Today marks the 185th anniversary of the ‘birth’ of an East Durham town. Nostalgia writer Sarah Stoner digs deep into its mining roots.
ONLY the bravest of smugglers and fiercest of pirates once haunted the rocky and stormbound coast of Seaham – drawn by the rich pickings from wrecks.
Ships by the dozen sank without trace in the shadow of the Daldon Ness cliffs – but that was exactly the site chosen for a new harbour by the Marquess of Londonderry.
“Despite the fact critics condemned his ideas as ‘visionary and absurd,’ the Marquess pushed on with his plans,” said Brian Scollen, of East Durham Heritage Group.
“It was from that decision Seaham Harbour was born. Today is the 185th anniversary of the laying of the dock’s foundation stone – a great milestone for the town.”
The idea for a dock at Seaham was first proposed by the MP Sir Ralph Milbanke in the early 19th century – before he virtually bankrupted himself with election campaigns.
The construction costs of Seaham Hall, combined with the £20,000 dowry he had to raise on his daughter’s marriage to poet Lord Byron, finally put an end to his dreams.
“Milbanke went as far as commissioning an engineer, William Chapman, to draw up plans in 1820. The name of Port Milbanke is marked on the documents,” said Brian.
“But the scheme was eventually abandoned for financial reasons and Milbanke ended up auctioning off his heavily mortgaged estates in Seaham and moving to Yorkshire.”
The new buyers, Lord Charles Stewart and his 19-year-old second wife Lady Anne Vane Tempest, paid £63,000 for the estates – the equivalent of over £5million today.
Lady Anne already operated hugely profitable mines at nearby Penshaw and Rainton and, after considering transport options, Lord Stewart decided to create a harbour.
“He knew that if they could build their own railway and dock, rather than shipping the coal from Sunderland, then they could save thousands of pounds,” said Brian.
“But it was no easy task to raise enough money through investors. Dalton Ness was considered a dangerous place, a haunt of smugglers – not an ideal place for a port.”
Indeed, the sinking of 30 ships off the coast of Daldon Ness in 1824 did little to persuade potential investors to stake their financial futures on such a risky enterprise.
A lack of roads also proved a stumbling block, as did a lack of railways. Eventually, however, the Marquess decided to press on regardless – in the hope of future success.
Work finally began on September 13, 1828 and, just a few weeks later, the foundation stone for the £150,000 scheme was laid by the Marquess on November 28, 1828.
“Villagers in the nearby hamlet of Seaham, which stood close to Seaham Hall and St Mary’s Church, decorated their homes with flags for the occasion,” said Brian.
“The arrival of the Marquess and his special guests was announced by a salute of 19 guns, and thousands of people gathered to witness the ceremony from the cliff tops.
“Lord Londonderry was presented with a silver trowel by his agent, John Buddle, after laying the stone – the handle of which was formed of polished Rainton coal.”
A foundation stone for the first house in Seaham – the Londonderry Arms – was also laid on the same day. This time the Marquess’ seven-year-old son, George, carried out the task.
The Londonderry Arms was not, however, the first house to be completed in Seaham. That honour fell to the Golden Lion pub in 1829. The building now stands derelict.
Over the next three years, as work on the harbour rapidly advanced, the new town of Seaham Harbour started to flourish as streets, houses, shops and schools were built.
The seafront’s North Terrace developed between 1828 and 1831, the first road out of Seaham was completed in 1929 and Lord Byron’s Walk opened in the same year.
By August 25, 1831, when the first cargo of coal was shipped from the North Dock in the brig Lord Seaham, Seaham Harbour was booming and the critics admitted defeat.
“The town and the harbour grew together,” said Brian. “The South Dock opened in 1835, just two years after the South Hetton mineral line was completed.
“Soon coal was being transported from Haswell, North Hetton and Murton to Seaham docks and, by 1851, more than 2,000 ships were using the harbour each year.
“The population of Seaham Harbour was also growing rapidly– from just a few dozen before work on the port started to 2,036 by 1861. And it kept on growing from there.”
Hundreds more people flocked to the town following the opening of Seaton High and Seaham Low pits in 1852 – and the Londonderry Railway followed in August 1854.
Other industries, such as John Candlish’s Londonderry Bottleworks, John Watson’s Chemical Works and the Londonderry Blast Furnaces offered jobs aplenty too.
And, as the town’s prosperity grew, so new buildings were developed – such as the £1,500 Londonderry Literary Institute and a new police station and magistrates court. “By the time of Seaham’s Golden Jubilee the town had a lifeboat, temperance halls, Freemasons, two newspapers and a Co-operative Society with 500 members,” said Brian.
“The laying of the foundation stone at the North Dock paved the way for the birth of Seaham Harbour. Today’s 185th anniversary of that date is very important for us all.”
Indeed, such in the importance attached to the anniversary that members of East Durham Heritage Society are hosting an exhibition marking the milestone date.
Drawings, plans and details relating to the creation of the docks will be on show at East Durham Heritage Centre – based at Seaham docks – from now until Christmas.
“It’s that age-old saying about people not knowing who they are, or where they are going, unless they know where they’re coming from,” said member George Maitland.
“It’s very important people know their roots – as we are influenced by that all the time. Seaham was built on coal 185 years ago, and that’s something to be proud of.
“Our group believes it is very important to mark the occasion, because this is a such landmark in the history of the town. It is the very basis on which Seaham was built.”
* East Durham Heritage Centre is open each Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday from 11am until 3pm. Admission free.
* Catch all the latest news from Seaham in the Seaham Star, every Wednesday in the Sunderland Echo.