Fishing has been the lifeblood of North Shields since the 13th century when the monks of Tynemouth Priory gave permission for a quay to be built here. At that time, the fishermen were catching lampreys, smelt, sprat, conger eels, coal-fish and skate but by the year 1530, boats were sailing as far as Icelandic waters and bringing home ling and cod.
The town suffered from the dissolution of the Priory in 1539 and the severe restrictions on trade along the town imposed by the powerful burgesses of Newcastle. This was not fully resolved until the Port of Tyne was created in the 19th century but by that time, North Shields was once again thriving, with the newly completed Union Quay and its own busy fish market.
The fishing industry really came of age here with the advent of steam in the 1870s. By the early 1900s, twenty to thirty trawlers and well over a hundred smaller vessels were landing their catches daily. The busiest time of year was the herring season when the boat from all the east coast ports would follow the shoals down the length of the North Sea. Steam trawlers and liners were converted into drifters to capitalise on the harvest and as many as two hundred fishing boats might land their catch in a single day.On shore, the buskers, freshers, canners, kipperers and curers that brought and processed the fish were kept very busy, whilst others found employment in the ice factory, guano works, engine works, net and rope making shops, or in ship repair.In the boom years, thousands of people in the town relied on the industry for a living and there were also may who visited other ports.
The North Shields Fishermen’s Mission was established in 1897 to give support to fishermen and their families and it is still here on the Fish Quay today, depending solely on donations to continue its services.Tyne Brand. The ‘Shields Ice and Cold Storage Company’ was set up near the Fish Quay in 1901, later turning its attention to the canning of herrings and becoming the world famous ‘Tyne Brand’ with its distinctive oval cans. Over time, they expanded their range to include meat products, soup, jams and puddings.
In addition to the Fish Quay, the riverside here was kept busy in the 19th century with collier ships loading coal from Whitley Colliery and lime from Whitley Quarry. The wooden staiths, located by the ‘Gut’ at the mouth of the Pow Burn, were fed by a network of waggonways.