The Fish Quay can trace its origins back to around the year 1225, when Prior Germanus from the Tynemouth monastery, began a simple village of shielings (traditional basic huts) at the mouth of the Pow Burn where Fish Quay stands, today. 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 salt or fish. North Shields struggled with Newcastle over trade for several centuries. The settlement was originally used by fisherman who supplied the Priory, however it was not long before traders and merchants realised the benefit of this landing place situated so close to the mouth of the River Tyne.
This small port soon became a focal point of both legal and physical attacks by both the established merchants and the burgesses of Newcastle who saw the port as competition. In 1290 it was claimed that the Fish Quay was “where no town ought to be” as its presence was a loss to both the City and the Crown. Despite these arguments, by the turn of the 13th Century there was in excess of a hundred houses, many of which had their own separate quays.
The Fish Quay area, originally known as Low Lights, was the original focus of North Shields. As it grew up the banks, the rich built grand streets including Dockwray Square and Howard Street, which now form the basis of today’s town centre.
In 1672, Clifford’s Fort was built in Fish Quay as part of a network of coastal defences against the Dutch. The fort was specifically designed for the constraints of the site, consisting of high walls for defence from cannon fire and from flooding. The role of Clifford’s Fort evolved over time. During the Napoleonic Wars, additional gun ports and musket ports were added, while the buildings consisted of a Garrison and a number of other buildings to house troops.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.
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 in 1807 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 piled up the bank sides were reached by a series of steep stairways. Eighteenth and Nineteenth Century development was tightly packed, with a jumble of buildings lining both sides of the main route through the area along the quay.
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 and fairs, and a first rate hotel, the Northumberland Arms (later to gain worldwide notoriety as ‘The Jungle’). The Sailor’s Home to its east was added in 1851, supported by the Duke and £3000 subscribed by the public. The Porthole public house, for most of its life the Golden Fleece (hence the sheep carved above the door) was the first pub in the district with the ‘long bar’ system. It was rebuilt in 1897 (W. & T. R. Milburn, architects from Sunderland). The ha’penny dodger and penny ferries plied from the New Quay to South Shields, as does the modern ferry, and the New Cut (now Borough Road) was created in the 1840s, as a route for passengers between the ferry and the railway, which had arrived in Shields in 1839 and has since been adapted for the Metro.
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 the 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. The jetty was built to protect boats from the sea, as the tide race here is very strong. Subsequently the number of fishing boats using the port grew very rapidly and the quay had to be enlarged several times in the first 20 years of its life. The first market sheds were built in 1871 as protection from the weather, with new sheds and offices being added over the years.
Fish Quay itself was a place where local boats dealt in crabs and salmon. In addition, there were a range of ancillary industries based around box making, repair of nets, engine works, and a ship yard near Clifford’s Fort. A guano works, saw mill and gas works have all been located in Fish Quay in the past.
The most high profile company in Fish Quay was the Tyne Brand company which canned a range of food products. The site that is home to the now derelict Tyne Brand building was originally an ice factory and subsequently converted to a fish canning plant. During World War I & World War II the company expanded its range of products to include canned meats. Ownership changed in the 1970’s and the premises were used to produce dog food. This was short lived, only lasting until 1976. Since then the building has had multiple ownership and marginal uses.
Between 1914 and 1938, the banksides of the Tyne were cleared of the poor housing with the majority of the residents moved to Balkwell and Ridges Farm estates. Traditional industry also declined in Fish Quay as the constrained sites and challenging topography forced expanding companies to locate elsewhere. The dramatic decline in North Sea fish stocks – and associated EC management measures – have now reduced the scale of the fishing industry to a fraction of what it was in its hey day. However, the Quay remains an important fishing community with a strong fishing fleet, supply chain and associated businesses. The Fish Quay Company manage the fishing fleet at the Quay and are in the process of proceeding with a range of improvements to the fish market and the Quay itself in order to safeguard the industry for the future.
The present Fish Quay was built at a cost of £81,000 in 1866, and by the beginning of the 20th Century was landing and processing roughly 14,000 tonnes of fish a year. It was extended in both directions towards the end of the 19th Century. The Fish Quay was built on the site of Dodgin’s Shipyard.