Item of the month: From tea rooms to decontamination centres – developments at South Shields sea front in the 1920s 

A post by archivist Andrew Gray

August means summer holidays.  And for many of us, summer holidays means days at the beach.  So this month, we celebrate the beaches at South Shields, and in particular the development of the foreshore north of the pier (Littlehaven beach) in the 1920s. 

Our item of the month comes in the middle of this development, so first some context.  The end of the 19th century saw the transformation of local government, culminating locally in the formation of South Shields County Borough in 1889. In 1896, the Corporation had got Parliament to pass the South Shields Corporation Act, “… to make better provision for the health and good government of the Borough and for other purposes.”  This gave the local authority extensive powers (among others) to acquire new lands, to regulate the use of the seafront and public bathing, and to lay out and manage public parks. During the first decades of the 20th century, they took advantage of their new powers, and development of the foreshores at South Shields was typical of this new ambition. 

Much of the work was carried out in the early 1920s under unemployment relief measures, including building a promenade with tennis courts and an open air swimming pool on Littlehaven beach.  It is the continuation of this work that is the subject of this month’s item from the Archives and Special Collections.  The item does not come from the archives of the corporation itself, but from those of the Ecclesiastical Commissioners (predecessors to the Church Commissioners).  Their land agents’ files were recently deposited with Durham University Library and Collections. 

Plan showing proposed extension to shops and tea rooms at South Shields, Littlehaven beach, by agent to Ecclesiastical Commissioners, 1925 (part of SMG/C/105/4). Reproduced with permission of Church Commissioners.

The Ecclesiastical Commissioners owned much of the land in and around South Shields (arising from the estates belonging to Durham Cathedral).  In 1925, their consent was required to continue use of the promenade, and to extend the row of shops and tea rooms which had been built earlier.  The above plan shows the facilities built in 1923, and was drawn up to indicate the planned extension (cross-hatched in red).  It comes from a group of 10 files relating to the development of the north and south foreshores (i.e. Littlehaven and Sandhaven beaches), between 1903 and 1954. 

Further items from this group of files are on display within our Penned and Printed gallery in Palace Green Library, including a photograph of the existing row of shops (shown in blue on the plan), and a news cutting from the South Shields Gazette describing the developments.  Swimmers will be pleased to note that sewage was tanked and pumped into the town sewerage system, not merely discharged to sea.  The 1920s method of emptying the swimming pool is, however, well below modern standards, as the cutting reports that chlorinated water was emptied directly onto the foreshore. 

The extension of the North Foreshore development is recommended for approval to the Ecclesiastical Commissioners in 1925.  Having reported that the corporation had spent £58,000 on the works shown in the plan, the land agent describes the row of shops and tea rooms as, “undoubtedly a desirable addition to the attractions of the sea front in the eyes of holiday visitors.” The Depression of the 1930s hit our region hard, and it is no surprise that some of the 1920s developments proved too ambitious.  By 1938, the row of shops featured on this plan were empty.  A news cutting shows them being converted into “decontamination centres” under the Air Raid Precautions (ARP) scheme – the use of poisoned gas during the First World War was a key part of earlier ARP planning.  A local agent has written on the cutting, “I think these are the shops … which proved to be a fiasco.”  The swimming pool is noted as “now being demolished” in June 1948.  By the 2010s, even the later structures had eroded sufficiently to implement a new scheme, removing some of the land that had been built onto the foreshore, creating new sea defences and installing public art.  The need for ambition within local government, and the powers to match, is as evident today as it was a hundred years ago. 

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