By Bob Wray, South Shields FC club historian and vice-president.
A few references have been found that allude to the origins of a town football club playing in the early 1870s on a recreation field on what was known then as the Lawe Heugh, somewhere now lost without trace on the Lawe Top, rented from a local farmer, and before houses were ever built there.
It would be a task indeed to locate confirmatory evidence and that would require dedicated research to find documentary facts and actual proof if indeed any could now be found.
2013 marked the 125th anniversary of the first recorded public appearance of a named South Shields Association Football Club that in 1888 played a number of friendly games that developed into a three years series of such fixtures. From those early times, the town club has been subject to both fortune and misfortune in full measure of both halcyon days of great success and also periods of severe reversal and twice of total loss, and been subject to subsequent reformation on both occasions. So, for the historian to trace the history of the club in all its incantations is a fascinating challenge, with many twists and turns in a convoluted career that is very different in many respects from the norm of what one would usually expect. Having said that, its labyrinthine career has set it aside and made its history so much more interesting as a result.
South Shields Athletic AFC played at the Athletic Ground on Mowbray Road, adjacent to the Bents Cottages, and was formed in 1897, and has the credit of being the first ‘real’ football club to bear its home town name. Though some five years earlier one also existed for a brief period another South Shields Athletic, and the South Shields Adelphia Argyle and South Shields Albion, and yet again in 1895 a new South Shields AFC (late Congregational) also briefly blossomed, to confuse the issue yet further.
South Shields Athletic AFC was a member of the Northern Alliance League and enjoyed moderate success in its short career of but five years, before being disbanded in 1902 due to financial problems. It featured in its playing staff many former Football League players, notably ex-Newcastle United and Sunderland, and acquitted itself reasonably well. Prior to the emergence of the club, several other local clubs as South Shields United, South Shields YMCA, South Shields Argyle, South Shields Borough United, South Shields Villa, South Shields Celtic and South Shields Albion Star also featured in the numerous leagues that proliferated in the local area.
The name of Jack Inskip features prominently in the early annals of South Shields FC, and he is credited with the formation of a junior club in 1899 of local school boys from the Adelaide Street area of Laygate, that progressed beyond all measure for its eventual development to be ultimately elected into membership of the Football League in 1919. This team was known as South Shields Adelaide Athletic, and based on his experience gained earlier with South Shields Adelaide Albion, and with his father Christopher’s managerial assistance, it enjoyed a continuous rise through the junior leagues of the district.
It played on a pitch at Hartingdon Terrace immediately adjacent to Wood Terrace, until the 1904 disbandment of South Shields Rugby Football Club whereupon it was successful the following year in taking over the then Horsley Hill enclosure.
In its early career, it was successful in winning the South Shields Junior Alliance, the South Shields Juvenile League ‘A’ Division, the Shields and District League, then the Tyneside Junior League and the Tyneside League. During this period, numerous trophies and medals were also won, including the Big Budget Junior Football Cup in 1903-04, the Shields and District League Championship in 1904-05, together with three other trophies: the Tyneside League Championship in both 1905-06 and 1906-07, and the J. Hunt Shield and James Knott Cup.
In 1907, it successfully applied for and gained membership to the Northern Alliance, where it remained for one season, finishing a most creditable third in the league table, and winning the James Readhead Cup. Centre-forward Jack Peart was transferred to Sheffield United in 1907, and later in his career appointed manager of Fulham and Bradford City, and he was a member of that successful Shields side.
Progress was further made with its elevation to membership of the prestigious North Eastern League, the North East’s premier regional league for the season 1908-09, wherein it won runners-up honours to Newcastle United Reserves. Remarkable progress had thus been made in less than 10 years from its formation, as the ‘Laides’ had achieved a meteoric rise from humble and comparative local obscurity to membership of a league now but one step from the Football League itself, and ambition thereafter knew no bounds …..
