We have all surely seen them. Some times they are blue, occasionally they are black and invariably they are circular. They celebrate well known figures of the past and the buildings they were connected with. Sometimes they acknowledge the importance of the buildings themselves or the ground on which a building stands. They transport us back to the past and set in motion the wheels of discovery. They are variously known as commemorative plaques, memorial tablets or just plain and simple blue plaques.



Time, perhaps, to take a look at some of the blue plaques that are dotted about the streets of North Tyneside, a snapshot, perhaps, of the history of the place we have all chosen to call home.


We start our whirlwind journey facing St. Mary`s Lighthouse, one of the iconic buildings of North Tyneside, standing beside a large piece of sandstone with a blue plaque attached. In 1739, a certain Michael Curry murdered the landlord of the Three Horse Shoes Inn at Hartley and, following his execution at the Westgate in Newcastle upon Tyne, his body was hung from a gibbet on this headland. Since that time this place has been known as Curry`s Point.


Along the coast, little remains of the old fishing village of Cullercoats but, somehow, with its cosy bay and sandy beach, it retains much of its original charm. The delightful Watch House, a local landmark since 1879, was once the look out post of the Cullercoats Volunteer Life Brigade and is one of two buildings in the village with a blue plaque. Across the road, attached to the new apartment building called `WinslowCourt`, is the newest of all the North Tyneside blue plaques. It records the fact that the leading American artist Winslow Homer stayed at the Hudleston Arms Hotel, which had previously occupied this site, when he arrived in the village in 1881 for a stay of some 18 months. During his time in Cullercoats, Winslow Homer recorded in paint the life of the village and its inhabitants and many of these paintings now hang on the walls of leading American art galleries.


The village of Tynemouth absolutely oozes history and has more than its fair share of plaques. The picturesque King Edwards Bay is dominated by the high cliffs of Pen Bal Crag, the impressive Tynemouth Castle and the ruins of the 7th century Priory. Built by the monks of Holy Island and sacked by the Danes, the Priory is the burial place of three kings, Oswin King of Deira, Osred King of Northumbria and Malcolm III King of Scotland. A plaque is attached to the boundary railings.


Justifiably a Conservation Area, the village was once the home of Harriet Martineau, one of the most prominent and versatile women writers of the 19th century as well as one of the most controversial. A prolific writer on subjects such as religion, politics, economics and social reform she lived at 57 Front Street and, whilst the house is not marked by the usual blue plaque, a slightly more discreet black one hangs over the adjoining alleyway.


Heading into Huntington Place, a blue plaque attached to the building now occupied by King`s School informs us that Giuseppe Garibaldi stayed here in 1854 whilst visiting Tynemouth to brief local political and industrial leaders on his plans for a unified Italy. It was Garibaldi and his famous band of men known as the Red Shirts who were instrumental in having Victor Emmanuel proclaimed as King of Italy in 1861. This 1760 building, formerly known as Tynemouth House, has been a school since the mid-1860`s.


We must hurry on. Just off Tynemouth Road, look out for the impressive door head to the Tyne Electrical Engineers Drill Hall and the neighbouring blue plaque. This is known as the new Clifford`s Fort Drill Hall, and has been used by the Engineers since 1928. Now into Priors Terrace and pause a moment outside number 10, once the home of Anne Maud Burnett. In 1910 she became the first woman member of Tynemouth Council and then, in 1929, the Council`s first woman Mayor.



Back into Tynemouth Road and soon we reach the first Tynemouth Station. Opened in 1847 it was designed for the Newcastle and Berwick Railway Company by architects John and Benjamin Green, who also designed the Theatre Royal in Grey Street, Newcastle. Further along the road we see the Tudor style Master Mariners Homes. Built on land donated by the 3rd Duke of Northumberland and completed in 1840 the homes were intended for retired or incapacitated seamen. The statue of the Duke at the front of the building acknowledges his donation and was created by sculptor Christopher Tate. However, he died before finishing the work and it fell to fellow sculptor Richard George Davies to complete it.


