ANCIENT VILLAGE OF SEAHAM

Extract from The Parish of Seaham

by R Anderson Aird 1912

A DESCRIPTION OF THE ANCIENT VILLAGE OF SEAHAM

The present vicarage was built by Rev O. J. Cresswell about 1830 on the site of the old building but much enlarged. The Cresswell arms are displayed over the doorway. It is a fine Renaissance building, standing to the east of the church on the north bank of the dene in a delightful situation with a view of both country and sea. “The cliff below has been., converted into an ornamental garden to suit the natural character of the place, trees, shrubs and flowers of the hardy variety suited to sea breezes abound clinging to the rock.”(Surtees) In the garden near the entrance the ground is covered with a mass of natural growth, the spring flowers following each other in a continuous succession.

The glebe farm was originally the building standing at the north-east of the present vicarage, and the glebe lands extended north and a short way south of this building. The farm and lands were, some 50 or 60 years ago, exchanged for the Seaham Grange, near the Stockton turnpike, and now divided from the estate by the North Eastern Railway.

There is now no village of Seaham, though formerly it was a place of some note, situated close to the sea banks and bounded on the south by a deep dene. In the time of the Milbankes (who left Dalden Tower and resided here) the village consisted of one main street running down towards the sea. The manor house, called Seaham Hall, adjoined the village inn, and formed part of the street. There were six cottages :— 3 of 4 rooms each and garden. 1 of 3 rooms and garden, 1 of 2 rooms and garden, 1 of 2 rooms without garden.

The Hall grounds have been adorned with plantations and pleasure grounds at great cost. Surtees says the grounds have been laid out ” with the most elegant simplicity, uniting with a noble sea view, the softest pastoral scenery on the eastern coast.” The house and offices occupied over an acre ; the plantations 33 acres and the garden and orchard three acres; and the town green over five acres.

The village inn contained eight rooms, cellar, out-houses and garden, five-stall stable and about nine acres of land. The rent in 1821 was £15.

The manor farm stood west of the church, the fold yard of which adjoined the churchyard.

At the present day all trace of the village street and manor farm has disappeared. The only houses near the church are the Hall—one of the seats of the Marquis of Londonderry—and the few houses of those engaged upon the estate.

The present Hall occupies the site of the old manor house and village inn, and was extended by the late Lady Frances Anne, Marchioness of Londonderry. The central portion of the Hall forms part of the old manor building.

In 1821 the estate consisted of two manors. Seaham, containing about 2,425 acres, paid a crown or chief rent of eight shillings a year at Michaelmas to the executors and trustees of Lord Feversham, and the Manor of Dalden, containing 1,084 acres, was exempt from tithes on payment of two yearly moduses of £2 and £7 3s. 4d. to the vicar of Dalton-le-Dale and of £2 per year, prescript rent, to the Prebendary of the 7th stall of Durham Cathedral.

At this time, 1821, the rent roll of the whole estate was about £2,000.

The population of Seaham in 1801 was 115, in 1811 121, and in 1821 103.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————————-

Many visitors from Houghton, Durham and other places stayed at Seaham during the summer for the sea bathing. A brass plate in one of the pews in the church reads :—” Free access to this pew for all strangers.” The pew will seat four persons ! Amongst such visitors was Mrs. Grant, a daughter of the Ironsides of Houghton, and wife of Judge Grant, with her children. The eldest Eliza, who married Colonel Smith of Baltiboys, in Ireland, delightfully describes her visit in Memoirs of a Highland Lady, extract below…..                      (Elizabeth Grant was born 7th May 1797 – DA)

Early in the summer of 1808 …. my mother removed with the children to Seaham, a little bathing hamlet on the coast of Durham, hardly six miles from Houghton. She had often passed an autumn there when a child, with some of her numerous brothers and sisters, and she said it made her feel young again to find herself there once more, wandering over all the ground she knew so well…..

