Robinson Crusoe author Daniel Defoe's curious view of South Shields

The busy beaches of South Shields on a sunny day are a far cry from the desolate sands on which Robinson Crusoe found himself stranded in the most famous episode of Daniel Defoe’s 1719 novel.

Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 11:54 am
Updated Tuesday, 22nd June 2021, 12:03 pm
South Shields was once home to a thriving salt panning industry. The air is a lot clearer today!
South Shields was once home to a thriving salt panning industry. The air is a lot clearer today!

But while the author is best known for his stories of the shipwrecked traveller and his desert island, during his lifetime, Defoe’s travel writings from around Britain were massively popular in the eighteenth century.

And South Shields gets two separate mentions in his ‘A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain’, first published in the 1720s, the most curious of which was on his touchingly naive venture up The Cheviot, the highest peak in Northumberland.

Completely unfamiliar with fell walking, it seems, the writer feared the hill would end in a sharp point at the top and so he might fall off, but was reassured by locals.

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Little Haven beach, South Shields. The town was once home to a thriving salt panning industry.

Defoe also writes how the guide he hired in the nearby town of Wooler chuckled at the thought of the Londoner climbing to the top on foot, and suggested they go up on horseback.

It is in the view from the top that South Shields features.

“The day happened to be very clear, and to our great satisfaction very calm, otherwise the hight (sic) we were upon, would not have been without its dangers. We saw plainly here the smoke of the salt-pans at Shields, at the mouth of the Tyne,” he wrote.

“The sea, that is the German ocean (the North Sea), was as if but just at the foot of the hill.”

Circa 1700, Daniel Defoe's famous castaway finds a set of human footprints on the sandy beach of his desert island. Original Artwork: 'Crusoe discovering footprints in the sand', from 'The Life and Adventures of Robinson Crusoe' by Daniel Defoe. (Photo by Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

While referred to by Defoe as simply “Shields”, the index states this is probably South Shields.

Salt-panning in South Shields

South Shields and its salt-panning and coal mining industries are referred to elsewhere in the book, in a discussion on the industry of the area.

Here Defoe talks about being able to see the fumes from the salt mines while in Durham.

The trig point at the summit of The Cheviot. Defoe was lucky to get such a clear view on his trip up the peak.

"It is the prodigious quantity of coals which those saltworks consume, and the fires make such a smoke, that we saw it ascend in clouds over the hills, four miles before we came to Durham, which is at least sixteen miles from this place.”

Salt panning, involving boiling sea water to extract salt, was a dirty business, but a massive industry in South Shields.

Growing from medieval times, by 1768 South Shields had more than 200 salt pans, making it the most important salt making town in Britain.

While the industry employed many people, thankfully the air is at least a lot cleaner in South Shields today.

Daniel Defoe in Tyneside

The author was no stranger to Tyneside, having lived for a time in Gateshead after, it is said, he hitch-hiked his way north to avoid imprisonment for debt.

Some say he wrote his notes for Robinson Crusoe while in the area, which went on to become a best seller, helping him settle his debts.

A blue plaque to Defoe can be found beneath the Tyne Bridge, reading: “Daniel Defoe (1660-1731) a prolific journalist, pamphleteer, author, sometime merchant adventurer, government spy, author of 'Robinson Crusoe' and author of 'Moll Flanders'. He lived in Gateshead c. 1706-10. it is believed his lodgings were in Hillgate.”

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