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 (rude 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 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