We lived in a little public-house, the only inn in the place. We entered at once into the kitchen, bright and clean, and full of cottage valuables ; a bright ‘ sea-coal’ fire burned always cheerily in the grate, and on the settle at one side generally sat the old grandfather of the family with his pipe, or an old worn newspaper, or a friend. The daughter, who was mistress of the house, kept bustling about in the back kitchen, where all the business went on, which was quite as clean, though not so handsomely furnished, as the one where the old man sat. There was a scullery besides for dirty work, such as baking, brewing, washing, and preparing for cookery. A yard behind held a large water butt and several out-houses. A neatly- kept flower garden, a mere strip, lay beneath the windows in the front, opening into a large kitchen garden on one side. The sea, though not distant, could only be seen from the upper windows; for this and other reasons we generally sat upstairs. Roses and woodbines clustered round the lattices, the sun shone in, the scent of the flowers, and the hum of the bees, and the chirp of the birds, all entered the open casements freely: and the polished floors and furniture, and the clean white dimity hangings, added to the cheerfulness of our suite of small attics. The parlour below was dull by comparison. It could only be reached through the front kitchen; tall shrubs overshaded the window: it had green walls, hair-bottomed chairs set all round by them; one round table in the middle of the room, oiled till it was nearly black, and rubbed till it shone like a mirror; a patch of carpet was spread beneath this table, and a paper net for catching flies hung from the ceiling over it; a corner cupboard full of tall glasses and real old china tea-cups, and a large china punch-bowl on the top, and a corner-set arm-chair with a patch-work cover on the cushion, are all the extras I remember. We were very little in this ‘guest-chamber,’ only at our meals or on rainy days.

” We were for ever on the beach, strolling along the sands which were beautiful ; sitting on the rocks or in the caves, penetrating as far into them as we dared. When we bathed, we undressed in a cave and then walked into the sea, generally hand in hand, my mother heading us. How we used to laugh and dance, and splash, and push, anything but dip, we avoided that as much as possible; then in consideration of our cold bath we had a warm tea breakfast and felt so light. It was a very happy time at Seaham. Some of the Houghton cousins were often with us, Kate and Eliza constantly. We had all straw bonnets alike, coarse dunstables lined and trimmed with green, with deep curtains on the neck, pink gingham frocks and holland pinafores, baskets in our hands, and gloves in our pockets. We did enjoy the seashore scrambles. On Sundays we wore what we thought very fine, white frocks all of us; the cousins had white cambric bonnets and tippets, and long kid gloves to meet the short sleeves. We had fine straw bonnets trimmed with white, and black silk spencers. My mother wore gipsy hats, in which she looked beautiful. They were tied on with half-handkerchiefs of various colours, and had a single sprig of artificial flowers inside over one eye. We went to church either at Seaham or Houghton, the four bays carrying us quickly to my uncle Ironside’s, when we spent the remainder of the day there always, our own feet bearing us to the little church on the cliffs when it suited my mother to stay at home.

The name of the old rector of Seaham I cannot recollect. (Rev. Richard Wallis, 1783—1827) (Rev Wallace was buried at Seaham 10 May 1827 aged 74 – DA)  He was a nice, kind old man, who most good-naturedly, when we drank tea at the parsonage, played chess with me, and once or twice let me beat him. He had a kind, homely wife too, our great ally. She had many housekeeping ways of pleasing children. The family—a son and two or three daughters—were more aspiring. They had annual opportunities of seeing the ways of more fashionable people, and so tried a little finery at home, in particular drilling an awkward lout of a servant boy into a caricature of a lady’s page.

One evening, in the drawing room, the old quiet mamma, observing that she had left her knitting in the parlour, the sprucest of the daughters immediately rose and rang the bell and desired this attendant to fetch it, which he did upon a silver salver; the thick grey woollen stocking for the parson’s winter wear, presented with a bow, such a bow! to his mistress. No comments that I heard were made upon this scene, but it haunted me as in some way incongruous. Next day, when we were at our work in the parlour, I came out with, ‘Mamma, wouldn’t you have rather run down yourself and brought up the knitting?’ ‘You would, I hope, my dear,’ answered she with a smile—she had such a sweet smile when she was pleased, ‘You would, any of you.’ How merrily we worked on though our work was most particularly disagreeable, an economical invention of our Aunt Mary’s. She had counselled my mother to cut up some fine old cambric petticoats into pocket handkerchiefs for us, thus  giving us four hems to each, so that they were very long in hand. Jane never got through one during the whole time we were at Seaham; it was so dragged and so wetted with tears, and so dirtied from being often begun and ripped and begun again, I believe at last it went into the rag bag, while I, in time, finished the set for both, not, however, without a little grudge against the excellent management of Aunt Mary. Aunt Mary was then living at Houghton with her maiden aunt, Miss Jane Nesham. She and Aunt Fanny had been there for some months, but Aunt Mary was to go on to the Highlands with us whenever my father returned from circuit, and in the meantime she often came over for a day or two to Seaham.

