South Shields

Street Map

South Shields (or locally known just as Shields) is a coastal town in Tyne and Wear, England, located at the mouth of the River Tyne to Tyne Dock, and about 4.84 miles (7.79 km) downstream from Newcastle upon Tyne.

South Shields is close to the Frontiers of the Roman Empire World Heritage Site.

Historically within County Durham, the town has a population of 82,854, the second largest population centre in the Tyneside conurbation after Newcastle. It is part of the metropolitan borough of South Tyneside, which includes the riverside towns of Jarrow and Hebburn and the villages of Boldon, Cleadon and Whitburn.

The first evidence of a settlement within what is now the town of South Shields dates from pre-historic times, Stone Age arrow heads and an Iron Age round house have been discovered on the site of the Arbeia Roman fort. The Romans built a fort here around AD 160, and expanded it around AD 208 to help supply their soldiers along Hadrian’s Wall. Divisions living at the fort included Tigris bargemen (from Persia/modern day Iraq), Spanish/French soldiers, and Syrian archers/spearmen. The fort was abandoned as the Roman Empire declined in the 4th century AD, but was probably a royal residence of King Oswald of Northumbria, records show that his son Oswin was born within ‘Caer Urfa,’ by which name the fort is thought to be known after the Romans left. Many ruins still exist today, and some structures have been rebuilt as part of a modern museum.

In the 6th century, North East England was famed for its centre of religious enlightenment and education, with the holy isle of Lindisfarne, close to Bamburgh and important religious clergy: St Aidan, St Bede, St Cuthbert, St Hild (Hilda). This region was known as Bernicia with Bamburgh as its capital and later merging with Deira (Yorkshire) forming the powerful Kingdom of Northumbria.

In the 9th century Scandinavian peoples made Viking raids on the monasteries and towns all along the coast and later conquered the Saxon Kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia. It is said in local folklore that a Viking ship was wrecked at Herdsands in its attempts to disembark at a cove nearby.

The current town was founded in 1245 and developed as a fishing port. The name South Shields developed from the ‘Schele’ or ‘Shield’ which was a small dwelling used by fishermen. Salt-panning expanded as an industry in the 15th century, polluting the air and surrounding land. In 1644 During the English Civil War, Parliament’s Scottish Covenanter allies to aid their ongoing siege of Newcastle, captured the town (and its small fortification close to the site of the Roman fort but no longer standing) in a bid to control the mouth of the River Tyne and caused the Royalist force to flee south, leading to the Battle of Boldon Hill.

In the 19th century, coal mining, alkaline production and glass making led to a boom in the town. Population increased from 12,000 in 1801 to 75,000 by the 1860s (bolstered by economic migration from Ireland, Scotland and other parts of England. These industries played a part in creating wealth both regionally and nationally. In 1832, with the Great Reform Act, South Shields and Gateshead were given their own Member of Parliament and became boroughs, resulting in taxes being paid to the Government instead of the Bishops of Durham. The rapid growth in population brought on by the expansion of industry made sanitation a problem as evident by Cholera outbreaks and the building of the Cleadon water tower to combat the problem. In the 1850s ‘The Tyne Improvement Commission’ began to develop the river, dredging to make it deeper and building the large piers to help prevent silt build up of the channel. Shipbuilding previously (along with coal mining) a monopoly of the Freemen of Newcastle became another prominent industry in the town with John Redhead’s Yard being the largest.

During World War I German Zeppelin airships bombed South Shields in 1915. Later during World War II the German Luftwaffe repeatedly attacked the town and caused massive damage to industry and killed many residents. Gradually throughout the 20th century, the coal and shipbuilding industries ceased, due to competitive pressures from more cost effective sources of energy and more efficient shipbuilding in Asian countries. Unemployment is still a problem in South Shields. In the 21st century, most of the town’s populace work in the cities of Sunderland and Newcastle upon Tyne in the public sector/service sector; with a small minority working in service industries/retail and the ever increasing role of tourism in the local economy.

South Shields is situated in a peninsula setting, where the River Tyne meets the North Sea. It has six miles of coastline and three miles of river frontage, dominated by the massive piers at the mouth of the Tyne. These are best viewed from the Lawe Top, which also houses two replicas of cannon captured from the Russians during the Crimean War (the originals having been melted during World War II).

