Topics > Historical Periods > Roman Period (43 to 409 AD) > Roman South Shields

Roman South Shields

Extract from: The Borough of South Shields: From the Earliest Period to the Close of the Nineteenth Century. by George B. Hodgson, 1903


It was, in all probability, Agricola who founded Roman South Shields, after his subjugation of this part of the country about 80 a.d. The station erected on the Lawe was one of the most important of the many erected by the Roman conquerors, dominating, as it did, the entrance to the principal harbour along a long stretch of coast-line. Although it is only within the past thirty years that the Roman station has been thoroughly explored, traces of the Roman occupation have been discovered in the town at various times. Towards the close of the reign of Charles ii., in 1682, three altars were found, two on the Lawe and one built into a quay wall in the old part of the town. Of the latter no description is available. Of the two former, one found near the north-western angle of the camp had borne an inscription which was effaced, but the sides and back bore sculptured representations of the usual sacrificial vessels and knife. This was removed by that zealous antiquary. Dr. Hunter, to the museum of the Dean and Chapter of Durham. The second, on which the sculpture was in a much better state of preservation on the sides and back, although the inscription on the face of the altar was damaged, was deposited in the Ashmolean Museum at Oxford. The inscription, as translated by Dr. Bruce,^ shows that it was erected in 211 a.d. on the departure of Caracalla and Geta, the sons of Severus, who jointly assumed the title of Emperor. It was dedicated to Jupiter, with a prayer for the safe return home of the voyagers. The prayer was not destined to be answered in its fullest sense. The imperial brothers indeed reached Rome in safety, but Geta fell a victim to his brother's lust for power, his very name being erased, as in this case, from all inscriptions in which the pair were jointly mentioned. The next recorded discovery was made over a century later. In September 1791, as some labourers were levelling the hill near the Lawe House, they discovered a flat stone, about 2 feet 6 inches in diameter, which bore the marks of fire on the upper side. It was supported by two rude pillars of about 10 inches in length, and beneath it was a quantity of earth resembling red ashes. On a level with the bottom of the pillars was a circular pavement of flat freestone. This was in all probability part of the hypocaust which was uncovered near the same place in February 1798, by some workmen in the employment of Mr. Fairies, and of which a plan has been preserved. The lowest course was of rough whinstone, evidently brought from the neighbouring seashore, as the barnacles still adhered to the stone. The masonry of the upper courses consisted of brick and dressed freestone intermingled. A beautiful gold coin of Marcus Aurelius (161-180 a.d.) and several small brass coins of various reigns, from Claudius Grothicus (268-70 A.D.) to Valentinian (364-75 a.d.), were also dug up, and remained in the possession of Mr. Fairies to the time of his death. Fragments of Roman bricks and pottery were frequently turned up on and adjoining the Lawe whenever it was under cultivation. A fine copper coin of the Emperor Hadrian (117-138 a.d.), found on the Lawe in April 1849, was sold by its discoverer for the magnificent sum of sevenpence !

The story of how Roman South Shields was rediscovered and in a manner recon- structed, is honourable to the enterprise and public spirit of the borough. Soon after the Manor of Westoe passed from the hands of the Dean and Chapter into those of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, the latter body, in order to develop the Shields Heugh estate for building purposes, constructed a new thoroughfare, now called Baring Street, from Ocean Road to Green's Terrace. While the excavations for this street were in progress in October 1874, a quantity of Roman pottery was found, and subsequently several other relics were discovered, including a perfect column and parts of others, several pieces of Samian ware, and part of a paved road. These discoveries naturally awakened much interest, and several local gentlemen, who were in the habit of meeting weekly at Mr. Luke Mackay's, deputed two of their number, the late George Lyall and Thomas Lincoln, to wait upon the local agent of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners, Alderman Broughton, then Mayor, and request his permission to excavate in a field on the Lawe, where they had reason to believe a Roman fort had formerly existed. Alderman Broughton very readily gave the required permission, on condition that whatever relics were found should be deposited in the Public Library. This interview took place on March 2, 1875, and the excavation was informally commenced the same evening. The results fully justified the expectations of the local antiquaries, and it was determined if possible that the site should be thoroughly explored. A town's meeting was held on March 6, ample funds guaranteed, and a strong committee appointed, the executive being the Mayor, president; the late George Lyall, vice-chairman; Robert Blair (now Honorary Secretary to the Society of Antiquaries, Newcastle), honorary secretary ; and Luke Mackay, treasurer. The late Dr. Hooppell, then headmaster of the Marine School, lent valuable aid in the work of exploration, which commenced a week later, and was continued until August 1877, at a total cost of £279 16s. 6d. The expenditure was much decreased by the enthusiasm of the townsfolk, the excavations being continued gratuitously by relays of pilots in the evenings after the ordinary workmen had left.