The 1908-09 season was opened at the Horsley Hill Road ground, now replete with the requisite ground facilities, and new league members Huddersfield Town were the first visitors. Shields were by now sporting the most appropriate colours inspired no doubt by maritime connotations of its major seaport home of red and green, being port and starboard. Well worthy of mention in that team are ex-Newcastle United Billy Wilson, and Pat Cassidy, who once scored a goal from the halfway line and went on to star for Cardiff City, as well as Peter Howe, an ex-Harton Village schoolboy who joined Shields after service with Reading and Hull City.
Re-organised two years later as a limited company in 1910, the club now changed its official title to that of South Shields Football Club. In season 1910-11, it was victorious in the Durham Challenge Cup. A major capture in 1912 was the famous Arthur Bridgett from Sunderland as player-manager and captain and a former England international, as well as numerous other quality players, not least of whom was the prolific goal-scoring centre forward signed from Manchester City, Irvine Thornley, who was also a former England international.
It is true to state that these few years prior to World War One were the most successful and productive ever achieved in the complete history of all teams that have carried the Shields colours, with numerous records made and smashed, plus two consecutive North Eastern League championship titles won, in which seasons only four games were lost. This was an outstanding team and a future in the Football League was openly discussed. The club also commenced the issue of match programmes and season tickets in 1912, and again won league honours as runners-up to Darlington that season, and was admitted into full membership of the Football Association, and was riding on the crest of the wave.
The 1913-14 and 1914-15 campaigns turned out to be most remarkable for Shields, and the statistics are indeed memorable. They were winners of six trophies, champions of the North Eastern League in the first season by a margin of 15 points, and also winners of the Durham Football Association Challenge Cup, the Ingham Infirmary Cup, and retained the Black Cup (Tynemouth Infirmary Cup). The reserve team also added to the club honours by winning the Tyneside League championship and the Tyneside League Challenge Shield. A new season record of 69 points was achieved out of a possible 76, and Shields just failed to beat the league record goals tally of 134 goals set by Newcastle United, by one solitary goal.
Player-manager and captain Arthur Bridgett ended the season with 30 goals to his credit and 47 appearances, and his services were retained with a further five years contract, and in 1913 Shields also made an application to join the Football League. While receiving no votes, they resolved to try again.
In the following season, the league record goals tally was quite simply blown away as Shields amassed a new record with a huge 160, and centre forward Irvine Thornley ended the season with 70 goals to his credit, a phenomenal record by any standards and at any level. A most unusual occurrence was the fact that Shields fielded no less than FOUR players with the same name, three of whom were brothers – Ellis, Ben and Fretwell Hall and Jack, another record no doubt ….
The outbreak of war thereafter put matters on hold and clubs fielded ‘shadow’ teams on account of military service manpower requirements, though competitive football, albeit in this form, continued. It is of more than passing interest to mention that one particular game between cross-river rivals South and North Shields in 1916 in the wartime Tyneside Combination saw South field no less than NINE internationals – and still lose!
Shields were champions of the league 1915-16 in first and second competitions. The last wartime season was spent with another grouping, the Northern Victory League, with South Shields well-represented. The objective of Football League membership for the club had been a long-held dream, and in 1919 the years of effort behind the drive came to fruition with its election to the Second Division, or the second league as it was then titled. This was no calculated gamble on the part of the club directorship, even with the close proximity of both Sunderland and Newcastle United. It was the firm belief that a town with the population of Shields could and would sustain a league club.
Initially all seemed promising, and manager Jack Tinn and his colleagues had good reason for guarded satisfaction. In the 1921 season, with Shields top by five points at Christmas, talk of promotion was in the air and the distinct possibility of derbies against the league neighbours was an exciting prospect. However, the impetus was not maintained, form suffered and the club finished in a disappointing sixth place, and without doubt but for an indifferent home record with three defeats and seven draws, a serious promotion challenge would have most certainly been possible, as they finished only 10 points behind champions Nottingham Forest. Indeed, only a total of seven more points would have seen Shields promoted as runners-up. Only the bitter pill of crushing disappointment
was their reward. How very different club history would certainly have been if only promotion had been realised ….
