ROMAN SHIELDS with Durham author, David Kidd

Now living near Crook, West Durham, David Kidd is a retired mathematics teacher born and brought up in South Shields. During the 1980’s he studied for a part time degree in the History of Modern Art, Design and Film at Newcastle Polytechnic, where he met fellow student and author Jean Alicia Stokes who shared a common interest in local history.

They have produced a new book The People’s Roman Remains Park about the Roman Fort in South Shields.

Roman remains park, the Lawe, South Shields.

Living nearby, I know the impact the fort has on the surrounding area of the Lawe, and its position on the headland looking over to where the River Tyne meets the North Sea. I asked David what inspired you to write the book ?

The Roman Fort is part of my family history. Our first house was in Beacon Street on the Lawe Top although we moved out when I was a toddler. The house was demolished and we were banished to Biddick Hall on the outskirts of town. The fact that we once lived on the site of a Roman Fort became part of our family mythology.

My friend Jean Alicia Stokes was writing a book about Harton Village when she came across a fantastic local history scrapbook by Robert Blair, who had his family home in the village. We both thought the scrapbook deserved a wider audience. Robert Blair was secretary of the Excavation Committee and the driving force behind the creation of the People’s Roman Remains Park. We thought it would be a good idea to write a book about the 1875 excavations and I agreed to help her.

Excavations in 1875.

Did you come across any unusual stories when researching ?

Too many to mention. What stands out is the way researching the book brought to life the people involved. Robert Blair is at the centre of the story but there were many other memorable characters who joined the campaign and contributed to its success, they helped save Roman remains from being destroyed by housing development.

The Reverend Robert Hooppell was the founding headmaster of the South Shields Marine School and Blair’s key ally in the publicity campaign to get public support for the excavations. Hooppell was an outspoken opponent of the contagious diseases act and a controversial but respected figure in the town who later went on to excavate the Roman Fort at Binchester near Bishop Auckland, and ‘discovered’ the Saxon Church at Escomb.

Reverend John Collingwood Bruce the charismatic Newcastle schoolmaster who tutored Robert Stephenson and wrote the first guide to the Roman Wall, was another key supporter of the campaign. Then of course there was the mysterious figure of Regina whose monument was discovered by some workmen digging foundations for an outbuilding to a house in Bath Street in 1878. She was the freedwoman and wife of Barates from distant Palmyra.

Regina who was a member of a British tribe from Southern England is depicted on the monument as a Syrian woman surrounded by the symbols of her status and part of the inscription is in Aramaic, the language of Palmyra. She is a potent icon of the multi-racial, multi-cultural Roman Empire and could also be a symbol for the modern cosmopolitan town of South Shields.

Regina reconstruction.

What did you use for research ?

The research began with Robert Blair’s scrapbook which is held by The Word at South Shields and expanded into an exploration of the artefacts from the 1875 excavation in the collections of Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort and the Great North Museum, Newcastle.

We are very grateful for the support of Tyne and Wear Museums, especially Alex Croom the keeper of archaeology at Arbeia without whose help the book could not have been completed. The excavations were headline news locally and nationally and we were lucky to be able to follow the progress of the campaign and the excavations in local newspapers.

They played a vital role in mobilising public support for the preservation of the Fort, and we hope allowed us to bring the story to life – an archaeological sensation comparable in its impact to the discovery of the ship at Sutton Hoo celebrated in the recent film released on Netflix, The Dig.

In many ways the excavations at South Shields were similar – both were led by an amateur, Robert Blair was a solicitor and in both the quality of the finds shook the archaeological establishment.

Gladiator knife handle.

What are you doing now & have you any projects planned for the future ?

When it is possible, we are planning to have a formal launch for the book and hopefully talks/events/ signings at places associated with the story. The book was intended to raise money for Arbeia with all profits going to the fort and while sales have been good in the circumstances, they are below what we expected due to the pandemic.

Jean is writing a full history of Harton Township, her previous book was a snapshot of the village based topically on the 1901 Census returns. I am in the early stages of planning a historical novel telling the story of a Shields shipping family in the style of Daphne Du Maurier’s The Loving Spirit based on some research I did for Jean’s new book.

Where is the book available ?

At the moment the book is only available from the publishers Harton Village Press (us) at £15 including post and packing and can be ordered by emailing Jean at jastokes@virginmedia.com. 

Now things are opening up it should soon also be available from the Word, Arbeia and South Shields Museum.

Interview by Gary Alikivi  March 2021.