DEATH MARCH of the BLUE BONNETS – in conversation with author John Orton

Former Tynesider John Orton is author of three previous books which have featured on this blog, The Five Stone Steps, Blitz Pams, and A Chill Wind off the Tyne which are all set in the 1900s to the 1940s, but his new book goes back further.

“Shields has a rich history, I always had an inkling that I might find some tales worth telling from way back in the mists of time. It was by chance that I read a newspaper article about the Dunbar death march”. (Dunbar is on the North East UK coast 30 mile east of Scotland’s capital, Edinburgh).

In 1650 Oliver Cromwell defeated the Scots at the battle of Dunbar but was left holding thousands of prisoners. His own troops had almost run out of supplies so he forced the Scots on a march from Dunbar to Durham with no food or water, hundreds died and some were interned in Durham Cathedral.

What caught my eye though was the 1500 that survived, most were shipped to the New World, but 40 were sent to South Shields to work in salt pans. The new book tells of the fortunes of five highlanders taken on by two of Shields salt-pann owners who lived along the banks of the river Tyne.

Can you tell me about the plot and what happens to the five Scots lads in Shields ?

It’s a bit difficult to do without giving out any spoilers, but one of my old friends from South Shields Grammar Technical School in the 1960s Bob Colls, who went on to become a Professor of Cultural History at De Montfort University and authored a book about George Orwell, has given an excellent summary of the new book:

‘It’s a rattling yarn that takes on the life and times of poor Tyneside fishers, fish wives, keel-men and panners. If you like a salty tale – love in the sand dunes, sweat in the salt houses, riding-the-stang and dodging the press gang, you’ll enjoy this book. If you are interested in how the poor lived in 1650 – by their wits, mainly – you’ll learn something too.’

Was salt making important to the town and what sort of life did salt workers lead?

Making salt by boiling sea water was practised in both North and South Shields form the 1300s. It probably started to help fishers to preserve their fish, by the 1600s it was a major industry.

The sea water that flowed into the Tyne at high tide passed through pipes into wells, then it was pumped into iron panns that were 20 ft long, 14 ft wide and up to 14 inches deep. Coal would be carried from keels (boats) into the salt-house where panns were heated over a furnace.  

In all it was a dangerous and hard job as workers would stoke fires, pump waters, and carry newly formed salt into the sheds where the salt dried out to be weighed and measured by excise men.

A Shields pann would produce highest quality white salt that was in demand not just from local fishers, but for shipping to the rest of England. In the 1600s there were more than 150 panns producing the ‘white gold’ and pann owners made fortunes.

Keelmen Playing at Cards (reproduced by permission of Durham County Record Office, Mackenzie and Dent, Histories of Northumberland Durham and Newcastle (Newcastle vol 1 294a) – 183

‘Weel may the keel row’ is a song known to many older Tynesiders. Do the keelmen come into the story?

Wye aye they do! The City of Newcastle had a royal monopoly over trade on the Tyne, which was a dangerous river to navigate in the days of sail, so most ship’s master’s preferred to moor their vessels near to the river mouth, and transported their cargo to and from Newcastle by keels – keels were boats 42 ft long and 19 foot wide.

At the stern, the skipper steered the boat with a long oar called a swape, and two bullies (crewmen) and a boy propelled the keel with an even longer oar. Coal was a major export, and the keels would carry coals to the colliers waiting at the mouth of the Tyne. The keelmen were mostly from Scotland and wore blue bonnets, the young lassies would fall for them – dimples and all.

In research did you come across any unusual stories ?

To be honest Gary it was all strange to me, but here are two. One-eyed seamen were a common sight in the ale-houses of Shields. To find the latitude of a ship, a device known as a Jacob’s Cross was used – a long stick with a cross piece was held to the eye with one end to the sun and one to the horizon – the markings on the stick gave the latitude. Gazing for long periods at the sun lead to blindness.

Another I came across was the story of the Royal Navy who always laid in wait for ships returning from voyages to board the vessel and press gang the crew. To beat this many ships would anchor a few mile away and make a swift swap and discharge their able-bodied crewmen and take on in their place boys aged under 10, plus one-legged or one-armed unfit old seamen, just enough to carry the ship to a mooring place.