In 1922, the club sold ‘Warney’ Cresswell to Sunderland in order to balance the books, for the then league record transfer fee of £5,500. He was the only player ever to gain a full international cap with Shields. In the 1922-23 season, the ‘Seasiders’ also sold Alf Maitland to Middlesborough in order to cover a loss. Lack of public support was by this time having a telling effect on the club’s finances.
However, Shields reached the round before the FA Cup quarter-final in 1925-26 – when they lost to eventual winners Bolton Wanderers – and again in 1926-27, when the ground attendance record for Horsley Hill was achieved, 24,348, but the visitors Swansea Town denied Shields further progress. The attendance situation never sufficiently improved, and gradually selling the best players to recoup losses caused the team’s performances to further deteriorate.
During these years, others senior players such as Lawrie Crown left for Newcastle United, and Mickey Ridley, who made a name for himself with Manchester City. Harry Woods went to Newcastle and Arthur ‘Tricky’ Hawes to Sunderland, while Jack Smith and brother Willy were sold to Portsmouth and later selected for England, and Ernie Sims, also an England international. Others, such as Jack Oxberry, later of Blackpool and trainer at Chelsea, Cyril Hunter, Harry Wilson, later of Blackpool, and Jimmy Metcalf, who went to Preston, also left the club. Manager Jack Tinn departed for Portsmouth in 1927, where he subsequently spent 20 years, and the club was relegated to the Third Division North. Times were by now hard indeed, with gates insufficient, and the writing was on the wall. The best league win was achieved in 1928-29 over Rotherham at home 10-1, and the heaviest defeat at Chelsea in 1928-29 was 6-0. Two players were selected to represent the English League, Cresswell in 1921 and Maitland in 1922, and the player who played the most league games for the club was Jack Smith, with 260 appearances and 82 goals between 1919 and 1928.
Inevitably, without money to bail the club out of impending bankruptcy, the only possible viable alternative from closure was to move, and this regrettable but seemingly unavoidable point was reached in 1930. Despite a final league table position of seventh, the club left the town and moved to Gateshead, where it was welcomed. It has been debated in both the local press and public place at great length down the years since, if indeed the original decision to enter the Football League was the right one, but the old adage ‘nothing ventured, nothing gained’ certainly seems to ring true. At the end of the day, local apathy surely has a great deal to answer before the bar of history.
With the loss of senior football in the town, local followers were obliged to content themselves with what was available – the South Tyne Alliance and the Shields and District League at the ‘Dragon’ and the Stanley Street pitches for the next six years.
Agitation for the formation of a new club was eventually sponsored through the medium of the Shields Gazette, and in 1936 a public meeting held in the Ocean Road Congregational Church Hall happily resolved the local football vacuum. A new club was established, and made a successful application for admittance to the North Eastern League.
As before, the new club made its home at its old ground of Horsley Hill, now owned though by greyhound racing interests. The new club nicknamed ‘The Babes’ played in the colours of red and green squares, and did well enough in the few years previous to the Second World War, with numerous players of Football League experience on the staff, notably Bill Tabram. A reserve team was entered into the Wearside League, and several players were successful in gaining football careers.
Under manager Ernie Hoffman, goalkeeper with the club in its early Football League days and a former England amateur international, the club’s major achievements were the winning of the 1938-39 North Eastern League championship, and the Durham Challenge Cup. Football was restricted again in the Second World War, with calls on players for military service, and it was a case for clubs largely having to make do with guest players to help fill out representative sides, though Shields did not continue club operations during the war period.
Following the war, South Shields returned to competitive soccer as before at ‘The Hill’, though the early post-war period was not attended by any particular success. One bright note of 1947, though, that did eventually receive its richly-deserved inclusion in the Guinness Book of Records was the extraordinary achievement of Chris Marron in an FA Cup preliminary round tie played at the Cleadon Recreation Ground. South Shields defeated Radcliffe Colliery Welfare 13-0, and he scored 10 goals. This is the all-time individual goalscoring record, and its inclusion is a credit to the efforts of club president Dick Butler, who campaigned long and hard for its recognition. Chris Marron, from Jarrow, was transferred to Chesterfield and enjoyed a professional career thereafter.
