The Mouth of the Tyne & The Battle of the Low Lights

The following article was published in November 1891.  It provides a nice description of the Mouth of the Tyne between North and South Shields.  There is also a vivid account of rather intense Napoleonic war games!

mouth-of-the-tyne

Most conspicuous amongst the objects shown in the engraving of the mouth of the Tyne are the two towers known as the High and Low Lights of North Shields. These lights guide the mariner into the harbour. Numerous fishing boats will be seen anchored near the little quay of the town. South Shields lies on the opposite side of the river. Connected with the land there is a narrow sand bank which is shown to the right of the picture, with a wooden structure at the end of it. The light which is placed in this structure is to warn mariners entering the Tyne from approaching too near the dreaded Herd Sands. Opposite the Herd Sands, but not seen in our view, are the equally dreaded Black Middens, on which many a gallant craft has gone to pieces. The two arms that are seen projecting into the sea are the North and South Piers, chief among the wonderful works of the Tyne Commissioners. There was a time when the bar at the mouth of the Tyne was so shallow that foolhardy sailors were said to have waded across it. But the bar itself has now practically been removed, since vessels of the largest tonnage can now enter the river at almost any time of tide.

The Battle of the Low Lights

An episode of the great invasion scare of the beginning of the century the attempt to capture Clifford’s Fort at North Shields is well-nigh forgotten, but is still worth placing on record here.

robert_salmon_-_the_low_lighthouse_north_shields_-_google_art_project-2

North Shields 1828 (by Robert Salmon). From left-right: Shipping on the Tyne, New Low Light, Old Low Light, Clifford’s Fort – Wikipedia

 

On October 2, 1801, a line of keels was moored across the Tyne, near Clifford’s Fort, and deals were laid over them from shore to shore. After carefully inspecting this extraordinary highway, Lord Mulgrave mounted his charger, and, accompanied by General Murray, Major Heron, and other officers, rode over from the county of Durham to Northumberland. Major Heron then galloped back again. Soon after, Lord Mulgrave marched the 1st Regiment of Royal Lancashire Militia (accompanied by their field pieces and ammunition waggons) from Tynemouth Barracks across this bridge to the Herd Sands, when an action took place against a supposed enemy. At the same time, several shells were fired from the Spanish Battery on the north side, which had a fine effect. The troops were afterwards led back again, and Major Heron, after firing three close volleys, marched the South Shields volunteers across the bridge into Northumberland. The adjacent banks and hills were covered with spectators to witness this novel sight, and the experiment succeeded beyond the most sanguine expectations. A large flat-bottomed boat, called by the watermen Buonaparte, was originally used for conveying troops or military carriages over the river; but the bridge of keels was found infinitely superior, as it enabled any required movements to be made with as much facility as by land.

On April 30, 1804, the North Shields and Tynemouth Volunteers entered upon permanent duty for one month. The guards at Clifford’s Fort, Tynemouth Barracks, and the Spanish Battery were delivered up to them. The company in Clifford’s Fort had not been in possession of it more than four hours when Major Doyle, of the Light Brigade, from Sunderland, crossed the Tyne in the Buonaparte, accompanied by one company of the 61st Regiment, one company of the Northumberland Militia, and one company of the Lanark Militia. The officers, it appears, had got vain-glorious over their cups; and when disputing about the merits of their respective corps, the major had said he could easily surprise any of the forts garrisoned by the volunteers, and he was dared to make the attempt. Accordingly, at early morning on the above-mentioned date, Major Doyle’s company, whose quarters were at Whitburn, crossed the Tyne, and landed on the Lighthouse Sand. From thence they proceeded, as noiselessly as possible, with the major at their head on his gallant charger, up the narrow passage, close to the fort. But before they could reach the entrance to it, the volunteers had made preparations to receive them, their landing having been observed, in spite of their caution. One man got his arm broken during the hurry in barricading the gate. The number of volunteers within the fort being insufficient for the guarding of the embrasures and the walls, an express was sent off for the remainder of the corps, who happened to be on parade in Dockwray Square. These had already noticed what was going on, and hastened down the bank to the assistance of their comrades. When the light company, which was in the van, reached the Low Lights, they found the bridge in possession of a party of the besiegers, who, being supplied with blank cartridges, instantly com- menced a brisk fire upon them. By the point of the bayonet, they forced the pass along the narrow passage referred to above, up which only one or two could pass abreast. Capt. Hearne seized hold of the bridle of Major Doyle’s horse, and attempted to stop him. The major then swore a round volley of oaths, and, brandishing his sword in the captain’s face, asked him whether he thought they were real enemies. The captain replied that he had no reason to think otherwise, and stoutly stood his ground. But after a minute’s parley, by advice of a brother officer, he allowed the major to pass, and the latter instantly rode up to the gate. This he found to be shut and strongly barricaded, and his summons was met with open defiance. Determined not to be baffled, however, the besiegers proceeded to attempt to carry the fort by storm. As the fort was not well constructed for resisting a land attack, they would probably have succeeded; but the other volunteers, arriving from Dockwray Square and the Old Barracks (Percy Square), attacked the besiegers in the rear, and effected a diversion. Many bloody knuckles and in some instances broken arms were the injuries which the regulars and militia received in their attempts to scale the walls. After a smart conflict, in which great skill was displayed on both sides, the contending parties charging bayonets at intervals, the assailants were beaten off and forced to retreat.

When making a reconnaissance, shortly before the beginning of the fray. Captain Robert Shields was captured by a party of the Northumberland Militia, who had been placed in ambush in a saw-pit. Colonel William Linskill, who commanded the Shields and Tynemouth Volunteers, hurrying down to the scene of action with all possible speed, and finding the captain in this awkward predicament, cried out. “Shields, Shields, Shields! what are you about?” “What am I about, sir?” replied the more valiant than wary officer; “bad enough; I’m taken prisoner!” He was at once rescued from his captors, who ran the risk of being captured in turn. But at a later stage of the affair he got his revenge. Meanwhile, the doughty assailants, over- powered by numbers and pressed on all sides, retreated slowly and sullenly, and disputing every inch of ground, not, however, to their ships, but to the flat-bottomed Buonaparte, by which they made good their retreat, not without difficulty. Pushing off as they best could, they returned to the south shore, rather crestfallen at their want of success. Nor did their misfortunes end there. On arriving at The Bents, they found that a party of the volunteers, headed by Captain Shields, had slipped across in some scullerboats during their absence, and had demolished their camp and carried off all their flags. This was worse than defeat, as it involved disgrace, and it was many a long day before it was forgotten. Throughout the day, the temper of the troops was well preserved. A determined coolness and intrepidity was visible in both parties, and the volunteers proved themselves worthy of being entrusted with the fort, having so bravely defended it against excellent troops, one-third of whom were of the line.

Major Doyle was much censured for attacking Clifford’s Fort. His exploit might have led to very disagreeable and even fatal consequences, and General Grey, who commanded in the district, is represented to have said he would have put him into the black-hole had he been taken by the volunteers. The gentleman in immediate command of the fort was Captain Ramshaw, and as he happened to be indisposed that morning, the besiegers could not have chosen a better time.

The North Shields and Tynemouth Volunteers were the second volunteer corps raised in England, and among the last that were disbanded.

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