Prior to the construction of the Tyne Piers the mouth of the River was effectively at the narrows between North and South Shields. With the advent of effective, albeit short range, artillery it became possible to build a fort on low lying ground at North Shields adjacent to these narrows, which it was thought could quite adequately control the River.
By the Civil War a fort constructed of gabions had appeared on the site, complemented by a similar fort at South Shields.
A fort of more permanent nature was begun in 1672 as a consequence of the Dutch Wars and more specifically the Dutch Fleets raid on the Thames. By 1677 the fort mounted up to forty guns.
This more modern fort armed with the short range guns of the day became, for a time, more important than Tynemouth Caste which was to be threatened with demolition. It would appear that Clifford’s Fort was always kept in good repair (relative to elsewhere) and was well armed. In 1748 the Fort mounted thirty-six eighteen-pounder guns in three batteries and was reported as having a large store of powder within the ‘tower’.
The fort played an important role in the Napoleonic defences and although it never fired a shot in anger it was ‘besieged. In April 1806 the local Volunteers began a month’s garrison duty in the Tyne Forts. A regular Major boasted over drinks that his troops were easily capable of taking any of the Volunteer manned forts. Challenged, he marched on Clifford’s Fort which he should have taken easily as there were insufficient Volunteers present to man all the embrasures. However, his approach had been observed and reinforcements arrived repelling his attack at bayonet point. After some further skirmishing the regular troops returned somewhat crestfallen to their camp only to discover the Volunteers had been there first and taken their colours, the ultimate disgrace.
By the mid Nineteenth Century the Tyne had expanded its trade to considerable proportions and new docks were required. The City of Newcastle was by this stage losing its influence over the town at the river mouth, consequently Tynemouth Corporation was able to propose the construction of an ambitious new dock between Spanish Battery and Clifford’s Fort. This would however have effectively rendered Clifford’s Fort useless and so the proposal was blocked by the Board of Ordnance.
The construction of the Tyne Piers ended the usefulness of Clifford’s Fort as a battery. It was not, however, to fall into disuse. It was an ideal position to serve as the depot for the newly formed Tyne Division Royal Engineers (Volunteers) Submarine Miners. This unit, the first in the country was established at the instigation of Sir Charles Palmer, a local industrialist and innovator who was to be its first Commander.
Formed in 1884, the Submarine Miners took possession of Clifford’s Fort in 1888. This provided them with a depot with excellent access to the River. Over a number of years continuous improvements were made to suit the forts role. These include the construction of various brick buildings, tramways, a crane, two searchlights and the bricking up of the embrasures. To make way for the new work the original tower/keep was demolished in 1893.
It was proposed in 1895 to mount two six-pounder QF (quick firing) and two machine guns to cover the inner minefield. If these were emplaced at the time is uncertain, but in 1905 two six-pounder QFs were in situ. These were probably removed when in 1907 amid protest, Submarine mining was abandoned on the Tyne, the country’s submarine mine defences becoming the Navy’s responsibility.
Clifford’s Fort became the depot of the ‘Tyne Electrical Engineers’ one of whose responsibilities was the Tyne’s searchlights. However, during the First World War submarine mining was re-established and two twelve-pounder guns installed. The conflict also saw a vast expansion of the Tyne Electrical Engineers who gained a new role, supporting the newly required anti-aircraft guns with their searchlights.
The War over, submarine mining was once again abandoned and Clifford’s Fort became a Territorial Army Searchlight Depot. This continued until 1928 when the local authority achieved their long held aim of acquiring Clifford’s Fort for the expansion of the Fish Quay. In exchange, the Army was provided with land near Tynemouth Railway Station upon which New Clifford’s Fort was constructed.
Probably due to the depression, few alterations were made to the fort prior to the Second World War. During the War two twelve-pounder guns and searchlights were again installed, these being dismantled in 1944.
Following the War, and particularly in the last five years, the local authority has gradually removed many of the submarine miners buildings in accordance with their policy of improving the Fish Quay area. The original walls, however, remain substantially intact.