Wearside Echoes: Harbour history

North Easterly gales and high seas, October 1903
North Easterly gales and high seas, October 1903
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THE history of a former East Durham mining town in picture form has just been unearthed.

“A photo album recording events at Seaham Harbour over a century ago was recently discovered in the Sunderland Antiquarian Society archives,” said local historian Norman Kirtlan.

“It chronicles the building of the town’s harbour extensions between 1899 and 1905 – the final piece in a remarkable journey which took the area from a rocky coastline to thriving port.”

Seaham’s harbour was little more than a natural cove, hewn from limestone by tidal erosion and home to smugglers and hermits, before the discovery of ‘black diamonds’ – coal.

“The MP Ralph Milbank, a principle local landowner, had designs to improve the area, but financial problems forced him to sell his estates to the Londonderry family,” said Norman.

“Deep beneath Milbank’s land lay a huge wealth of minerals. But it would be the new owners, not the MP, who would benefit from some of the best coal in the world.”

Seaham’s jagged coastline proved a graveyard for ships in the early years of the 19th century. Indeed, 30 ships were sunk close to the seaside community just in 1824.

The Marquess of Londonderry, however, remained convinced that a harbour could be won from the craggy cove. Work began in September 1828, and, by 1840, it was in operation.

“What only a few years earlier had been agricultural land – Dene House and Dawdon Hill farms – became the town of Seaham,” said Norman, map archivist for the Antiquarians.

“It was soon a thriving port, with roads, housing and industry growing along its length. But, by the end of the century, it was obvious the harbour was again in need of improvement, as larger ships could not be accommodated.”

The year 1898 saw Seaham Harbour Dock Company launched – formed with a view to “acquiring and improving the old harbour and docks.” The move effectively separated port and coal interests in the town.

Work to expand the harbour commenced a year later, in 1899, with two outer concrete piers – enclosing an 8.4m dock – constructed by S. Pearson & Son Ltd over the next six years.

“Two large blockyards were allocated for the project,” said Norman. “The small one housed concrete blocks for the harbour wall, while the other was filled with massive 20 and 30 ton blocks for the piers.

“Pictures in the photograph album show building work in all of its stages. It even records the great storms and high seas of 1903, which were to severely test the new structure.

“Despite the worst that the weather could throw at it, the harbour survived – albeit with damage to the new dock walls. Today the craftsmanship of our Victorian and Edwardian ancestors still stands the test of time.”

l Do you have old photographs or stories you would like to share with Sunderland Antiquarian Society? Contact Norman on 416 8840, or by e-mail at oldsunderland@yahoo.co.uk