When is the book released and where can people buy it?

It’s out now on Amazon as a paperback and kindle, and on sale at The Word library shop in South Shields.

Alikivi  July 2022

SUMMER MUSIC ON THE TYNE

Mouth of the Tyne Festival, Tynemouth Priory 2022 pic. Paul Appleby

Well that wasn’t a bad place to do some filming. The past couple of years I’ve not been ‘on the tools’ doing as much camera work as I used to but this month was working on two video screen camera set up’s with the first at Mouth of the Tyne Festival at Tynemouth Priory where Keane headlined to a sell-out crowd (2019 pre covid was The Proclaimers and Rik Astley) plus at South Shields Bents Park on Sunday 10th July was Beth Macari supporting Will Young to an estimated 20,000+ crowd.

Will Young at Bent’s Park, South Shields pic. Lee Davison

Both were captured by stunning drone shots which pictured the scale of the events held next to the coastline and on the North and South of the Tyne, plus the huge audiences soaking up the music and sun on a blistering hot summer weekend. Lee Davison was at Shields (with his pics making The Shields Gazette) and professional photographer Paul Appleby was at Tynemouth.

Keane at Tynemouth Priory pic. Paul Appleby

Check out Paul’s work at:

https://www.facebook.com/PaulApplebyPhotography

Alikivi   July 2022

KEEP OFF THE GRASS with Orwell Society member Brian Thompson

Museum worker and book collector Brian from Kingston Park, Newcastle, first came across George OrwellWhen I read Animal Farm at Benfield Road Comprehensive school in the 1970s then in 1980 read Nineteen Eighty Four which were both great, then in 1997 I watched the film Keep the Aspidistra Flying which I loved, then I was hooked”.

“I then read all of Orwell’s novels back to back. I also had the privilege to meet briefly, the actor John Hurt at the North East premiere of the film Nineteen Eighty-Four in 1984 at the Tyneside Cinema, and get his autograph which is now framed and on the wall”.

When did you first find out about The Orwell Society “Around six years ago I was reading Down & Out in Paris and London and a quick internet search took me to the Orwell Society. I liked the aims of the group so applied for membership and joined in 2017”.

George Orwell (real name Eric Arthur Blair) was married to South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy who is buried in St Andrew’s Cemetery, Jesmond. When did you first come across Eileen’s grave ?

“I was reading a local history book about Tyneside when I saw it in a Did You Know section.

(Tyneside: A History of Newcastle and Gateshead from Earliest Times by Alistair Moffat and George Rosie, first published 2005).

So I visited in 2017 and it was remarkable how easy I found it. It was looking a bit shabby with overgrown weeds so I went to the shops and bought some flowers. Next day I brought along some long nosed decorating scissors and give the grass a good cut”.

“Through The Orwell Society I contacted Richard Blair (George Orwell’s son) and told him what I was doing, he asked me to plant a white rose along with bedding plants”.

Eileen Blair headstone & plaque St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond (pic Alikivi collection)

Next to the modest headstone there is a plaque, how did this come about ?

“When I visited the grave people were asking me who was buried there so I contacted Richard again and ran the idea past him about putting up a plaque. He agreed it would be a great idea”.

“I got some flat grey Lakeland stone and attached a small plaque, it came out great, really proud of it”.

The Orwell Society at St Andrews Cemetery, Jesmond, Sunday 27/3/2022 (pic Alikivi collection)

Were you at the events for the 77th anniversary of Eileen’s death ?

“Yes along with the Orwell Society we watched the film Wildflower, the author Sylvia Topp was there and walks to locations where Eileen lived plus the blue plaque at South Shields – it was fantastic”.

Have you any events planned in the future ?

“I’d love to go to Barnhill where Orwelll wrote 1984 but for now I’ll continue to tend to Eileen’s grave, it’s a pleasure – like you I think we are under her spell” (laughs).

For more information & how to join the Orwell Society contact:

http://www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi   April 2022

UNDER HER SPELL : Eileen O’Shaughnessy (1905-45)

Memories of events years ago can sometimes be sketchy but after checking my diaries and emails it was March 2012 when I was shown a South Shields birth certificate for Eileen O’Shaughnessy by the Local History Librarian Ann Sharp.

