one of the original staircases on the bank takes us back to our starting point at the Stag Building.