The town slopes gently from the Cleadon Hills down to the river. The Cleadon Hills are made conspicuous by the Victorian water pumping station (opened in 1860 to improve sanitation) and a now derelict windmill which can be seen from many miles away and also out at sea.

The town has extensive beaches including sand dunes as well as dramatic Magnesian Limestone cliffs with grassy areas above known as The Leas, which cover three miles of this coastline and are a National Trust protected area. Marsden Bay, with its famous Marsden Rock, is home to one of the largest sea bird colonies in Britain.

One of the most historic parts of the town is the quaint & beautiful Westoe village, which consists of a quiet street of 1st grade and 2nd grade Georgian and Victorian houses, many of which had been built by Victorian business leaders from the coal or ship industries in the town. Given its beautiful setting, parks and trees, this street was often the setting for a number of books by the novelist Catherine Cookson. Westoe village was once a separate village about a mile from South Shields but urban sprawl has now consumed it along with the village of Harton slightly further along the road to Sunderland.

Before 1820, South Shields was a predominantly sparse hamlet and village based rural economy with some small-scale shipbuilding, glass making and salt processing along the riverside. Beyond 1820 and into the Industrial Revolution, South Shields expanded into an urban settlement built around shipbuilding and coal mining. Migration came from up the River Tyne, with other migrants from rural County Durham, Northumberland, Scotland and Ireland. The majority of the people living in South Shields are descendants of those who migrated and settled in the area during the Industrial Revolution in order to work in expanding coalmines and shipyards. Towards the end of the 19th century, with the British Navy needing seamen, Yemeni British sailors settled in the town, this resulted in the first roots of the Yemeni British community in the town.

South Shields has been home to a Yemeni British community since the 1890s. The main reason for the Yemeni arrival was the supply of seamen, such as engine room firemen, to British merchant vessels. Similar communities were founded in Hull, Liverpool and Cardiff. In 1909, the first Arab Seamen’s Boarding House opened in the Holborn riverside district of the town. At the time of the First World War there was a shortage of crews due to the demands of the fighting and many Yemenis were recruited to serve on British ships at the port of Aden, then under British protection. At the end of the war, the Yemeni population of South Shields had swelled to well over 3,000. Shields lost one of the largest proportions of Merchant Navy sailors. Approximately 1 in 4 of these men was of Yemeni background. Disputes over jobs led to race riots – also called the Arab Riots – in 1919. However, over time, attitudes to Yemenis in the town were softened and there was no significant recurrence of this violence.

After World War II, the Yemeni population declined, partly due to migrations to other industrial areas such as Birmingham, Liverpool and Sheffield. However, the main reason for the reduction in numbers was the end of the shipping industry and the need for sailors as coal burning ships decreased in numbers. Today, the Yemeni population of South Shields numbers around 1,000. Many Yemeni sailors married local women and became integrated with the wider community, resulting with a migrant population less distinct than in other mixed communities across the UK. The Yemeni are the first, settled Muslim community in Britain and have been used to justify multi-culturalism.

There is a mosque at Laygate, including the Yemeni School, which was visited by American boxer Muhammed Ali in 1977. He had his marriage blessed at the Al-Ahzar Mosque, the first purpose-built in the UK. This story is covered in a documentary film, The King of South Shields film website. Throughout April and early May 2008, the BALTIC Arts Centre in Gateshead chronicled the Yemeni community of South Shields, including interviews with the last remaining survivors of the first Yemeni generation. The exhibition depicted the Yemeni story as an example of early successful multi-cultural integration in Britain, as well as showcasing the high-profile 1977 visit by Muhammed Ali.

In 2009, the detective series George Gently, based on the novels by Alan Hunter, portrayed the Yemeni integration in a 1960s setting.

The last shipbuilder, John Readhead & Sons, closed in 1984 and the last pit, Westoe Colliery, in 1993. Today, the town relies largely on service industries, whilst many residents commute to work in nearby Newcastle, Gateshead, North Tyneside and Sunderland.

Despite a skilled local workforce, for many years South Tyneside had the highest unemployment rate in mainland Britain.

The Port of Tyne is one of the UK’s most important and is further developing its freight and passenger activities. In 2007, it imported two million tonnes of coal. Manufacturing and ship repair/engineering are other significant sectors.