Except the clergyman’s family there was none of gentle degree in the village. It was the most primitive hamlet ever met with; a dozen or so of cottages, no trade. no manufacture, no business doing that we could see; the owners were mostly servants of Sir Ralph Milbanke’s. He had a pretty villa on the cliff surrounded by well-kept grounds, where Lady Milbanke liked very much to retire in the autumn with her little daughter, the unfortunate child granted to her after eighteen years of childless married life. She generally lived quite privately here, seeing only the rector’s family when his daughters took their lessons in high breeding; and for a companion for the future Lady Byron at these times she selected the daughter of our landlady, a pretty, quiet, elegant-looking girl, who bore very ill with the public-house ways after living for weeks in Miss Milbanke’s apartments. I have often wondered since what became of little Bessy. (1) She liked being with us. She was in her element only with refined people, and unless Lady Milbanke took her entirely and provided for her she had done her irremediable injury by raising her ideas beyond her home. Her mother seemed to feel this, but they were dependents, and did not like to refuse ‘ my lady.’ Surely it could not have been that modest, graceful girl, who was ‘ born in the garret, in the kitchen bred ?

I remember her mother and herself washing their hands in a tub in the back-yard after some work they had been engaged in, and noticing sadly—I know not why—the bustling hurry with which one pair of red, rough hands was yellow-soaped, well plunged, and then dried off on a dish-cloth; and the other pale, thin, delicate pair was gently soaped and slowly rinsed, and softly wiped on a towel brought down for the purpose. What strangely curious incidents make an impression upon some minds! Bessy could make seaweed neck-laces and shell bags and work very neatly. She could understand our books too, and was very grateful for having them lent to her. My mother never objected to her being with us, but our Houghton cousins did not like playing with her,; their father and mother, they thought, would not approve of it; so when they were with us our more humble companion retired out of sight, giving us a melancholy smile if we chanced to meet her. My mother had no finery.”

(1) ” Bessy” was not the person to whom Byron referred as being ” born in a garret, &c.” The reference was to Mistress Claremont, a lady who caused much trouble between Lord and Lady Byron. Byron refers to her in a letter as ” Mistress C, a kind of housekeeper and family spy.”‘  Bessy grew up to be a noble example of womanhood, doing many deeds of charity in the highest sense of that word.

—————————————————————————————————————————————————————–

It was during the years 1814 and 1815 that the poet Byron visited Seaham, but, except for the admiration of the sea, already referred to, he does not seem to have been impressed with the district, for in a letter written February 2nd, 1815, he writes:— “Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks.” That he was not surfeited with excitement seems evident, for on another occasion he writes :—” I am in such a state of sameness and stagnation . . . gathering shells on the beach and watching the growth of stunted gooseberry bushes in the garden.”

Lord Byron frequently spent his time in pistol shooting, at which he was a great expert, firing at a glove hung on a branch. He was not, however, the only poet of whose acquaintance Seaham could boast, since she counted Joseph Blackett(2) among her villagers. Blackett was a shoemaker to trade. ” His works.” says Surtees, ” to which it would be harsh to deny the praise to native and vigorous talent, are still before the public.” The poet is mentioned in the Gentleman s Magazine for 1810(3) ; and also in Byron’s famous poem, entitled, ” English Bards and Scotch Reviewers,” though the author at the time this poem was written did not know Miss Milbanke, who patronised Blackett. Blackett is buried in Seaham churchyard.

The coast of Seaham seems ever to have been notorious for shipwrecks, and the villagers seem to have done all in their power to help unfortunate crews. Having none of the modern means of saving life, several of them, firmly holding a rope, and headed by a strong man, would enter the water to try to reach the vessel. My grandfather, being exceptionally tall and strong, acted as leader in this way, and in many cases several lives were thus saved.

Smuggling was carried on to some extent, and the farm buildings afforded convenient hiding places for stowing the goods. Smuggling went on until comparatively recent times. The last capture was said to have taken place on a dark night by information laid by one of the agents of the estate, who had himself profited by the trade. However this may be, it was noticed that from the time of the capture this same agent never dared to be abroad after nightfall, no doubt fearing the threats of his victims.

