It’s hard to believe that the small building dominating the market square was once the meeting place for the top officials of the town. Trying to imagine what South Shields would have looked like when the Old Town Hall was built is difficult. The building dates to 1768 so with no roads, shops or King Street it would paint a very different picture to the one we know now.
The land on which the market now stands was originally owned by St Hilda’s church and in early 1768 the Dean and Chapter of Durham who were the major land owners encouraged the Curate of the Church the Rev Samuel Dennis to hand over 8 acres of the land in return for £30 per annum for the purpose of a market and buildings. Of the 8 acres, 2 were reserved for the market square and the remaining 6 were for surrounding shops and warehouses. They also obtained a charter sanctioning a weekly market and two annual fairs, the first of which was held on the 24th June 1771.
The Old Town Hall was designed with a dual purpose and was built by a Shields man named ‘Hunter’. The upper part of the building provided offices for officials and a place for holding manorial courts, and the lower part was a shelter for the market people. This little under cover market was intended for a corn provision market and was also where local farmers sold their poultry, eggs and butter but by the mid nineteenth century things had changed and the market had declined, making little profit.
In September 1850 South Shields was granted its charter of Incorporation as a Borough when the existing system of government was declared inadequate. Shortly after in 1853 the South Shields Improvement Act sanctioned the Corporation to compulsorily obtain land for street improvements which included the market and town hall. In 1854 the Town Hall and rights to the market were handed over to the Corporation for just £500. The market soon picked up as did the profits.
The town obtained possession of the Old Town Hall on 2nd April 1855 and it was then adapted for use as a Council Chamber. The building soon became inadequate and the Corporation obtained parliamentary powers to build a new Town Hall. Several proposals had been put forward and rejected until in 1869 when a design was finally accepted, however the design caused much public opposition at the idea of demolishing the Old Town Hall. Even the famous North Shields artist Birket Foster wrote a letter to express his love for the building adding that several of his friends of high standing agreed that the building was in harmony with the town and to destroy it would be an act of vandalism. Needless to say the Council dropped the plans
The Old Town Hall was used as a meeting place for the Corporation until the New town Hall was built in 1910 and the last meeting took place on the 5th October of that year. Surviving the bombing during 1941, the building was given a much needed face lift in 1976 at a cost of £105,000. It was then discovered that the remains of the old market cross, the central pillar in the middle of the ground floor, was indeed the buildings vital support. This contradicted the findings of 1901 when Hodgson’s History of South Shields stated this pillar did not support the floor in any way and was not part of the structure.
This building is still used today for the odd exhibition or meeting and is open to the public every year as part of Tyne and Wear Heritage Open Days. Unfortunately this quaint historical building is limited in its use without disabled access or toilets. It is quite sad to think that the Market Place and the Old Town Hall which was once the hub of the town is now just a few scattered stalls and home to many a pigeon.