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.

VILLAGE NEWS with Jean Stokes, author of a new book on Harton Village, South Shields, North East England.

What inspired you to write the book ?

I am a retired Art teacher and still live in Harton, where I was born and brought up. My father was born in Ferry Street in South Shields near the River Tyne, he took a great interest in the history of the town. I followed in his footsteps and joined South Shields Local History Group, where I’m currently vice chair.

Harton Village 1900 was written for two reasons, firstly with the aim of raising money for St Peter’s Church in Harton and secondly to prove that Harton had been a village. Locally we hear quite a lot of other villages such as Westoe Village and Cleadon Village, but little is made of Harton Village.

My mam and dad always called the shops in Harton ‘the Village’ and someone new to the area thought that this phase was just an affectation, so I decided to prove it wasn’t. I thought I would collect all the lovely, old, rural photos of Harton that I knew existed in the amazing archives at the South Tyneside Libraries and put them into one book.

They show just what Harton Village had been like at the beginning of the twentieth century when my parents were young and were brought on Sunday afternoon walks through the fields from South Shields town centre to enjoy the delights of the bow fronted sweet shop and the little aviary that then existed. I believed lots of other people would be interested in discovering what the village had looked like and hoped therefore the book would make a profit which I could donate to the church.

I had a copy of the Godfrey Map of Harton from 1895, bought at the museum in Ocean Road, and knew there was a census in 1891, and another in 1901, and since the earliest photographs of the village were from the turn of the century, I decided upon 1900 as a good date to explore just who lived in the village and what happened there.  

I’m interested in maps and buildings but also people and their lives. However, unless you lived in a grand house or a pub, the 1891 census does not provide information about where this or that family lived. 


A photograph from about 1945, from the South Tyneside Libraries site showing an awning on the left which belonged to the Ship Inn off sales. The pedestrian is walking west along Marsden Road, nearly at the junction with Sunderland Road, by the smithy and the cottage where Jemima had lived, the one with the open door. The smithy and cottages were pulled down in 1964 to provide a car park.

Did you come across any unusual stories when researching?

Amazingly I found a hand drawn map of Harton Village dated 1896 among church documents, naming each family and where they lived. A truly amazing piece of luck. With this, the census returns and the Godfrey Map I tried to bring the village to life with names and a little information about some of the individuals.  

A small example is that of widowed lady, Jemima Brown who in 1900, lived in one of the cottages next to the smithy, to the east of the Ship Inn. She was at that time the oldest inhabitant in the village.  

In 1902, when she was 89 the country celebrated the coronation of Edward VII and on Saturday 28th June Harton Village Council organised, as part of their coronation festivities, a drive for the old people of the parish in a horse drawn omnibus where she was given pride of place. The bus was provided courtesy of the manager of the South Shields Tramways Company, Mr John Wilson, and drove from Harton to Marsden, along the coast to Whitburn, returning through the fields to Cleadon and back to Harton.  

One of the omnibuses that travelled to Harton from King Street in 1900. Photograph from South Tyneside Libraries. Most probably this was one of the two buses that took Mrs Brown and the other elderly village residents on their delightful trip.

What did you use for research ?

Along with the Godfrey Map of 1895, the church warden’s handwritten plan with notes and the census returns, I also had access to some scrapbooks of the period held in the church which contain cuttings from the Shields Gazette and other printed information. On top of this I was also fortunate to be able to contact the descendants of some of the families I was writing about and obtain family photographs.  

The South Tyneside Library history site also provided some superb photographs.

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

I am busy working on a second book in what is to become a series on Harton, this will be called Harton Township 1921. The idea for this came about during my earlier research as I began to appreciate that Harton was far more than just the village and in fact was a significant area that stretched to the east along the coast from Trow Rocks to Marsden and westward as far as Simonside.  

The area in the west, which included Harton Colliery, was taken into South Shields in 1901 but it was not until 1921 that Harton was completely subsumed into The County Borough of South Shields. This second book will aim to tell the story of Harton Township from medieval times to 1921.  

I hope to have the new book ready for November 2021 to fully mark the anniversary of the end of rural Harton and the housing boom that covered the fields of the township.

Link to South Tyneside images: https://southtynesidehistory.co.uk/

Interview by Gary Alikivi  April 2021.