We bumped into each other near South Shields Registry Office where I was going to collect a family research certificate. The Orwell connection peaked my interest but was more intrigued when I noticed her birth address was Park Terrace, now re-named Lawe Road – just two minutes from where I live.

I wasn’t a fan of Orwell’s writing then, I heard about him – who hasn’t? Over 20 year ago I went to see a theatre production of 1984 at Newcastle Playhouse, and have since read 1984, Homage to Catalonia, Down and Out in Paris and London plus selected essays and journalism but it was more from a local history angle that I first approached this story.

In May 2012, May being Local History month in South Tyneside, a display appeared in South Shields Library and an earlier blog from October 2018 mentions this –

There were three large boards. On the left was a birth certificate and census records. To the right was a photo of George Orwell and a picture of a cemetery in Newcastle. In the middle was a large black and white photograph with about a dozen men standing near sandbags and a machine gun at the front, obviously a war image. Then I noticed a dark haired woman crouching behind the machine gun. I looked closer and got goose bumps’.

Who was this woman who was born in South Shields married to one of the most controversial writers of the 20th century, buried in Newcastle and had a photo taken on the front line of a war ?

Ann mentioned that Eileen had been to the Spanish Civil War explaining the photograph, also “an American lady has been in she is researching for a book about Eileen”. That was Sylvia Topp and she left note looking for any help searching locations where Eileen lived.

Sylvia Topp outside The Customs House, South Shields 10 May 2012 (pic Alikivi collection)

We arranged to meet and I took Sylvia down to South Shields riverside and The Customs House where Eileen’s father worked as a Customs Collector, then into the town centre where he had an office then onto her childhood home in Beach Road.

Afterwards we had a meal in the Italian Restaurant on Winchester Street and left it where I would look into Eileen’s North East life. This proved difficult because there wasn’t much information out there about Eileen.

As the months passed the research grew and in the blog Oct. 2018 –

There wasn’t much information out there just a few bits and pieces that had been mentioned in Orwell books. So there was extensive research over the next year or so. Phone calls, letters, checking and re-checking details.

Interviews on camera were arranged around the country. One led to another, and another. It felt like being gently nudged along to find more about her. I never came across any obstacles, everybody asked wanted to be part of the documentary and were only too happy to help’.

I remember the time I was filming in Sunderland Church High School where Eileen was a pupil. I phoned reception who passed on my number to former Head of English, Sylvia Minto. Next day she rang and we arranged to meet at the school.

We filmed in the main hall where the walls were full of honours boards with names of pupils who went onto higher education. Eileen read English at St Hugh’s College, Oxford and her name was on a board. That same board is now in a room in my house.

A couple of years ago the school was closing down and the receptionist remembered me and got in touch – “of course I’ll have it” not realising the sheer weight and size of the board at 5ft x 3ft !

Someone else who was also captivated by Eileen was South Shields born Professor Robert Colls who had just published his book George Orwell – English Rebel.

pic courtesy of The Shields Gazette

Then teaching cultural history at De Montfort University, Leicester, Colls featured in an article in The Shields Gazette (25 October 2013) by local journalist Terry Kelly.

Colls said “One of the pleasures of writing about Orwell was not only getting to know him, but getting to know Eileen. The evidence is sparse but I really like her and Orwell’s spirit was lifted after meeting her. Her letters show great fun and sharp wit. Getting to know Eileen was an unexpected treat”.

In the October 2018 blog I finished off with –

‘Who knew that a library visit in 2012 would take me and my camera, from South Shields to Sunderland, Newcastle, Stockton, Warwickshire, Oxford, London and finally Barcelona. I remember I had the camera in my backpack walking through Barcelona Airport thinking how did I get here. It seemed so effortless, the whole process just fell into place’.

Link to a short edit of the film ‘Wildflower’  

George Orwell’s first wife, South Shields born Eileen O’Shaughnessy (Alikivi, 11mins edit) – YouTube

To find out more information or how to join the Orwell Society check the official website:  www.orwellsociety.com

Alikivi  March 2022.

