South Shields (or locally known just as Shields) is a coastal town in Tyne and Wear, England, located at the mouth of the River Tyne to Tyne Dock, and about downstream from Newcastle upon Tyne. Historically within County Durham, the town has a population of 82,854, the second largest population centre in the Tyneside conurbation after Newcastle. It is part of the metropolitan borough of South Tyneside, which includes the riverside towns of Jarrow and Hebburn and the villages of Boldon, Cleadon and Whitburn. South Shields is represented in parliament by Labour party MP Emma Lewell-Buck.
The first evidence of a settlement within what is now the town of South Shields dates from pre-historic times. Stone Age arrow heads and an Iron Age round house have been discovered on the site of Arbeia Roman Fort. The Romans built a fort here around AD 160 and expanded it around AD 208 to help supply their soldiers along Hadrian's Wall. Divisions living at the fort included Tigris bargemen (from Persia / modern day Iraq), Spanish / French soldiers and Syrian archers / spearmen. The fort was abandoned as the Roman Empire declined in the 4th century AD. Many ruins still exist today and some structures have been rebuilt as part of a modern museum and popular tourist attraction.
There is evidence that the site was used in the early post-Roman period as a British settlement. It is believed it became a royal residence of King Oswald of Northumbria; records show that his son Oswin was born within 'Caer Urfa', by which name the fort is thought to be known after the Romans left. Furthermore, Bede records Oswin giving a parcel of land to St Hilda for the foundation of a monastery here in c.647; the present-day church of St Hilda, by the Market Place, is said to stand on the monastic site.
The current town was founded in 1245 and developed as a fishing port. The name South Shields developed from the 'Schele' or 'Shield', which was a small dwelling used by fishermen. Salt-panning expanded as an industry in the 15th century, polluting the air and surrounding land. In 1644 during the English Civil War, Parliament's Scottish Covenanter allies captured the town and its small fortification close to the site of the original Roman fort to aid their ongoing siege of Newcastle. This was in a bid to control the mouth of the River Tyne and caused the Royalist force to flee south, leading to the Battle of Boldon Hill.
In the 19th century, coal mining, alkaline production and glass making led to a boom in the town. The population increased from 12,000 in 1801 to 75,000 by the 1860s, bolstered by economic migration from Ireland, Scotland and other parts of England. These industries played a fundamental part in creating wealth both regionally and nationally. In 1832, with the Great Reform Act, South Shields and Gateshead were each given their own Member of Parliament and became boroughs, resulting in taxes being paid to the Government instead of the Bishops of Durham. However, the rapid growth in population brought on by the expansion of industry made sanitation a problem, as evident by Cholera outbreaks and the building of the now-listed Cleadon Water Tower to combat the problem. In the 1850s 'The Tyne Improvement Commission' began to develop the river, dredging it to make it deeper and building the large, impressive North and South Piers to help prevent silt build up within the channel. Shipbuilding (along with coal mining), previously a monopoly of the Freemen of Newcastle, became another prominent industry in the town, with John Readhead & Sons Shipyard the largest.
During World War I, German Zeppelin airships bombed South Shields in 1915. Later during World War II, the German Luftwaffe repeatedly attacked the town and caused massive damage to industry and killed many residents. Gradually throughout the 20th century, coal and shipbuilding industries ceased, due to competitive pressures from more cost effective sources of energy and more efficient shipbuilding elsewhere in Europe and in Asia. In the 21st century, the local economy primarily includes port-related, ship repair and offshore industries, manufacturing, retail, the public sector and the ever increasing role of tourism.