The first evidence of a settlement within what is now the town of South Shields dates from pre-historic times. Stone Age arrow heads and an Iron Age round house have been discovered on the site of Arbeia Roman Fort. The Roman garrison built a fort here around AD 160 and expanded it around AD 208 to help supply their soldiers along Hadrian's Wall as they campaigned north beyond the Antonine Wall. Divisions living at the fort included Tigris bargemen (from Persia and modern day Iraq), infantry from Iberia and Gaul, and Syrian archers and spearmen. The fort was abandoned as the Roman Empire declined in the 4th century AD. Many ruins still exist today and some structures have been rebuilt as part of a modern museum and popular tourist attraction.
There is evidence that the site was used in the early post-Roman period as a British settlement. It is believed it became a royal residence of King Oswald of Northumbria; records show that his son Oswin was born within 'Caer Urfa', by which name the fort is thought to be known after the Romans left. Furthermore, Bede records Oswin giving a parcel of land to St Hilda for the foundation of a monastery here in c.647; the present-day church of St Hilda, by the Market Place, is said to stand on the monastic site.
In the 9th century, Scandinavian peoples made Viking raids on monasteries and settlements all along the coast, and later conquered the Anglian Kingdoms of Northumbria, Mercia and East Anglia, who hailed from Angelnen in Denmark (modern day Germany). It is said in local folklore that a Viking ship was wrecked at Herd Sands in South Shields in its attempts to disembark at a cove nearby. Other Viking ships were uncovered in South Shields Denmark Centre and nearby Jarrow.
The current town was founded in 1245 and developed as a fishing port. The name South Shields developed from the 'Schele' or 'Shield', which was a small dwelling used by fishermen. Another industry that was introduced, was that of salt-panning, later expanded upon in the 15th century, polluting the air and surrounding land. In 1864, a Tyne Commissioners dredger brought up a nine-pounder breech-loading cannon; more cannonballs have been found in the sands beside the Lawe; these artifacts belonged to the English civil war. At the outbreak of the war in 1642, the North, West and Ireland supported the King; the South East and Presbyterian Scotland supported Parliament. In 1644 Parliament's Scottish Covenanter allies, in a lengthy battle, seized the town and its Royalist fortification, the fortification was close to the site of the original Roman fort. They also seized the town of Newburn. These raids were done to aid their ongoing siege of the heavily fortified Newcastle upon Tyne, and in a bid to control the River Tyne, and the North, and the Shields siege helped cause their battalions to maneuver south to York; this may have also led to a brief winter skirmish on the outskirts of Boldon, though the topography is not favorable for a battle.
In the 19th century, coal mining, alkaline production and glass making led to a boom in the town. The population increased from 12,000 in 1801 to 75,000 by the 1860s, bolstered by economic migration from Ireland, Scotland and other parts of England. These industries played a fundamental part in creating wealth both regionally and nationally. In 1832, with the Great Reform Act, South Shields and Gateshead were each given their own Member of Parliament and became boroughs, resulting in taxes being paid to the Government instead of the Bishops of Durham. However, the rapid growth in population brought on by the expansion of industry made sanitation a problem, as evident by Cholera outbreaks and the building of the now-listed Cleadon Water Tower to combat the problem. In the 1850s 'The Tyne Improvement Commission' began to develop the river, dredging it to make it deeper and building the large, impressive North and South Piers to help prevent silt build up within the channel. Shipbuilding (along with coal mining), previously a monopoly of the Freemen of Newcastle, became another prominent industry in the town, with John Readhead & Sons Shipyard the largest.