PICTURES OF AMY:  BLUE PLAQUE for MISS FLAGG (1893-1965)

After researching the life and making a documentary about South Shields historian & photographer Amy Flagg, I was impressed by Amy’s work and thought she deserved recognition so I put forward a nomination for a blue plaque to be placed in the town to celebrate her achievements.

Reported to be a shy and quiet person, Amy was one of only a few female photographers working in the UK when she started photographing the housing clearances along South Shields riverside in the 1930’s.

In addition to her love of photography, she had a passion for researching the town’s history and collated notes about the towns shipbuilding heritage which were later published in 1979.

Amy volunteered at the Ingham Infirmary and South Shields Public Library, she also enjoyed her garden at home in Chapel House, Westoe Village. In 1962, she gave the grounds of Chapel House to South Shields Corporation to enable the expansion of the Marine and Technical College.

On her death in 1965, she left a substantial sum of money to the infirmary and bequeathed her extensive collection of photographs and notes to the towns Library.

Bomb damage after an enemy air raid in South Shields Market Place. pic courtesy of South Tyneside Council.

Amy’s work is most notable for the haunting images she took in the aftermath of enemy air raids during the Second World War, they are an important and unique record of the impact of war on the town.

She was a very courageous woman, at nearly 50 years old she was climbing onto bomb sites and demolished houses to get the picture – where the bombs dropped she captured the scars with her camera.

Amy printed the photographs in her dark room at home and the images are her most precious legacy. When I first came across them back in 2008 in the Local History Library I thought they looked incredible and to find that a lady from South Shields took them was an inspiration.

So it was a great pleasure to be invited to see a blue plaque officially unveiled on 8 March 2022 to celebrate the life and work of Amy Flagg. The Mayor of South Tyneside, Councillor Pat Hay, unveiled the plaque at Chapel House.

“It was a great honour to unveil the blue plaque to commemorate Amy Flagg. She was an incredible photographer and historian. She also dedicated much of her time volunteering in her community”.

“This plaque is a tribute to Amy’s life, her remarkable contribution to the rich heritage of the area and the amazing legacy she left behind. She will be remembered for many years to come.”

The Mayor was joined by the Mayoress Jean Copp, Leader of South Tyneside Council, Councillor Tracey Dixon and Deputy Leader Councillor Joan Atkinson, two actors from Beamish Museum plus residents of Westoe Village also joined the celebration.

To mark the occasion South Shields Museum and Art Gallery is showcasing some of Amy’s photographs and her research, plus the documentary (link below) will be shown. The display is available until June.

There’s also a small display of Amy’s work in South Shields new cultural centre and library, The Word.

Thanks to South Tyneside Council and South Shields Museum & Art Gallery for additional information.

Alikivi   March 2022

DONE DEAL IN AMERICA with ex TYTAN & LYIN’ RAMPANT VOCALIST STEWARTIE ADAMS

Earlier this month in Tartan Spirit Stewartie Adams looked back on his time gigging in ‘80s London and recording an album Up and Cumin’.

He also mentioned an American record company had shown interest in re-releasing the album, he’s just received news they are going ahead with plans plus offering a three year deal.

“Yeh we are very pleased that the album is still getting interest after all these years, it’s great news for us. We are delighted that the album is getting another re-release by the company from across the pond”.

“Guitarist Eddie Trainer (ex-Heavy Pettin’) and myself would like to personally thank John W Edwards and Renaissance Records for giving our album ‘Up and Cumin’ another chance”.

“The album was originally recorded over three days at the Slaughterhouse studios at Prism Records in Great Driffield, Yorkshire, it was produced by a guy called Scott Peters who was known more for producing pop music for the record company – but we think he done a great job for us”.

1987 album cover for ‘Up and Cumin’

On the launch of the record in 1987 the Lyin’ Rampant official press release was based on a review of the album.

‘Every feminist instinct I possess demands that I denounce this heavy metal artifact for the unmitigated load of sexist crap but I find that I cannot, if only because the press release is redeemed by their publicist’s sense of humour? Well to an extent!’

