King Ecgfrith’s Port

Jarrow was originally a village which developed alongside monastic land given by Ecgfrith, the Anglo-Saxon king of Northumbria. The large tidal area of mudflats adjacent to the monastery was known as King Ecgfrith’s Port (Portus Ecgfridi). In Victorian times the tidal area became known as Jarrow Slake (derived from Jarrow’s lake) and older citizens of Jarrow may recall how the Slake looked before 1972, after which it became first a landfill site, and then dockland.

The photographs by Jarrow artist Vince Rea illustrate its atmosphere and show how the area looked before the land was reclaimed from the sea. The changes took place in order to gain extra commercial dockland for the Port of Tyne, but to the people of Jarrow it meant that a part of their natural heritage was being eroded. The muddy former monastic land from which Jarrow acquired its name was to slowly disappear forever.

Jarrow Slake at low tide. Looking south across the mudflats towards St.Paul’s.

The river Don is today merely a stream.- view looking north.

This area of land was known as King Ecgfrith’s Port because of its tidal nature and it was quite likely to be the king’s point of access to the monastic land. At high tide St. Paul’s was surrounded by water on three sides with the river Tyne to the north, the river Don, which used to be a substantially sized tributary of the Tyne, to the south, and the mudflats to the east. The waters were used by the monks for fishing and the mudflats area was a sanctuary for seabirds and wading birds.

In the 19th. century the mudflats came to be used commercially for timber seasoning. It covered an area of 120 acres and in the 1870’s came into the ownership of the Port of Tyne Commissioners. They let the area out as a pond for the maturing and seasoning of timber as the tidal conditions were perfect for this purpose. The timber trade became an expanding industry on the Tyne and continued until the late 1930’s.

After World War 2 the Slake remained in use for timber seasoning until 1972, when plans were passed for the reclaimation and development of the land for use by the port. After several years as a landfill site, the land was solidified to become dockland and today it is used as a motor car distribution terminal for Nissan cars prior to their being exported by ship to Europe and beyond.

Looking east towards South Shields. Sutherland Quay is to the right.

The river Don enters Jarrow Slake. Looking north towards North Shields.

The mudflats were an empty space, where seabirds came for solitude.
A place of strange reflected light, neither land nor water.
Formless, except for the weird shapes of row upon row of timber piles.
Soundless except for the seabirds’ cries and the occasional creaking of the timbers.
In the mind’s eye images are created, some bad, some good.
Light reflections on the water, or shadows on the mud.
With conditions perfect, a Victorian discovery for perfectly seasoned wood.
A far more sinister purpose they were yet to find, a floating isolation hospital –
If you’re out of sight you’re also out of mind.
The sole building on this whole expanse of land,
A place that only such a purpose could command.

The isolation hospital was located on the Slake for sufferers of infectious diseases such as Smallpox and Tuberculosis. It could only be reached by a catwalk erected high on wooden piles when the tide washed over the mudflats.

Generations of children have been warned by parents and schoolteachers of the hidden dangers of the “quicksand” areas in the mud like a minefield where a child could vanish without trace. Yet despite its eerie presence and lurking dangers the mudflats were a sacred place, monastic land well known to Bede and his fellow monks.

Workmen busy on the isolation hospital in 1929.

Catwalk to Nowhere. – This used to be the elevated access to the isolation hospital at high tide.

The Slake’s only commercial use was a timber pond. The timber, mostly from Scandinavia, but including exotic woods from as far away as Borneo, was tied up as rafts in between the wooden upright piles to spend two years of alternate soaking and drying. Thus it received the toughest of seasonings through an ordeal by tide and weather that the Slake was uniquely suited to inflict.
When the engineering industry expanded, the seasoned wood was used by the Pattern-Makers for shaping in their perfectionist craft. The Slake seasoned timber gained a high reputation and became a much sought after commodity worldwide.

The Jarrow Palmer’s built cruiser HMS Sapphire, pictured adjacent to Jarrow Slake,served in WW1 and had a top speed of 22 knots. Launched in 1904, she was sold for scrap in 1921. 373 feet in length she had a crew complement of 296.
In the foreground can be seen the rafts of timber being seasoned at high tide in the Slake.
The skeletal remains of the catwalk can be seen leading to the now derelict isolation hospital in the right-centre of the photograph.

Looking south with St. Paul’s in the distance.

Wooden piles reflect on the water where the river Don enters the Tyne.

The landfill and industrial development of the Slake was regarded as an improvement of land use and also brought about much needed employment to South Tyneside. It also meant the demise of the natural environment of a bird sanctuary and a part of the Jarrow monastic area from which Jarrow acquired its name, “Gyrwe” meaning the tribe from the mudflats.


The painting has been recognised by art critics as one of Turner’s greatest paintings. Turner visited Jarrow in the early 19th. century and asked to be rowed out onto the Slake to visit the scene. The painting which is oil on canvas is in the National Art Gallery, Washington DC.

St.Paul’s website would like to thank Jarrow artist and photographer, Vince Rea, for allowing the use of the photographs taken at Jarrow Slake prior to land reclaimation in 1972. Vince had the foresight to make a photographic record of the area before it became commercial dockland.