South Shields benefits from significant public and private sector investment. More recently this has included primarily the town centre, riverside and foreshore areas, given the decline of once-traditional heavy industries with the town’s growing importance as a major commercial centre and tourist destination.

As well as being the oldest and largest town in South Tyneside, South Shields is also one of the region’s most popular seaside resorts. The area markets itself as Catherine Cookson Country, which attracts many visitors. Further improvements and developments to the seafront are planned.

The town and area include:

  • the reconstructed Roman Fort and excavations at Arbeia, which form part of the Hadrian’s Wall World Heritage Site
  • the town’s museum & art gallery, including a permanent exhibition dedicated to the life and times of Catherine Cookson
  • the home to the Barbour headquarters, warehouse and factory
  • the Customs House theatre and arts venue and the historic Mill Dam riverside
  • traditional, continental and farmers’ markets and high street shopping
  • seafront complete with promenade, parks, fairground and amusement arcades, crazy golf, skate complex, quasar laser, miniature steam railway and boating lake and live entertainment
  • coastal scenery, beaches and dunes at Littlehaven, Sandhaven and Marsden Bay
  • the National Trust-owned Souter Lighthouse and The Leas cliff tops
  • Temple Park Leisure Centre
  • an extensive network of cycle paths and trails, and
  • a newly refurbished multi-purpose family friendly complex at the seafront called Dunes Adventure Island, including a bowling alley, a soft play area, a fully licensed bar, Italian restaurant and an arcade
  • South Shields is also home of the oldest provincial newspaper in the UK, the Shields Gazette.

There is a good choice of restaurants, cafes, public houses and nightlife as well as hotels, guest houses and caravan parks. South Shields plays host to an annual free summer festival and each autumn the town is the seaside finish to the world-famous Great North Run.

It is also home to the legendary Colman’s of South Shields Fish and Chip Restaurant and Takeaway, winners of countless regional and national food awards. Colman’s also provided their famous Fish and Chips for the Queens birthday party at the British Embassies in Guatemala and Rome.

People born in South Shields are considered to be Geordies, a term commonly associated with all residents of Tyneside.A less commonly used colloquial term is Sandancer. It is presumed to originate from the town’s beach and history.

South Shields is a Parliamentary seat. The local authority is South Tyneside Metropolitan Borough Council.

The town has a local independent political party, the Progressive Party. This broadly centre-right party was formed in the 1950s to address hostility towards the Conservative Party. The Progressives have no representation beyond South Shields. Having controlled the old County Borough of South Shields council until 1974, they still hold several seats on the borough council and have experienced a resurgence in recent years, sitting in alliance with independent members of the council.

South Shields is bounded by the A19 trunk road to the West and situated close to the Tyne Tunnel at Jarrow. The town is well connected to other areas of Tyne & Wear and to the strategic road network – the A194(M) motorway provides a direct link between the Borough and the A1/A1(M).

The Tyne and Wear Metro light rail system was introduced in the 1980s and replaced British Rail services over the same route. The Metro network serves South Tyneside, Gateshead, Newcastle, North Tyneside, Sunderland and Newcastle Airport. The platform at South Shields Metro Station is situated on a bridge directly above King Street – the town’s main shopping area. When Metro services were introduced, the railway line at the former High Shields LNER station at Laygate was re-routed eastwards to the then-new Chichester Metro and bus interchange. The former South Shields LNER station was also closed and the Victorian buildings survived as a secondary entrance to the Metro station until they were demolished in 1998. There are other Metro stations at Tyne Dock and Brockley Whins, while a new station at Simonside opened in early 2008. Long-term plans by Nexus to re-open the former Sunderland to South Shields line between Tyne Dock, Brockley Whins and East Boldon would create a direct rail service between South Shields and Sunderland, without the need for passengers to change trains at Pelaw in Gateshead.

There is a frequent pedestrian ferry service to North Shields on the opposite bank of the Tyne. The Shields Ferry carries tens of thousands of commuters and pleasure trippers each year. There has been a cross-river ferry service between the two towns since 1377. The Port of Tyne headquarters and international freight terminal are located at Tyne Dock in South Shields. The Port has a freight rail connection.

The town’s extensive network of strategic footpaths and cycle routes includes the Sea to Sea Cycle Route and National Cycle Route 1.

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