The story of Lyin’ Rampant unfolds in 1983, when walking distillery Stewartie Adams returned North of the border. The Lyin’ goes from strength to strength – when it can stand up that is. The material is a lite-metal amalgam of Rush, Journey and REO Speedwagon.

The rockers and the requisite slow ones bear at least some resemblance to their equivalents on many other metal LP’s. However let us not forget Stewartie Adams one of the best new HM singers heard in ages, at least his vocals make this album worth a listen.

What are the rest of the band up to ? “I’ve lost touch with most of the members over the years, but I still keep in touch with our original guitarist and co-writer Eddie Trainer, we are hoping to get together and work on some new tracks in the future”.

Have you still got a bit of fire in the belly then ?

“We both have unfinished ideas recorded and it’s just finding the time to start working on them, but in my current situation of caring for my 95 year old father who has dementia, makes it a bit difficult but I’m sure we will get there in the end”.

For further info contact the official websites:

www.stewartieadams.co.uk

www.renaissancerecordsus.com

Interview by Alikivi  March 2022

SHEARER STRIKES FOR WOR BELLA

pic. courtesy Shields Gazette

Writer and Theatre producer Ed Waugh and ex-professional footballer now TV pundit Alan Shearer, who were both brought up on the Grange Estate in Gosforth, are involved in a new stage play touring the North East.

The former Newcastle United & England striker has filmed a piece to-camera talking about Bella Reay the Blyth Spartans Ladies centre forward who scored an incredible 133 goals in 30 games while working as a munitionette to save the WW1 effort.

Alan said “The story of the munitionettes – working 60 hours a week in dangerous and physically demanding conditions – and still found time to play football for wartime charities, is both incredible and inspirational. I’m proud to be part of this excellent play.”

Bella Reay

Ed Waugh, writer of Wor Bella, said “Bella has been described as ‘the Alan Shearer of her day’, so who better to ask for his half-time analysis than the great man himself. It’s a massive coup for us”.

Ed added “Alan has been tremendous. As soon as he heard about the story he came on board and provided his time for free. We would like to thank Alan for his support, and are delighted to do post-show collections for the Alan Shearer Foundation”.

“The Foundation was set up to support the Alan Shearer Centre in Newcastle which  provides a range of specialist respite, residential and social facilities for people with complex disabilities.”

The stage play Wor Bella, starring Lauren Waine as Bella Reay, tours the North East from March 25 taking in Blyth Phoenix Theatre, Hexham Queen Hall, Newcastle Theatre Royal, Alnwick Playhouse, Whitley Bay Playhouse and ending at South Shields Westovian Theatre on Saturday April 2.

For more information visit www.worbella.co.uk for tour dates & venues.

For further details about the Alan Shearer Foundation visit:

www.alanshearerfoundation.org.uk

Alikivi  March 2022

TARTAN SPIRIT with former Tytan & Lyin’ Rampant vocalist/guitarist Stewartie Adams

Stewartie packed his guitar jumped on the overnight coach and left his hometown of Glasgow for what he hoped were better times in the capital….

In 1981 I got a call to go down to London for an audition as one of my drummer friends was the drum roadie for Dave Dufort of Tytan. The audition was at Edwin Shirley Trucking where we had a rehearsal room – out of all the guitarists I was the lucky one and got the gig with Tytan.

Heavy metal band Tytan formed in 1981 out of the New Wave of British Heavy Metal (NWOBHM), the original line-up was former Angel Witch bassist Kev Riddles, drummer Dave Dufort, vocalist Kal Swan with guitarists Steve Gibbs and Stewartie Adams.

Unfortunately the gig didn’t go according to plan… It was a shame as I was so privileged to get the guitar job and loved the band and the music we were playing. I got on great with the other guys but had to leave as one of my parents was diagnosed with a terminal illness so decided to go back home.

It’s something I felt I had to do even after all the hard work we put in rehearsing, photo shoots, etc. Unfortunately I never recorded or got the chance to play any live shows and I’ve lost touch with the guys but I still keep in touch with bass player big Kev Riddles now and then.

After leaving Tytan I was in Scotland this was roughly about 1983 and I teamed up with ex-Heavy Pettin’ guitarist Eddie Trainer, an old bass player friend Cami Morlotti and a couple of other musicians and we eventually became Lyin’ Rampant.

