Records show that in the mid nineteenth century despite the fact that the majority of Tyne bound vessels were loaded and discharged in Shields harbour, all customs business was still being transacted in Newcastle. North and South Shields together owned more shipping than Newcastle and as early as 1815 Shields shipowners had petitioned for the establishment of a branch Customs House at Shields, but proposals put forward were soon rejected due to opposition from Newcastle.
Eventually in 1848 The Lords of the Treasury constituted Shields Harbour an independent Customs Port under the title ‘Port of Shields’ but regrettably built the customs house on the North side of the river. Shields shipowners were furious and petitioned immediately as it was fair to say that no other town in the kingdom was generating the same volume of trade as South Shields at that time.
After a long and hard battle with much resistance it was finally declared that South Shields should have its own Customs House and that a new building would be erected on the public quay to facilitate this. The first stone was laid on 27th August 1863 by Alderman J B Dale the mayor of South Shields. Italian in style with eight Corinthian columns the building was designed by Borough Surveyor James Clemence costing £3,000. The building of white brick with Heworth Stone dressings was opened on 18th July 1864 with great ceremony, typical of the time.
The Customs House was a hive of activity, but in time the accommodation proved too small so in 1878 additional buildings were added to the rear of the property. These served as a seamen’s waiting room and room for the engaging of crews, with an examination room for the Local Marine Board on the first floor.
For more than a century this building was the pivotal point of the town’s trade known as the Mercantile Credit offices, but with the decline of the shipping industry the Customs House closed its doors for the last time in July 1968. Harsh weather and vandals took their toll on this once proud building which soon fell into disrepair leaving it in a dangerous state, facing the threat of demolition. During this gloomy period the building was used as a taxi rank, a gym as well as a bookstore by Shields Library Service, until Central Library opened in 1976, but its luck was soon to change.
In autumn 1980 the Arts and Live Music Association known as ALMA bought the building from South Tyneside council for £1. They had vision, guts and determination with plans to turn this derelict building into an arts and music venue. Work began in 1982 but when the roof collapsed in the early stages of renovation, costs spiralled and the hopes for a partial opening the following year were dashed, forcing the charity to appeal for help.
ALMA encountered many setbacks in the first four years but were determined for a brighter future. Their dreams however were short lived when in 1988 they were cheated out of tens of thousands of pounds.
ALMA was unfortunately then forced to sell and it was Tyne and Wear Urban Development Corporation who offered a grant if ALMA’s ownership was handed over to trustees. In 1992 things were finally looking up when money was awarded from the Department of Environment and eventually the foundations were laid for the £2.4million development which incorporated a large extension to the back of the building.
Sheer determination and hard work from all involved enabled the Customs House in November 1994 to finally open its doors once again, for an entirely different purpose. This magnificent Grade II listed building was transformed to its former glory housing a theatre, cinema, art gallery and restaurant. It has enjoyed continued success ever since and currently welcomes 200,000 visitors each year.
But like everything, in the current climate the Customs House (a not-for-profit charitable trust) relies heavily on the continued support of the community. It’s a miracle that it is even here so let’s enjoy this remarkable iconic building and all it has to offer, its motto being simple – arts and entertainment for all! This is one of those buildings where we have to take a step back and realise how amazing it is that it was built and how important it is to preserve.
Jill Whitehead ©2012