Just down the hill, stands the Tynemouth Lodge which has traded as a public house since 1799. Next door stood the former Correction House and Justices Room which was a prison for minor offenders, whilst more serious ones were sent to the County Goal at Morpeth. Circuit Judges regularly stayed in the Tynemouth Lodge whilst engaged in their duties in the Justices Room. The Correction House was built in 1789 on land formerly known as Powebank near Lowlight Farm and for the majority of the 20th century it was used as a laundry. The Tynemouth Lodge is now a free house specialising in traditional ales. Sorry, no time to stop!


Now into North Shields and our next building is 2 Rosella Place, where the artist and illustrator Myles Birket Foster was born in February 1825, before moving to London as a child. He became one of the most successful English watercolorists of his generation and a large and slightly extravagant commemorative plaque is attached to the building. Across the town, at  number 7 Vicarage Street, an unpretentious Tyneside terraced flat, 1929 born Robert Westall, the author of such books as The Machine Gunners, Fathom Five, The Promise, The Kingdom by the Sea and Falling Into Glory, lived for the first 5 years of his life.


Down by the North Shields to South Shields ferry landing, look closely at the older part of the imposing building on the north side of the old market square. Built in 1806 by the Duke of Northumberland, the corner part of the building adjacent to Borough Road, was once a sailors home, a fact recognised by a blue plaque affixed to the river facing façade. At the bottom of the town`s fine Howard Street, stands the beautiful Maritime Chambers with superb views over the River Tyne. Completed in 1807, the building originally housed the Tynemouth Literary and Philosophical Society`s library before becoming the headquarters of the family run Stag Line shipping company.


Further along the road, the modern buildings of Dockwray Square are set around a small park in the centre of which sits a sculpting of Stan Laurel, one of North Shields` most famous sons. Born in Ulverston in 1890, Stan moved to North Shields in 1897 when his father came to manage the Theatre Royal in Prudhoe Street. He lived in 8 Dockwray Square until 1901 and, although the original house has long since been demolished, a blue plaque has been affixed between the current numbers 6 and 7 Dockwray Square. Within 50 metres stands the `old` High Light, at the beginning of the elegant Trinity Buildings. Constructed in 1727 by Trinity House of Newcastle, this light succeeded several other similar lights which had been maintained in North Shields since 1536.


The area adjacent to the Fish Quay boasts two blue plaques, the first of which notes the existence of the 1672-completed Clifford`s Fort which was commanded by the Governor of Tynemouth Castle until 1839. The second plaque is attached to the `old` Low Light, an important building which was saved in the late 1980`s from terminal decay by the joint efforts of Tyne & Wear Building Preservation Trust and North Tyneside Council.



Continuing our journey along the riverside towards Tynemouth, a blue plaque attached to the promenade railings refers to the notorious Black Middens rocks which have long been a hazard to shipping entering and leaving the Tyne. On the 24th November 1864, 36 lives were lost when the steamship `Stanley` and the schooner `Friendship` were swept onto these treacherous rocks by severe gales.


Adjacent to the Spanish Battery stands the Volunteer Life Brigade House, with blue plaque attached. This was built in 1887 to house the country`s first volunteer life brigade which had been formed some 23 years earlier following several tragic shipwrecks. One of the principal tools of the brigade was the rocket line and breeches bouy which was used to great effect on the 20th October 1894 when the brigade rescued all 6 crew members from the stricken brigantine `Fame`.


As we come to the end of our trip around the majority of North Tyneside`s blue plaque marked buildings, we are left with a sense that there are other well known `local` figures who should be similarly celebrated. Each one of us will, surely, have an idea of who we think that should be. Maybe it is the famous architect, John Dobson who was born in Chirton in 1787 or, perhaps, another North Shields man, Thomas Burt, who in 1874 became the first `working man` to be elected a Member of Parliament.


The inventor of plasticine, 1844 North Shields born William Harbutt, would seem to be a strong candidate alongside the Whitley Bay photographer Gladstone Adams, who in 1908 invented the windscreen wiper, the design of which he eventually patented in 1911. The list goes on. Who do you think warrants a blue plaque?



Written: Geoff Holland 2007

Photographs: Geoff Holland 2007