We recorded our debut album Up and Cumin around 1985 with Independent record company Prism Records in Great Driffield, Yorkshire. We were stable mates with a band called The Mission along with a few others, after a long delay the album eventually got released in 1987.

We were delighted how the recording and the cover turned out considering it had only taken three days recording tracks in the studio. To promote the album that summer we filmed a video in Glasgow Mayfair nightclub for a Cable TV station where I was singer and played some guitar parts on the album.

As far as I know the photo on the front cover of the album was a London model who was hired by the record company. We had given them a rough idea of what we wanted and they done the rest – unfortunately she wasn’t a girlfriend of any of us and we never met her !

We had some great times recording in the studio at Prism Records and gigging in venues like The London Marquee which we played a few times, also recording at BBC studios for The Tommy Vance Rock show for BBC Radio One. But the final nail in the coffin for Lyin’ Rampant was in 1991 after our record company went into liquidation.

What are you doing now ? I’m not having a great deal of luck. Unfortunately I’m back in the same situation as I was with Tytan, only this time caring for my 95 year old father who has Dementia. I have no other family and don’t want to see him going into a care home, so once again my musical career has been put on hold.

Funnily enough I’ve been in touch with a record company in Phoenix USA who may be interested in re-releasing the Lyin’ Rampart album again, that would be great if it happens. I’ll just have to wait and see and just hope that I have better luck this time around. When I get the chance I still write and record new songs but it’s hard in the present situation I’m in.

Original line up of Lyin’ Rampant

Looking back it was great during the NWOBHM times in London, we used to hang out in places like The Marquee club and pubs like The Ship Inn and The Intrepid Fox in Wardour Street in Soho, it was full of rock fans and musicians it had a great atmosphere. We managed to see bands like Iron Maiden, Judas Priest, Motörhead, Girlschool – yeh good times.
There were some great bands to come out of the NWOBHM movement which have stood the test of time. One of them are Tytan who have reformed and are back on the road again with a new line up just like a few other bands from back then that are doing well.

For more info check the official website:  www.stewartieadams.co.uk

Interview by Alikivi  March 2022

JUST AN ILLUSION – South Shields Street Art

For the next couple of days South Shields town centre is hosting Joe and Gavin two street artists from London, Joe took five minutes out to explain their latest project.

We’re painting a large picture on the ground which is filled up with sea water, lots of sea life and a mini lifeboat, it’s a 3D illusion and the French call it trompe l’oeil meaning a trick of the eye. Hopefully when it’s finished people will look at it and see a big hole in the pavement and interact with it and get their pictures taken.

If it rains we should be alright as it’s acrylic paint which is pretty durable and we’re going to put a bit of a matt varnish on it at the end so that will keep it looking good for a while.

We’ve done a few of these since 2005, not in this area but we done two pictures in Newcastle in summer last year. This is part of the Cultural Spring which is to get people interested in art because if you wouldn’t normally go in a gallery you can see it in the street – and we can hopefully get people excited about it and help lift the spirits after the bad times we’ve gone through over the last few years.

For more info check the official website:

3djoeandmax.com

Interview Alikivi  2022

WHAT DID THE ROMANS DO FOR US ? in conversation with Alexandra Croom, Keeper of Archaeology at Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort

Alexander Croom at Arbeia Roman Fort, South Shields (pic. Alikivi 2022)

By the end of the first century AD, the Roman army was firmly established in the North East. Hadrian had built an 80 mile long wall by AD128, some years later a fort was built on barren land in what became Newcastle and on the coastline overlooking the river Tyne a fort was built in South Shields.

Living a stone’s throw away I’ve been interested in the Roman fort so I popped over to the museum met Alex Croom and asked ‘What did the Romans do for us ?’

When expanding the Roman empire across the world Emperor Septimius Severus arrived in the UK from Rome and started his Scotland campaign so the South Shields fort was converted into a supply base. He brought over his two sons Caracalla and Geta, we aren’t sure of the reason but it might have been to drag them away from the flesh pots of Rome and learn to be warriors rather than playboys.