Ongoing problems at Horsley Hill with the stadium greyhound management led the club to seek a new ground of its own and to be independent. A search was eventually successful at Simonside, and 15 acres of land was made available to the club by the purchaser, club president and local auctioneer and valuer Coun Edmund Hill. This transaction included the manorial Simonside Hall, that was built in 1740 for the first ship builder in the town, James Wallis. The writer adds that Coun Hill was a cousin of his mother, and a former Mayor of the borough and an Alderman. Prior to this, the club played for a period at Gypsies Green, then little more than a hollow in the hillside, and Cleadon Recreation Ground.
The club played its first game at Simonside Hall in December 1950, and at this time it adopted the nickname of the ‘Mariners’ from a suggestion by secretary Coun Robert Bainbridge, whose name is commemorated by the avenue in Simonside. Manager Charlie Thomas spent 15 years with the club in three spells between the late 1940s and the early 1970s, and it was recognised that for a few years from the mid 1950s, it was widely acknowledged as one of the better non-league clubs in the country.
The development of Simonside Hall, backed by the endeavours of a supporters’ club with a recorded membership of over 13,000, produced positive dividends. Gradually, the ground’s facilities were upgraded with two grandstands, floodlights and other improvements, including a new social club, with the hall providing dressing rooms and showers, offices and living accommodation. The emergence of a solidly backed and well-supported team with an average home gate of 7,000 saw several albeit unsuccessful applications for Football League membership. A record attendance of 20,500 gave an indication of growth potential. Numerous friendlies were played against Scottish league opposition and also prestigious representative games, which included schoolboy international matches. FA Cup exploits, such as the remembered with relish 5-0 demolition of Crewe Alexandra, added to a quite enviable reputation. At one time the club ran four teams, and Simonside Hall was indeed a busy place.
One particular disappointment that occurred in 1958 was the much-regretted demise of the old established and celebrated North Eastern League, a mixture of league reserve and senior non-league sides. At the instigation of Sunderland and Middlesbrough, a new league was formed, exclusively for league reserve sides, the North Central League. This resulted in resignations, and the non-league clubs that were left in no-man’s land had to find other viable leagues to accommodate them. So it was that South Shields and a few others were obliged to go further afield and join the Midland Counties League. The prospect of greatly extended travel was at least tempered by the pleasure of entertaining the likes of Peterborough United.
The decade to follow witnessed the Mariners in many different leagues: 1958-60 Midland Counties, 1960-62 Northern Counties, 1962-64 in a revamped North Eastern League, 1964-68 North Regional League. Many will recall with great pleasure the appearance of the great Stanley Matthews in a game at Simonside Hall in 1966, and names so very well remembered of outstanding Shields players of that period as Bobby Owen, George Ivey, Don Robson, Baden Powell and John Burn to mention but a few. The period 1963-69 saw a management change, with Alf McMichael, Newcastle United’s Irish international, in the chair, and his team won a welcome piece of silverware in the 1967 North Regional League championship.
During this period, a most significant and indeed quite phenomenal goalscoring record by any standards was achieved by Len Smith, that eventually encompassed over 1,000 goals in a career of 22 years. A major change in the national non-league set-up came in 1968 with the formation of the Northern Premier League, part of the new soccer ‘pyramid’, with South Shields invited as a founder member.
This innovation was intended to operate as a feeder league to a national league, with automatic promotion to the Football League. The GM Vauxhall Conference thereafter fulfilled that function. The club was a member for six reasonably successful years, without making any significant impact. The club advanced to the FA Cup third round in 1970 and was drawn away to Queens Park Rangers. The final result of a 4-1 defeat also told a story of missed chances by Shields and numerous injuries sustained, against a side that included Terry Venables and Rodney Marsh, and played on a pitch that did the club no credit. Also in 1974, the club reached the FA Trophy semi-final, in what many consider was a Wembley final thrown away against a Morecambe side hammered earlier in the season by Shields 6-0 and 7-1.
