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History of the Old Low Light

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The Old Low Light is a Grade ll listed building, the oldest surviving building on North Shields Fish Quay. It began life as a lighthouse, belonging to Trinity House of Newcastle upon Tyne and was enclosed by Clifford’s Fort in 1672. In the early 19th century, it was converted into an Almshouse and during the 20th century was used as a training establishment for the Deep Sea Fisheries Association and later the Maritime Volunteer Service. It stands within the Fish Quay Conservation Area, is owned by North Tyneside Council and leased to Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust which is currently refurbishing the building to ensure its future.

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© The Net (19.03.2012)

The original Old Low Light, along with the Old High Light, was established in the first half of the 16th century by Trinity House of Newcastle upon Tyne. Viewed from the sea, vertical alignment of these two lights ensured safe navigation of the treacherous mouth of the River Tyne. The building we see now is generally reckoned to have been rebuilt around 1727 and ceased to function as a lighthouse in 1810. At least three phases of construction and alteration are evident and are being verified by details coming to light during its current refurbishment.

The first graphic representation of the Low Light lighthouse appears on Ralph Gardner’s 1655 perspective map of the River of Tyne. It is depicted as a tall square tower, very likely of two storeys and similar to the High Light shown on the same map.

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© North Shields Library. Local Studies Centre Ralph Gardner’s map of ‘The River of Tyne’ from ‘England’s Grievance Discovered’, printed 1655 (plus inset detail).

In 1672 Clifford’s Fort was built to serve as a coastal defence against the Dutch. Its structure enclosed the Low Light which was provided with a separate entrance (a postern), the remains of which survive in the sunken ‘garden’ west of the existing building. Only ten years later Trinity House was seeking funds, via increased shipping tolls, to repair both the High and Low Lights which were in a ruinous condition.

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© North Shields Library, Local Studies Centre. Wenceslaus Hollar’s print of 1673, showing Clifford’s Fort – and also a shipwreck being blown up to free the River Tyne! – (plus inset detail).

In the early 1700s Clifford’s Fort was remodelled. Trinity House records of the time incude legal bills relating to the Fort and access to their land enclosed by it – the first signs of a rather uneasy relationship between themselves and the Governor of the Fort. The Low Light was rebuilt or remodelled in 1727, very likely to raise the height of its lantern because the Governor’s house (built 1726) was obstructing the light!

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© Newcastle upon Tyne Trinity House. The Old Low Light c.1750, looking from the west over the Pow Gut. Oil painting by unknown artist.

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© North Shields Library, Local Studies Centre. Cliffords Fort sketch c1775-1808 unkown artist (plus inset detail).

Further repairs and changes took place throughout the 1700s and by 1773 the original tallow candles had been replaced by oil lamps. Maps of the late 1700s show a building with the same basic ‘footprint’ as the current building.

By 1805 the Old Low Light became redundant, as it could no longer be used for alignment with the Old High Light to ensure safe entry to the river. New Low and High Lights were constructed 1808-10; these being the distinctive tall white towers standing on the quayside and high on the river bank today.

In 1830 the Old Low Light was remodelled as Trinity Alms Houses and provided with a pitched roof. The building appears on the First Edition Ordnance Survey 1:500 map of 1860. The first photographs of the area appear around this time and show the Old Low Light but, alas, it appears in the background only and not as a main subject.

A late 19th century drawing by RJS Bertram shows the eastern end of the south facade much as it is today, though the large heraldic plaque and two ornate carved figures do not survive.

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Late 19th century drawing by RJS Bertram

The Maritime Service Volunteers quitted the building around Sept-Oct 2011. The whole of Clifford’s Fort, including the Old Low Light, lie within the Fish Quay Conservation Area designated in 2003. Although much of the Old Low Light’s history has been deemed subordinate to Clifford’s Fort (and also overshadowed by the former lighthouse at Tynemouth Castle) it remains a building of high significance – locally, regionally and nationally.

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© The Net (19.03.2012)

The building is once again undergoing refurbishment by Tyne and Wear Building Preservation Trust. It is hoped that the Net will occupy the building and bring it to new life as a Cultural and Heritage Centre.

Much fuller details of the history of the Old Low Light can be obtained from the Conservation Statement supplied by Northern Counties Archaeological Services for a Planning Application submitted by the Net to North Tyneside Council (Plan App No.12/01599/LBC) in October 2012.

Thanks are due to NCAS (Northern Counties Archaeological Services) for permission to extract details from their original document for this ‘potted history’.

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