The result of these efforts was to lay bare almost the entire arrangements of a fortified station, the wealth of Roman remains discovered being probably unexcelled at any other single station in the country. The fine collection in the Borough Museum, and the unique Blair Collection in the museum of the Newcastle Society of Antiquaries, have preserved to the public these invaluable relics of a historic past. The explorations proved conclusively that the Roman station at South Shields ranked among the largest in the North, exceeding in size that at the termination of the wall at Segedunum. It measured 615 feet in length from north to south, and 315 feet in breadth from east to west, the walls enclosing an area of over five acres.^ The southern rampart ran along what is now the line of the houses in Fort Street, the eastern behind the east side of Roman Road, the northern from the junction of back Roman Road with Beacon Street, obliquely across the line of Edith Street, and the western, where its remains are still to be seen, a little to the east of Baring Street.* Alike from its position and construction the station was of prodigious strength, and must have been well-nigh impregnable. The ramparts, constructed of massive squared stones, were 5 feet in thickness, sufficient for two soldiers to walk abreast around them. From the indications aflForded by the remains, they had been of considerable height, although the destruction wrought by the Danes and other marauders, by the builders of the old town, who used them as a convenient quarry, and by the hand of time, has deprived us of any exact information on this head. In some places five or six courses of the wall remained standing, but for the most part only the foundations were left. The ramparts were rounded at the angles, so as to render the task of an attacking force more difficult. The masonry at the south-east corner, which was in the best state of preservation, enabled a good idea to be obtained of the construction of the whole station. There were four gateways, those in the north and south being in the centre of their respective ramparts, while the eastern and western were opposite each other, about 200 feet from the northern and 400 feet from the southern wall. The remains of the eastern or seaward gateway were found in very good condition. It consisted of a massive double gate with two portals, each having two doors, while guardrooms were provided on each side. The southern gateway had apparently been blocked up and converted into a dwelling-house, probably in the later period of the Roman occupation.

The principal approach to the station was by the western gateway, from which a paved road ran along the high ridge of land by what is now Wellington Street and Heugh Street, across the site of the Market-Place to the Mill Dam, where a bridge of some sort, over the creek, probably attbrded means of access to the station. An enemy approaching the fort on its only practicable side would thus be exposed for a considerable distance to the attacks of the garrison, without being able to offer any effective reply. A paved road ran round the whole station, parallel with, and about 15 feet inside, the ramparts. About midway on a line between the northern and southern gateways, and communicating with each by a paved street, was situated the forum or market-place, 74 feet in length from east to west by 34 feet wide from north to south. It appears to have had a covered portico on three sides, and was paved almost wholly with flagged stones, bounded on the east, south, and west by a line of massive squared stones, which had served as footpaths and were much worn by feet. Within these was a line of channelled stones to carry off the water, which communicated with a system of main drains discharging by the northern gateway into the river. The drainage arrangements were so perfect that after fourteen centuries' disuse they carried a violent rainfall off from the forum as quickly as did the sewers from the streets of the modem town. About one-sixth of the area of the forum was covered by the prostrate but unbroken wall of a lofty building which had occupied the whole of the northern side. The height of the wall must have been at least 30 feet. The lower courses were standing upright, and the quantity of soil between the pavement and the overturned portion of the wall showed that it must have been thrown down long after the abandonment of the station. Beside this wall were found the three columns already mentioned. They bore evident marks of a fierce conflagration. The keystone of an arch bearing the sculptured head of an ox was also found here.

On the north side of the forum was a large open space, * the Westminster Hall of the Lawe,' as Dr. Bruce called it, in which litigants at the courts, or persons having business with the officials of the station, could wait. On the north side of this open space stood the remains of a strong building, in three divisions, the central being the cerarium, or treasury, flanked on each side by the niria^, or courts of justice. The only traces of the latter which remained were some portions of the red concrete of their flooring. The treasury was comparatively perfect, and its remains are still to be seen adjoining the footpath near the north-east comer of the small park enclosed by the Corporation. It must have been a massive building, with walls 4 feet thick, formed of large stones, which probably belonged to some prior building. They bad originally been bound together with iron clamps, but no trace of the iron-work remains. The floor is several feet below the level of the adjoining buildings, and the worn steps leading down into it testify to the length of time they must have been in use. The remains of a window, splayed to the interior, which had strong iron bars on the side next the forum, were found in the south wall of the building, and near its north side there is an oblong well or recess in the pavement, strongly lined with masonry, in which it is supposed the treasuro-chest of most value was deposited for safety. Dr. Bruce believed that the ' treasury ' was reconstructed and sunk below the natural level of the ground in later times when the Roman garrison became weak and discounted. Similar sunk chambers, it may be noted, were found at Aesica and Cilurnum.
The principal buildings of the station appear to have lain on the western side of the forum and to the south of the road from the eastern to the western gateway. Within this area the foundations of several large buildings were exposed, intercepted by two narrow streets running north and south, and by one wide thoroughfare running westward from the forum to the street within the ramparts. Adjoining the western gateway, on the south side of the street, between the east and west gates, were the remains of two large oblong build- ii^, one having a hypocaust with tiled floor. This building had possessed a portico on the south front, the bases of the supporting columns being found in position, where they still remain. To the south-west of these buildings were the foundations of several others, with passages beneath the floors for the hot air by which the buildings were warmed. Within the eastern rampart, about equidistant from the north and south walls, were the remains of buildings provided with hypocausts, the latter being coated with soot of such a character as to point conclusively to the use of mineral coal in the station. The foundations of other large buildings were found in the south-western angle of the station, while there were also evidences of the existence of a number of buildings outside the ramp&rts. On the strip of level land between the eastern wall and the seaward edge of the Lawe. the remains of several extra-mural buildings, apparently villas, have been found. The stone used in the station was chiefly of local origin, red and white and flaggy sandstone and a blue micaceous stone, such as is still wrought at the Deans Quarry and at Billy Mill Quarry on the north side of the river, and as was formerly obtained from the old quarry which once existed on the Lawe, but has long been disused and filled up. Blocks of the magnesian limestone, similar to that at Trow Rocbs and Marsden (where a Roman quarry existed), had also been used.
Roman Period (43 to 409 AD)


Add a comment or share a memory.

Login to add a comment. Sign-up if you don't already have an account.


Co-Curate is a project which brings together online collections, museums, universities, schools and community groups to make and re-make stories and images from North East England and Cumbria. Co-Curate is a trans-disciplinary project that will open up 'official' museum and 'un-officia'l co-created community-based collections and archives through innovative collaborative approaches using social media and open archives/data.