It had been considered for some time by the club board of directors that the underlying reason for what was seen as insufficient match attendances was the distance from the town centre area. Events were therefore set in motion which culminated in 1974 with the total loss of the club, the ground of Simonside Hill and all effects. This highly controversial episode has to this day left numerous unanswered questions.
It seems in retrospect that the transaction was thwarted by a firm of property developers who bought Horsley Hill, by which time the effects of Simonside Hall had already been sold and the land acquired by the council for housing development. Some £272,000 was realised by the sale of Simonside Hall to the borough council, as reported in the Shields Gazette. The sale was concluded before a deal on Horsley Hill was finalised and signed.
There was most considerable and widely felt rancour and public disquiet, because the disbanded SSAFC Supporters’ Club had actually bought Simonside Hall from the club president Coun Edmund Hill in the early 1950s for the club as a home in perpetuity, and this being effected with the transfer in ownership in 1962. Also together with general and also widely held public feelings that the intended move back to the former Horsley Hill ground was flawed from the outset.
Edmund Hill’s purchase of Simonside Hall was repaid following several years of fundraising by the 13,000-plus strong supporters’ club and for the original price of £10,000, as no interest was included nor required. On its disbandment for reasons never to date uncovered, the transfer to the club board of directors was concluded on a handshake only, and no document was ever formalised.
Business interests were in conflict between the various parties involved, agreements changed with circumstances and conditions, and ultimately between club, council and the Horsley Hill ground proprietors. The whole venture witnessed both grounds of Simonside Hall and Horsley Hill transformed into housing estates, and the club went to Gateshead for the second time in 44 years and re-emerged as Gateshead United, which took the place of South Shields in the Northern Premier League, and the rest, as they say, is history.
The future plans of Simonside Hall had according to club general manager Charlie Thomas as told to me, were for the creation of a 35,000 capacity stadium in preparedness for the eventual return to the Football League. Horsley Hill as the redundant Dog’s Bowl 10-pin bowling alley was derelict and a sad shadow of its former self. The majority of the principal personalities have now departed from the scene, but the repercussions of this most lamentable and indeed calamitous exercise have echoed down the years since and are yet very transparently apparent in the stature today of South Shields FC. The football supporter of South Shields is therefore left with the sobering thought of, what if?
There is no telling just how much Simonside Hall could and no doubt would have been eventually developed. Equally, it is hard to say what progress the club may have made in the years since, as others as Wigan Athletic and Morecambe, fellow member clubs with Shields of the Northern Premier League, now grace the Football League. A promotion for Shields to the then GM Vauxhall Conference would have seen the club within touching distance of Football League membership itself and for history to have been then re-written…..Reformation on this occasion quickly followed, of which former SSAFC member of the board of directors Martin Ford was central, and a new club, the South Shields Mariners FC, was born, though competing in very different circumstances to its predecessors. It had to overcome the immediate problem of starting with nothing, neither ground, committee, money, players, manager etc, and a league that would accept it of reasonable stature.
This was all achieved in good measure, and initial progress was indeed quite remarkable. Only the lack of a ground with adequate and sufficient facilities to satisfy the required criteria of the Northern League for promotion prevented this being maintained. After the winning of two consecutive Northern Alliance League championship titles, and an appearance in the FA Vase quarter-final, the club joined the Wearside League. Further success followed, with the winning of the Durham Challenge Cup at Roker Park in 1977.
A ground to develop became a long-running issue, and over the course of the next long 18 years, more than a dozen potential sites were examined, but for various reasons always without success. So the club remained a member of the Wearside League, seemingly unable to leave the council-owned Jack Clark Park, by interest on a personal family level of mine a relation of my father. In 1992, the redundant and vandalised sports club and ground of Filtrona FC became available for purchase, and following protracted negotiations, was bought by club chairman John Rundle and family members, and at long last a home for the club was realised. Gradual upgrading and development of Filtrona Park and promotion to the First Division of the Northern League was achieved in the years that followed.
