Life on today's Fish Quay encompasses many colourful aspects of modern living. Work and business interacts with residential areas, leisure activities, eating, drinking, sporting pursuits and tourism.
There are many diverse personalities and characters here and much to celebrate with sympathetic developments, conservation measures and exciting investments that are bringing new opportunities and enhancing an already thriving area.
Modern life on the Fish Quay interacts with many centuries of heritage and tradition from an area rich in history and with many stories to tell.
The Fish Quay area, formerly known as Low Lights, was the origin of today’s North Shields. Development up the banks from the river brought new streets including Dockwray Square and Howard Street which form the basis of the modern town centre.
The recorded history of North Shields dates back to 1225. The then Prior of Tynemouth had built, beside the Pow Burn, a hamlet of 27 huts or shielings (hence North Shields). The small settlement, to the east of the present Fish Quay, soon grew to include mills, bakehouses, a fish quay and brewery. However, legislation favouring Newcastle as a port hindered the development of North Shields, effectively preventing the loading and discharging of cargoes other than saltor fish.
There was virtually no building on the bank top until Dockwray Square was laid out in 1763, complete with a communal garden for the residents. The south side was left open to afford views of river traffic to the ship owners and master mariners who lived there. Built in 1806 by the Duke of Northumberland, the New Quay was the town’s first deep-water quay. It provided an open area for a market, fairs and an inn, the Northumberland Arms known to sailors worldwide as ‘The Jungle’.
North Shields struggled with Newcastle over trade for several centuries. Because of the area’s strategic importance, Clifford’s Fort was built in 1672 to defend the river during the third Dutch War. The Fort’s use changed with military needs and in the 1880s it became the base of the Tyne Division Royal Engineers (Volunteers) Submarine Miners, which was to become the Tyne Electrical Engineers. They eventually moved out in 1928.
In 1727 the Master and Brethren of Trinity House of Newcastle-upon-Tyne built two new leading lights to guide ships into the river, one on the top of the bank above the river and the other within Clifford’s Fort. They replaced lights dating back to the 16th century and were themselves replaced by the New High and Low Lights that marked what was then the safe channel.
Until the 1760s North Shields was confined to the riverside, along what was known as the ‘Low Street’. The additional houses,workshops, chapels and public houses that piled up the bank sides were reached by a series of steep stairways.
The Sailor’s Home was added in 1851, supported by the Duke and £3,000 donated by the public. The Porthole public house was the first pub in the district with the ‘long bar’ system. It was rebuilt in 1897. The ha’penny dodger and penny ferries plied from the New Quay to South Shields and the New Cut (now Borough Road) was created in the 1840s as a route for passengers between the ferry and the railway. The line arrived in Shields in 1839 and has since been adapted for the Metro network.
The New Quay was once ‘one of the busiest places in the town’ thanks to the Customs House, Shipping Office and Sailors’ Home, with chandlers, grocers, fruiterers and butchers all catering to private trade as well as shipping.
Here was held the market, and the fairs, and this district was so busy that it used to be said that ‘you had not been in Shields unless you had been on the [New] Quay, along the Low Street to the Wooden Bridge, up Union Street and along Tyne Street.’ From 1850, when the Tyne Improvement Commission was established, a programme of works was begun to improve the navigability of the river. These improvements assisted the development of fishing as well as shipping and allied industries and, in 1870, work on the present Fish Quay began.
Also known as the Gut, this was constructed at the mouth of the Pow Burn to provide fishing vessels with facilities to unload catches and take on supplies. Subsequently the number of boats using the port grew rapidly and the quay had was enlarged several times in its first 20 years. The first market sheds were built in 1871 as protection from the weather. Supporting trades subsequently also found homes around the Fish Quay.