The North part of North Shields derives from its position on the north side of the River Tyne, opposite South Shields.
The Shields part of North and South Shields may be a corruption of shiels. William Garson, in The Origin of North Shields and it's Growth (1926), says this was the old word for a kind of turf shelter constructed on the riverbank by fishermen.
He says North Shields grew from a community of shiels built at the mouth of the Pow Burn, where the Fish Quay stands, today.
Garson links the early history of the North Shields to that of Tynemouth, as the land belonged to Tynemouth Priory.
He says in 1225, the monks drained a large block of marshy riverbank near the shiels, to build houses, wharves and quays.
The principal trades were brewing and baking. There was a tannery at Preston. A fleet of six fishing boats travelled as far afield as Iceland.
Over the next sixty-five years, North Shields grew to be a village of two hundred cottages, and home to a thousand inhabitants. By 1281, it was valued at £200 a year. A new trade in sea coal was responsible for a large slice of the wealth, with a chauldron fetching nineteen shillings in London.
However, the success of the new community brought it into direct conflict with the older and much bigger town of Newcastle, ten miles upstream, to the West. In 1265, the Mayor of Newcastle, Nicholas Scott, arrived in North Shields with a heavily-armed band of men and destroyed a new mill that had just been completed. They also set fire to a number of houses. Afterwards, the Prior of Tynemouth successfully brought a law suit against Newcastle, extracting an undertaking from the civic authorities there, not to do it again. But only a brief respite was gained.
Newcastle's burghers felt North Shields was taking business away from them. Having failed to stop their rival by force, they lobbied the King for support, arguing the Prior was siphoning off trade which should be generating taxes for the Crown.
In 1290 they succeeded, and Edward I decreed a series of restrictions on trade in Tynemouth that virtually crippled it, economically, and forbade North Shields to operate as a port. Significantly, the export of coal from the Tyne was reserved as a right of the Freemen of Newcastle.
Over the next hundred years, North Shields practically died. Its annual value falling to less than £17.
By 1750, the bulk of land north of the River Tyne was still farmland. The Priory had long since been reduced to a ruin, but the small village of North Shields clung to the shoreline, a ragged street of cottages and warehouses, in places no more than sixteen feet across, its inhabitants mostly seafarers; fishermen and their families, sailors from every country under the sun.
But big changes were about to happen. There was a huge demand for new ships, as the Industrial Revolution began to power Britain's economy, and as a result of the long naval war with France. Shipyards opened up on both sides of the Tyne, specialising in sturdy collier brigs that became standard in the coasting and Baltic trades.
By 1762, the shipping trade had doubled. North Shields ship-owners and ship-yard proprietors began building large houses on top of the bank, in Dockwray Square. From this time, the town grew rapidly northwards, into Tynemouth parish.
The Origin of North Shields and it's Growth, by William S. Garson (1926).
Reprinted 1992 by:
Fish Quay Festival Publications,
PO Box 12, North Shields NE30 2BL,
Tyne & Wear,
ISBN 1 874631 00 X
Copyright: © Ronald Branscombe 1998
Updated: 28 February 1998