North Shields Mechanics Institute and Free Library


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
North Tyneside Council, 54a Saville Street, North Shields, North Shields, NE30 1NT


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Statutory Address:
North Tyneside Council, 54a Saville Street, North Shields, North Shields, NE30 1NT

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

North Tyneside (Metropolitan Authority)
Non Civil Parish
National Grid Reference:


Mechanics Institute, 1857-8, to the designs of John Johnston, with possible alterations by John Dobson; then Free Library, 1870. Italianate in style.

Reasons for Designation

This mechanics institute of 1857-8 by John Johnstone, with possible later alterations by John Dobson is designated for the following principal reasons: * Architectural: it has a strong and coherent composition in a reassuring traditional design, which remains largely unaltered * Interior: despite some losses to the ground floor, the building largely retains its original layout and the first floor library retains its original form and decorative scheme * Historical: the building demonstrates the mid-C19 educational and cultural aspirations of North Shields, and in 1870 it became the first Free Library on Tyneside. * Architect: by the accomplished regional architect John Johnstone, a highly regarded architect with a number of large and significant listed buildings to his name in north east England.


The foundation stone for the new Mechanics Institute in North Shields was laid on 30 May 1857 by the local Member of Parliament W. S. Lindsay; a procession from the town hall to the site was headed by a band and many local dignitaries including the mayors of Tynemouth, South Shields and Newcastle. The site was decorated with flags and a large crowd gathered to hear prayers and watch the placing of a brass box into the foundation stone containing a newspaper and a number of coins. The institute opened in 1858. It was designed by John Johnstone who has a number of listed buildings to his name, all of them in north east England including the Grade II* town hall, Durham. The building is mentioned in the most recent edition of Pevsner, as having possible alterations by John Dobson.

The Mechanics Institute was amalgamated with the Literary and Philosophical Society collection in January 1870 when it became the first free library on Tyneside. It is understood that the first floor was strengthened by the addition of steel members and supports during the Second World War in order withstand aerial bombing. In 1990, the building underwent refurbishment and became the North Tyneside Business Centre. It is temporarily operating as North Shields library until the completion of a new library building.


MATERIALS: mellow red brick enriched with stucco dressings

PLAN: square, three storey building occupying a prominent corner site with elevations on Saville Street and Howard Street. Large room to the ground floor with stair to the left giving access to a first-floor library with gallery. Smaller rooms set around at all levels.

EXTERIOR: the Howard Street elevation has three storeys and five bays with a plinth, an entablature band between the ground and first floor and a pedimented entablature. The central bay is slightly projecting with rusticated pilasters to the ground floor, flanking an entrance fitted with double wooden doors and an overlight with circular fenestration. It has an elaborate doorcase comprising a cornice carried upon scrolled console brackets incorporating a pair of lion heads and scrolled decoration. Immediately above the doorcase is a frieze incised with the words ‘Free Library’. Above the rusticated pilasters giant pilasters rise through the first and second floors, flanking a large first floor three-light window with a bracketed cornice identical to that of the entrance, and at the second floor there is a heavily moulded lunette with a giant key in the form of a bearded head. The tympanum of the pedimented entablature has a decorative laurel wreath. The end bays have paired windows to all levels with two over two horned sash windows and heavily moulded and eared architraves. Those to the ground floor are square-headed with a scroll decorated frieze and cornice above. Above these is an entablature enriched with a scroll decoration. First floor windows are round-headed with decorated keys, and friezes with floral boss decoration. Second-floor windows are smaller and square-headed with a sill band and scrolled heads that merge with the entablature above.

The Saville Street elevation is very similarly detailed with identical windows, ornamentation, entablature, door and doorcase. It lacks the highly ornamented, projecting central bay, and instead has a round-headed window at first floor and a smaller square-headed window at second floor.

INTERIOR: The Saville Street entrance leads into a large ground-floor room occupying two bays to the right of the door. The modern ceiling is supported on three rows of square columns which are believed to have been inserted to provide additional strength to the floor above. A large opening through the west wall is recent and leads to an extension into an adjoining building. Fixtures and fittings within this room are thought to relate to the 1990s refurbishment with the possible exception of the projecting entrance leading to the stair. The rest of the ground floor contains a number of smaller rooms, which retain original cornices and chimneybreasts. The present stair is modern, added in 1990 to replace the original spiral stair formerly giving access to the first-floor library.

The library is double height and lit from above through a large light well lined with wooden panels with applied circular motifs; the ridge light above remains visible. The ceiling has an elaborate cornice incorporating scrolled motifs and there is a gallery around all four sides; this has an original cast-iron balustrade incorporating scroll decoration (raised by the addition of a wooden handrail) and a lower band of applied bosses. A double height chimneybreast remains on the west wall but any fireplaces have been removed. A separate room to the south, now accessed through inserted doors has original cornicing and wainscoting. Rooms to the second floor have panelled reveals to the windows, skirting boards and cornices.


Books and journals
Grundy, J, McCombie, G, Ryder, P, Welfare, H, The Buildings of England: Northumberland, (2002)
John Johnstone, accessed from
Miners and Mechanics Institutes, North East England, accessed from


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

End of official listing

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