South Tyneside


Despite its modern industrial appearance, Jarrow, on the south bank of the River Tyne to the east of Gateshead is one of the most historic towns in the North East of England. Its early history is centred around a humble Anglo-Saxon church dedicated to St Paul, which overlooks the Don, a small river that joins the Tyne in the industrial surroundings of the mud flats called Jarrow slake.

St Pauls was founded by a Northumbrian noble called Benedict Biscop, in the seventh century AD, as a twin monastery for that at St Peters Monkwearmouth. The dedication stone for the church is the oldest in the country, dating the building to the 23rd April of the year 681 A.D. There are however two older churches in the North East of England at Monkwearmouth, Sunderland and at Escomb, County Durham.

Biscop's Saxon monastery at Jarrow was a great centre of English learning and is famed the world over as the historic home of the Venerable Bede, (673-735 Ad).

Bede came to Jarrow at the age of twelve, where he was later the author of over forty scholarly works, including the `Historia Ecclesiastica Gentis Anglorum' of Ad 731. This translates to `The History of the English Church and People' and is a major source for the greater part of our knowledge of Anglo-Saxon England. Bede was without doubt the first historian of England and is widely regarded as the `candle' of the period of history we call the `Dark Ages'. The tomb of Bede can be seen in Durham cathedral.


In 794 Ad, sixty three years after the death of St Bede, Jarrow was to witness one of the earliest Viking raids on the mainland of Britain. Biscop's monastery was severely burnt by the Vikings, but their leader was caught by the local Anglo-Saxons and he was put to death.

In their attempt to flee from the monastery, the rest of the unfortunate Vikings were caught in a violent storm and were shipwrecked. Many were cast ashore, where they were mercilessly slain by the monks of Jarrow.

Jarrow was not so lucky in later Viking raids, in 875 Ad, the monastery was sacked more successfully and remained a ruin until the time of the Norman conquest. Two curious statues of Viking warriors in Jarrow's modern town centre commemorate the Viking raids. The Vikings seem to have been raiders, rather than settlers at Jarrow.


Although Jarrow is historically more closely associated with the Anglo-Saxon, rather than the Roman period, it has a number of interesting connections with the Roman wall. Roman stones were used in the construction of the Anglo-Saxon monastery of St Paul's here and in 1866 two inscribed Roman stones were found during repairs on its nave. The wording on the stones could only be partly seen, but appeared to read;

`The Barbarians were scattered

and the province of Britain freed.

A boundary was established

between the two oceans

a distance of 80 miles....'

A leading authority on the Roman Wall has suggested that these inscribed stones belonged to a statue dedicated to the Emperor Hadrian, which may possibly have stood at the mouth of the River Tyne.

The Venerable Bede, during his time at Jarrow, was well aware of the significant Roman remains in the vicinity and he was the first Anglo-Saxon to record the existence of Hadrian's Wall. It was Bede that gave the name `Vallum' to the defensive Roman earthwork that runs just to the south of Hadrian's Wall.


Although Hadrian's Wall is exclusively to the north of the River Tyne, there are also a number of Roman forts not far to the south of the Tyne such as the fort of Concangium at at Chester-le-Street. There was also a very important Roman fort situated south of the River where the Tyne meets the sea at South Shields.

The modern South Shields grew most rapidly in Victorian times but the site of the Roman fort called ARBEIA can still be seen. This garrison was linked to the Roman road running between Chester-le-Street and Newcastle by a second Roman road called the `WREKENDYKE' which can still be traced through the town of Wrekenton, near Gateshead.

Arbeia, built about Ad 128, served as the sea port and supply base for Hadrian's Wall and was an important commercial centre with a large civilian settlement. Its Roman occupants included a small unit of bargemen from the Tigris river valley (now in Iraq), who were probably occupied in ferrying troops and stores up and down the River Tyne.

The remains of the Roman fort at South Shields can be seen today situated close to an area of high ground called the Lawe overlooking the sea at the mouth of the Tyne. It is one of the best preserved and most extensively excavated Roman forts in Britain and includes one of the biggest Roman reconstructions.

The reconstruction, completed in the 1980s, is of the large gateway to the Roman fort. It has been built using Roman stones, reclaimed from old churches in the neighbourhood.


On the coast to the north of Sunderland towards South Shields is the village of Whitburn and the nearby Whitburn Sands, where Lewis Carroll is said to have written the eighteen verse poem called the `Walrus and the Carpenter'.