After multiple successful military campaigns was Emperor Septimius Severus the first rock star of Rome ? I’m not sure of that (laughs). Sadly in the middle of fighting Septimius died of sickness in York in 211AD. We think his sons left South Shields quickly after his death to get back to Rome as we have an altar which is inscribed To the gods the Preservers the unit at Lugudunum paid its vow for their safe return.

What attracted you to archaeology ? I love archaeology and finding out how people lived many years ago, the Greeks and Romans have a lot in common but it’s the Romans I’m more fascinated with.

I’m originally from Berkshire and have worked at South Shields Roman Fort for over 30 odd years now. When I finished studying at Newcastle University I came here and started work as a trainee in 1986.

It was an exciting time as a lot was going on with the reconstruction of the West Gate. South Shields is also unique in the Roman Empire as the only supply base that’s been excavated.

Why is there a fort in South Shields ? Forty years after Hadrian’s Wall was built a stone fort at South Shields was positioned on the Lawe Top. They would look out to check who’s coming into the North Sea and river Tyne thus making it difficult to get past. Directly across river is North Shields, there is no evidence of a fort there but you never know.

Roman Fort with surrounding houses and school (bottom of pic) being demolished in 1966 at the Lawe Top next to the river Tyne.

Today the Roman Fort is surrounded by a modern school and housing are there plans to reveal more of the remains ? There is only one row of houses left that are built on remains, they are near the East Gate, but there is plenty of unexcavated areas inside the fort that we can work on. Of course outside the fort there are all the other houses built over the civilian settlement, temple, baths, cemetery and training ground.

After the Romans left, the area was open fields until 1875, the Victorians knew there were Roman remains here as pottery, tile and coins were found during ploughing, and there were various bits thrown under hedgerows.

They wanted to dig the fort up because they thought it was going to be lost for ever when housing was built over it. After the dig mounds of soil was placed on top so it preserved the remains, a Roman Remains Park was set up in the 1880’s.

From the 1900’s the Lawe Top was built up by the Victorians, rows of housing, churches and a school were built in the area, after a number of years some houses were demolished in 1966.

As houses were being demolished the remains of the North gate were exposed with a lot of stones surviving, by 1977 the Victorian school was ready to be demolished and the south east corner of the fort excavated.

You never know how much there is until you dig down to the Roman layers, they would have been surprised to see how much was there.

Victorian school ready to be demolished in 1977 with the Roman fort south west corner being excavated.

The curve on the corners of the fort are original, Roman forts always had curved corners although the buildings inside had 90 degree corners. They may have been built that way for the watchtowers which were two to three stories high and rather similar in size to the reconstructed West Gate, also they were wide enough for soldiers to walk the wall.

I remember in 2005 TV’s Time Team (Tower Blocks & Togas, series 12 episode 12) came in to film a dig and we were in the area of the Lawe Top where the Roman cemetery was. We knew this because we had dug there before and the Victorians had found graves but Time Team only found one bit of human bone. It was so frustrating because we were in the area where the Regina tombstone was found.

What building would you like to find ? I’d like to find the bath house. All forts have a settlement outside with a temple, cemetery, houses and bath house but unfortunately we don’t know where it is.

What object would you like to find ? Any find is a great find on a dig but I would like to find an inscription of the name of the fort. We’ve got an altar here with what we think is the first name but it’s very worn so we would like something to confirm Lugudunum as the original name.

In the third or fourth century the fort was attacked and parts of it were burnt down, it was rebuilt and its new name which remains to this day, Arbeia, means ‘the place of the Arabs’ after the arrival of a unit of Tigris Bargemen.

Reconstructed barracks on the south west corner of Arbeia Roman fort. (pic Alikivi 2022)

What would you like for the future of the Roman Fort ? What we’d really like is a new museum, our existing museum on the Lawe Top was built in the 1950’s and is limited in exhibition space. We’ve had a lot of excavations over the years and there is a lot of objects that we would love to display.

Arbeia, Roman Fort is open from 28 March – 2 October 2022.

Tel: 0191 277 1409 or check the official website

Arbeia South Shields Roman Fort (arbeiaromanfort.org.uk)

Interview by Alikivi  March 2022