In September, 1861, whilst workmen were making the north road and the approach leading from it to Seaham Hall human bones were found, whilst they were cutting a drain close to the park gates. Care being taken in uncovering them it was found that they consisted of entire skeletons lying without any apparent order at a depth of from two to three feet below the surface.

(2) ” 26 Aug., 1810. Joseph Blackett (died Aug. 23rd) a poet of singular promise, aged 24, consumption.” (P. Reg.)

(3) Part i., p. 50. Part ii., pp. 288, 544.

The excavation extended, though not continuously, over an area of ten yards by about three. In that space from 25 to 30 skeletons were found, some stretched out but without any regard to the points of the compass, whilst others appeared to be doubled up, and in some instances the skeletons lay across one another. Though entire when uncovered, the bones when exposed soon mouldered away. They were examined by three medical men, who pronounced all of them to be the bones of adult males. These bones appeared to extend further than the excavation reached, but it is impossible to say at present over what exact area they were deposited.

The late Rev. A. Bethune, Vicar of Seaham, was greatly interested in this discovery, and read a paper on their supposed origin to the members of the Seaham Harbour Natural History Club in the winter of 1861. In this paper the reverend gentleman pointed out that the remains were most probably of British origin, since the mode of burial differed from the modes of the Romans, Danes, and Saxons and resembled that of the Britons. The absence of weapon or pottery seemed to point to the fact of a hasty burial, such as may have taken place after a battle with Picts or Scots, who harried the British from the north or the Angles and Saxons who invaded the east coast of England. Since, however, only a comparatively small space of ground had been excavated it was not unlikely that the spot would yet prove to be part of a British burial place, as before the Roman occupation of the country it does not seem to have been the custom among the British to place either weapons or pottery with their dead, and successive burials might account for the large number of bones found in so small an area. In either case—battle field or burial ground—the large number of skeletons seemed to clearly indicate that a place of some considerable size had existed long before Seaham was first mentioned in the records of the reign of Athelstan.

Seaton village, a mile and a half west of Seaham, is pleasantly situated on high ground, partly surrounded by wood. Seaton Hall, formerly the old mansion of the Middletons, occupies the summit of the hill. A short time ago traces of the old hall of the 17th century could be seen in the mullioned windows and gables. Formerly Seaton formed part of the Manor of Seaham.

In 1295 half of each village was allotted to the families of Hadham and Yeland. Hadham’s moiety was included in Seaham till 1501, when, on the death of Thomas Hadham, without male issue, his moiety of Seaton descended, according to previous settlement by his daughter Isabel, wife of John Blaykeston, to his grandson, John Blakiston, ancestor of resident proprietors to 1635- A younger branch of this family intermarried with the Middletons, of Newton Hall, and held lands in Seaton.

In 1585 Thomas Middleton, gentleman, was in possession of the estate. Anthony Middleton, his son and heir, was living in 1615.

In 1690 Francis Middleton, of Seaton, gentleman, descendant of the above, married Anne Middleton. daughter of a Silksworth family.

As before mentioned, it is difficult to trace the connection of families who held lands in Seaton, as several parcels had been sold and then re-purchased in small lots, but the Seaton lands as a whole never again reverted to the Seaham and Dalden estate owners.

The following are some names which occur as owners in addition to Hadham, Blakiston and Middleton :—

Michael Hebborne 1597 ; George Parkin 1593 ; William Wrenn and Robert Atcheson 1619; Eden, Blenkensopp, Wilson and Bewicke.

Slingley, formerly Slinglawe, is to the south-west of Seaton. It now consists of two farm houses. A law or mound frequently formed an ancient burial place before the Roman occupation, and remains have been found in several such places. Surtees quotes:—”In 1564 George Swinburne, of Seaham, gentleman, leased to John Byllyngham, of Crookhall, the younger, gentleman, all his lands in the towne and fieldes of Slinglawe upon the hill, for 21 years, under 40s. rent, the tenant to maintain the houses now beilded, and to fell great tymber for the upholding of the said houses.”