The Walrus and the Carpenter Walked on a mile or so,

And then they rested on a rock Conveniently low:

And all the little oysters stood And waited in a row.

"The time has come; the walrus said

To talk of many things:

Of shoes and ships and sealing wax

Of cabbages and kings And why the sea is boiling hot

And whether pigs have wings.

The Sunderland and Shields area does seem a likely setting for the poem as in Carroll's time Sunderland was a great shipbuilding port employing many carpenters. Boiling hot sea could be a reference to the steam-boat colliers in the area and a stuffed walrus in a Sunderland museum may have provided further inspiration. It is known that during his regular visits to Whitburn where he had a number of relatives, Lewis Carroll and company entertained themselves with evenings composing rhyme and song. Carroll's nephew, Stuart Dodgson Collingwood, informs us that all but the first verse of the `Jabberwocky' poem were written by Lewis Carroll at Whitburn. The first verse was written at Croft on Tees, near Darlington, where Carroll lived as a boy.


The limestone cliff formations that dominate much of the coast between Hartlepool and the River Tyne, are much in evidence at Marsden to the north of Whitburn. Most notable of the limestone features is the massive Marsden Rock. This was once within jumping distance of the coast, but is now an isolated limestone stack providing a natural refuge for Kittiwakes, Cormorants and Fulmars.Set within the coastal caves overlooking the Marsden Rock is the famous Marsden Grotto Public House. Its history begins in 1782, when an Allendale lead miner nicknamed `Jack the Blaster' came to work in the limestone quarries at Marsden and blasted a home for himself and family out of one of the caves of Marsden Bay. Jack became known for his hospitality and his home developed into the Grotto Inn


Marsden Bay was once a frequent haunt of local smugglers, who numbered among Jack's best customers and suppliers. On one occasion the smugglers were nearly caught in the act at Marsden after one of their fraternity turned informer and passed information to the South Shields excise men regarding the landing of illegal cargo at Marsden Bay. The smugglers learned of the imminent danger of being caught and managed to warn off the vessel that was bringing the illegal merchandise. It dumped its cargo further down the coast at Souter Point near Whitburn.

When the identity of the informer was discovered by the smugglers he was hung from a bucket, inside a shaft called the Smuggler's Hole which had been bored into a cave near the Marsden Grotto. Here the poor man had to suffer the jibes of his former comrades who gluttonously feasted in front of his eyes and used him as a target for their refuse. It is said that on cold dark stormy nights, his ghostly wails can be heard above the sound of the howling winds. Smuggling took place in the vicinity of Marsden well into the nineteenth century and as late as 1851 there is a record of the capture of a cargo of 8000 lb of contraband tobacco in the area with an estimated value of 4000.


South Shields grew most rapidly in the Victorian era, but its origins can be traced back to Roman times, when it was the site of the important Roman fort called ARBEIA. Arbeia, built about Ad 128, served as the sea port and supply base for Hadrian's Wall and in Roman times, it was an important commercial centre with a large civilian settlement. Its Roman occupants included a small unit of bargemen from the Tigris river valley (now in Iraq), who ferried troops and stores up and down the River Tyne.The remains of the Roman fort at South Shields, can be seen today near the area of high ground called the Lawe overlooking the sea at the mouth of the Tyne. It is one of the best preserved and most extensively excavated Roman forts in Britain.

Little is known of South Shields' history in Anglo-Saxon times though evidence suggests it may have been the site of a monastery belonging to St Hild before she moved to Hartlepool and later Whitby. The monastery may have stood on the site of South Shields parish church which is dedicated to St Hilda. The name of South Shields originates from Anglo-Saxon times. Shields derives from `Shieling' signifying a fisherman's hut.


Like many other towns in the North East, coal was a major factor influencing the growth of South Shields. For over two hundred years it was used in the process of making salt and in 1768 the town was the site of 200 salt pans.

In fact South Shields was once the most important salt making town in Britain, having taken over this status from the town of Greatham near Hartlepool, which had been the salt making `capital' in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries - indeed Salt Making was the early chemical industry of Teesside. For centuries the salt making gave South Shields a horrible, dense eye watering environment and the fumes from the huge salt pans could be seen clearly from Durham, and according to Daniel Defoe from the summit of the Cheviot many miles to the north. So bad was the local atmosphere, that the wife of a local parson compared South Shields to `Sodom and Gomorrah'. Fortunately South Shields is a much healthier place to live today.


Search England's North East



Ancestry Giftpack


Marriott Deals