In ancient times, the Roman Empire had came to the banks of the River Tyne and upon a hill on the southern bank built the fort of Arbeia. It’s the most famous historical site in South Shields today. But this did not mark the founding of the town itself or its name. The Romans would withdraw and up until as late as the 20th century this military garrison would be lost to history. So what happened after that? And where did the name “Shields” come from? Our first history piece moving beyond Sunderland itself, seeks to dig into these questions by first exploring the “Medieval Origins of South Shields” to explore just where this South Tyneside town (and by default its northern counterpart) came from.
At the beginning of the middle ages in the 7th century, the land south of the River Tyne was already sacred. Hosting the Monkwearmouth-Jarrow priory both to the west and to the South, the early Kingdom of Northumbria was a pinnacle of Christian Enlightenment in early Anglo-Saxon Britain. Inasmuch that upon the land of South Shields, St. Aidan is premised to have built an ancient chapel on the site of St. Hilda’s Church opposite the Market Square and the Old Town Hall. The name of course of the church which followed it is not a coincidence, for this chapel was supposedly under the supervision of the Nun St. Hilda, whom overseen a priory in what is now Whitby, Yorkshire.
As a part of County Durham, the land of South Shields remained under the ultimate ownership of the church throughout the Middle Ages, and following the Hilda period it and the surrounding areas came under the ownership of Durham Priory. It was a few centuries later that the name “Scheles” emerged to describe the area in reference to fishermen’s huts which sat on both sides of the Tyne. This spelling would later evolve and consolidate into “Shields” through modern writing. The distinction between “North” and “South” Shields of course is a strictly modern creation, and just as it is today a rowing boat ferry operated in the Middle Ages which took people across the Tyne.
By the 13th century, what is now St. Hilda’s Church had appeared on the site of the former chapel Aidan had dedicated, bearing the legacy of the saint who overseen it. Archaeologists state: “The early town seems to have been a long street parallel with the river” similar to how High Street and Low Street developed in Sunderland, or comparatively the early village of Southwick. However in contrast, no traces of this remain. In the year 1256, records show that there were 24 tenants, 37 houses, 2 ovens, 4 breweries and fisheries all operating in the village. Its early industries in the Middle Ages consisted of fishing, farming, of which evidence of has been discovered around the church, Salt Panning, a Watermill and also a windmill at the neighbouring village of Westoe where grain was ground up.
The early settlement and port of Shields also faced opposition from Newcastle by the 15th century, who sought to monopolize key industries on the Tyne and would also attempt a similar attitude towards Sunderland later on. Despite this, the town would continue to grow, ultimately laying the foundations for when it would boom as an industrial and maritime settlement by the 18th and 19th centuries!