The lands here were held by :—

  1. Sir Ephraim Widdrington, Kt., and Arthur Hebborne, gentleman, to Cuthbert Collingwood (who at one time held lands in Dalden.)
  2. Robert Collingwood to Edward Dale, of Dalton, tenement in Seaton.
  3. Robert Collingwood. gentleman, to Thomas Gregson, Murton, John Todd and Robert Robinson, Dalton.
  4. Edward Dale settled estate on Ralph Dale ancestor to the Dale-of Tunslall. The Carrs also have held lands here up to the present time.

Roads. Previous to 1821. none of the denes were bridged or embanked for the roadways, except the mouth of Dawdon Dene on the extreme south of Seaham parish. The road from Sunderland was by the present Stockton turnpike, running south-west from Ryhope village, and Seaham was approached through the park by the west lodge gates, where the road runs due east towards the sea. The south outlet was by the same park gates on the Stockton road. There was a foot and bridle road north and south of the village by the sea cliffs, and this was reached by a lane past the church and glebe farm turning sharp to the south and winding down the north bank of the dene on to the beach,(4) whence it proceeded south to the fields. Dawdon Dene was reached by a pathway up the cliffs and into the dene to Dalden Tower, farms, &c. In the winter storms the road at the foot of the cliffs was sometimes covered by surf, and it has been known for a man to ride with his horse breast high through the surf in order to reach his stock in the fields on the south. What is now known as the ” Feather-Bed Rocks,” situated near the entrance of Dawdon dene, adjoined the mainland by a narrow strip of grass land. This has been gradually washed away by the sea until the rock is quite separated from the cliff and is fast disappearing. Some time ago cattle strayed over the narrow part on to the rock and had to be taken off by being lowered to the beach by ropes, the strip being too narrow to allow them to be driven over in safety.

(4) This part of the beach, which is the outlet for the burn through the dene, widens out. and was known as the Lint-links, being used probably as a bleaching ground for the homespun linen. Much of the ground has now been covered by the embankment for the new road.

Later a foot road ran from the east end of the village past the west wall of the churchyard through the dene and fields to the south. This road crossed the Dawdon dene by a bridge and embankment, with a toll house on the north side which is still standing! The embankment was carried away many years ago after heavy rains, when the tunnel in the dene became choked with trees. &c, washed down by the rush of water, and the dene became flooded to the top of the embankment.

Two men came to cross the dene, and debated as to whether the road would be safe. One of them crossed and had scarcely cleared the farther side when the whole embankment gave way with a great noise and the water rushed towards the sea carrying all before it. At that time a small house further up the dene, now known as the ” Adam and Eve Gardens,” was flooded, and the pressure being released from the outside, and the water within not being able to escape quickly, forced the front portion out and carried the stones away. A wooden structure was erected to carry the road over the dene in place of the bridge destroyed, and this continued until the present north road was made.

More recently, to the south west of the village, the road crossed the dene by a brick bridge, east of the present fine stone structure. The old bridge is still standing, though unused, and forms a very pretty picture in a romantic setting. The path through the dene westwards is still known as Byron’s Walk, and there is a well towards the west called Lady Byron’s well.

The road to Seaton was, as at present, to the west, past the lodge, the village of Seaton standing on the south side of the road. About two miles further along the road towards Hough-ton-le-Spring is Salter’s Lane leading to Slingley, which is a mile south of the Houghton road. Salter’s Lane probably takes its name from the traffic in salt carried over this road from the salt-pans at Shields to the south.

Many winters ago, when the snow lay thick on the ground, a christening party came from Slingley to Houghton on horseback. On arriving at the church it was discovered that the baby was missing, and the party returned in search ot the essential participator in the ceremony to find the child quite safe in its wrappings lying in the snow by the side of the road, in Salter’s Lane, three miles from the church.

In this unique spot, with its church and churchyard, the pastoral, the sylvan and the dipping- glade, its rugged weather-beaten cliffs and restless sea, one is tempted into thoughts poetical. Here, amid the dust of ages, with all the relics of the past surrounding us, we look back link by link over the chain connecting us with bygone years, and picture those who have lived and moved amid the same scenes in which we today play our little part, those with whom we are linked by ties of kinship—part of their nature is our nature, what they were we are. We walk upon their dust, which lies in a mingled heap in God’s acre, and look upon the ever-changing, everlasting sea. which reminds us that soon in its turn our present will be the past, when we go hence into the great unknown.