In 2006, though, Mr Rundle resigned as chairman, with Gary Crutwell joining the club as his replacement.
The club’s recent successes were in 2009-10 as winners of the Brooks Mileson Memorial League Cup against Ashington in a pulsating penalty shoot-out, and as a result of this victory, Shields played league champions Spennymoor Town in the following season’s curtain raiser, the J R Cleator Cup, which is the Northern League’s equivalent of the FA Charity Shield. The Mariners won 1-0, and a respectable mid-table position was secured.
In 2013, the 125th anniversary of the first recorded public appearance of the original club to carry the name of South Shields Football Club was celebrated.
In the same year, though, the club’s lease on Filtrona Park expired, and with no viable alternatives, it was forced to move 20 miles down the road, to Peterlee’s Eden Lane, as a temporary measure. This exile from South Tyneside lasted for two seasons, and during that time, the club faced a real battle to survive, with seemingly no light at the end of the tunnel.
The exile ended when new chairman Geoff Thompson bought Filtrona Park – which he renamed Mariners Park and has since become 1st Cloud Arena as part of a sponsorship deal – in the summer of 2015 to start a new era at the club.
In his first season at the helm, Shields won the Northern League Division Two title with 107 points, and in the off-season, Mr Thompson pressed ahead with his plans for the club.
Ground improvements – which began in his first summer at the club – continued, with three new stands erected and a new 3G facility installed adjacent to the main grass pitch.
Shields followed up that superb campaign with the most successful season in the club's history, winning the Northern League, Northern League Cup and Durham Challenge Cup before adding the icing to the cake by lifting the FA Vase at Wembley - the first national trophy in the Mariners' history.
The following season, a third consecutive league title and promotion was achieved as Shields won the Northern Premier League North Division, before they missed out on a fourth consecutive promotion with a defeat in the following season’s play-off final.
The club switched to a hybrid model during the summer of 2019, with much of the first-team squad training on a full-time basis at the Harton and Westoe Miners' Welfare Ground.
The Mariners were 12 points clear at the top of the NPL Premier Division when the 2019-20 season was curtailed, and declared null and void by The FA, as a result of the coronavirus pandemic.
The 2020-21 campaign would go on to suffer the same fate but did provide a highlight for Shields, who reached the first round of the FA Cup for the first time since reforming in 1974, beating National League side FC Halifax Town and National League North outfit Southport along the way before losing to eventual League Two title winners Cheltenham Town.
Although their progress on the pitch was thwarted by the pandemic, off it the Mariners continued to strive forwards.
As part of the club’s bid to become increasingly community-owned, a share scheme was launched in October 2020 which went on to raise almost £380,000 as 1,000 people invested to become shareholders. Among them was Little Mix star Jade Thirlwall, who is proudly from South Shields and became the club’s honorary president in August 2020.
The club’s progress continued in the summer of 2021 as work began on a transformative new main stand at 1st Cloud Arena which would seat more than 900 supporters and include executive boxes, a new club shop, a bar, boardroom and more. The stand was fully opened in the summer of 2022. Further work at the ground included the introduction of new terraced areas behind each goal, the relaying of the surface around the pitch, extensive improvements to the pitch itself and the installation of a new pitchside perimeter fence.
The playing squad also completed its transition to a full-time training model in the summer of 2021 under the management of Graham Fenton, with Lee Picton – who presided over a period of success alongside Fenton as joint managers – having been promoted to the position of chief executive.
Fenton was replaced as manager by former Sunderland, Aston Villa and England striker Kevin Phillips in January 2022.
Phillips led the club to a second-placed finish before the Mariners were beaten on penalties in the semi-final of the play-offs. He is aiming to go one better in 2022-23.