A town where no town ought to be

The motto ‘Our Harvest is from the Deep’ is taken from the old borough crest. It refers to the main two pillars of North Shields’ traditional economy – fishing and coal mining. Both are extremely tough occupations and so, historically, the townsfolk have needed to be very hardy and there have been many times when they have needed to ‘dig deep’.

The story of North Shields began to take shape in the 13th century when the Prior of Tynemouth for a fish quay and some shiels (simple dwellings) to be built down on the banks of the Tyne. During the medieval period the town flourished but after the dissolution of the Priory in tudor times, North Shields suffered, along with the other riverside communities, as the powerful burgesses of Newcastle claimed to handle all trade on the river. They tried to stop any ships from docking in North Shields and so tight was their stranglehold that, but for the doggedness of its people, the town could easily have withered and died. In 1653 local brewer Ralph Gardener, was imprisoned for refusing to close his brewery which was used to provision ships. In 1655 he petitioned Parliament against the unfair demands of Newcastle from his prison cell, calling it ‘England’s Grievences Discovered’.

One of Tyneside’s great working class heroes was miners leader, Thomas Burt, who became the first working man elected to Parliament. He was born in North Shields in 1837. His childhood was poverty stricken and, by the age of ten, Burt was already working underground. In his 20s he organised the Northumberland miners into a force to be reckoned with and then, in 1874 he was elected as MP for Morpeth. His landslide victory shook the pillars of the establishment and helped re-shape the political map of Britain as he fought for justice for working people. During his 39 years in Parliament, he continued to champion the working class cause and earned the respect of some of his bitterest political rival.

Many will have heard of the operation which lead to the retrieval of the secret Enigma code books from a German U-Boat in World War 2 but not everyone will know that a local man played a key role in the action. Thomas Brown served on the Tyne-built destroyer HMS Petard as a NAFFI canteen assistant and, despite being only 16 years of age, was one of three men who swam to the stricken submarine when it surfaced. Unfortunately his two naval colleagues both died in the U-Boat when it eventually sank but Thomas survived and was later awarded the George Medal in recognition of his bravery.

Mary Ann Macham, born into slavery on a Virginia plantation, fled captivity in 1831 and after crossing the Atlantic on an English ship, was eventually set ashore in North Shields. Here she found refuge with a Quaker family, the Spences, for whom she worked as a domestic servant. In 1841, at the age of 39, she married James Blyth, a local rope maker, and the couple lived for many years on Howard Street. Mary Anne died at the age of 91, after enjoying more than 60 years of freedom and is buried in Preston Village.

In 1963 Hasting Banda became the first Prime Minister of Malawi. His connection with North Shields came between 1942 and 1945 when he worked as a Medical Practitioner in a small private practice and also at Preston Hospital as a medical and public health officer. During that time, he lived as a tenant of Mrs Amy Walton in Alma Place and he continued to send her a Christmas card every year, right up to her death in the late 1960s.