A Brief History of Seaham Harbour Reproduced here with kind permission of the author, Tony Whitehead
1. The Londonderrys Arrive On April 3 1819 a marriage took place in London which was to have a profound effect on the ancient Saxon settlement of Seaham. An Ulsterman, Lord Charles Stewart, a widower of 41 with a 14 year old son, took as his second wife Lady Frances Anne Vane Tempest, a 19 year old coal heiress whose pits were in the Penshaw and Rainton districts of her native County Durham. The bride was given away by the Duke of Wellington, a Napoleonic War comrade of the bridegroom. She was the second largest coal exporter on the River Wear behind Lord Lambton and had an annual income of £60,000, a collosal sum in those days. Lord Stewart himself was far from penniless and though he currently ranked only as a humble baron he expected one day to inherit a much higher title, a marquessate, from first his father and then his childless half-brother Viscount Castlereagh, the Foreign Secretary and Leader of the House of Commons and Prime Minister in all but name, the man actually in charge of the British Empire.
On his marriage Lord Stewart adopted the surname Vane and henceforth would sign himself as Vane Londonderry. Before the marriage Lord Charles Stewart had never visited County Durham and knew nothing whatsoever about his young bride’s business, coal. It was explained to him that the produce from her Rainton and Penshaw collieries had to be taken on a primitive horse-drawn wagonway to Frances Anne’s own staiths on the Wear not far from Penshaw.
There it was loaded on to very small vessels called keels and taken downriver to be reloaded on to much larger, ocean-going vessels, for onward shipment to London and the Low Countries. Wages to the keelmen and other incidentals were costing his new wife some £10,000 a year but there seemed no way round this overhead. A few miles to the east of Rainton Colliery lay a possible solution to the problem — Dalden Ness, near Seaham
Electioneering over two decades and the building of Seaham Hall had virtually bankrupted Sir Ralph Milbanke, owner of the sister manors of Seaham and Dalden. The final straw came when he had to raise an additional £20,000 as a dowry for his only child Anne Isabella on her marriage to the poet Lord Byron at Seaham in January 1815. It was intended that the Byrons should take over Seaham Hall and live happily ever after while Sir Ralph and his wife moved to his ancestral home at Halnaby in North Yorkshire.
The inheritance, via his wife, of her brother’s Wentworth money and property in April 1815 saved Sir Ralph Milbanke’s financial bacon and the ending of his daughter’s marriage the following year rendered the Seaham and Dalden estates as surplus to requirements. What was to be done about them ? The exposed Durham coalfield at Rainton was only four miles away and Sir Ralph conceived the absurd idea of constructing a port at Seaham out of the living rock of Dalden Ness to export coal from inland pits such as Rainton and the projected Hetton Colliery. In 1820 he even went so far as to commission a well-known engineer, William Chapman, to draw up a plan for ‘Port Milbanke’, but the amount of money involved in such a high-risk project discouraged him.
He could not have guessed that vast mineral wealth lay far beneath his own estates and that very soon the technology to extract it would be available. He was too impatient even to wait for the results of the experimental digging into the East Durham limestone escarpment going on at that very moment at Hetton and decided to sell Seaham and Dalden to the highest bidder and retire to the Wentworth headquarters in Leicestershire. His plan for a harbour at Seaham and a railway inland now came to Lord Stewart’s knowledge and he determined to buy the estates when he heard that they were to be sold at a public auction
This took place on October 13 1821 and his bid of £63,000 was successful. He raised part of the money by charging it on his half-brother’s Irish property. The Milbankes then left Seaham for their other estates in Yorkshire and Leicestershire and made way for the new lords of the manors of Seaham and Dalden. Lord Stewart’s father, Robert Stewart, 1st. Marquess of Londonderry, died in 1821 and was succeeded in his titles and possessions by his childless eldest son Castlereagh who became the 2nd. Marquess of Londonderry. A year later his mind became unhinged and he cut his own throat at his house at Cray in Kent. His titles and possessions passed to his half-brother Charles who thus became the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry, the title history remembers him by.
2. The Concealed Durham Coalfield The eastern half of the Durham coalfield, upon which Seaham and all of Easington District is situated, is concealed by many hundreds of feet of Permian magnesian limestone. The powerful steam engines required to drain deep mines did not exist until the 1820s. As the third decade of the nineteenth century dawned technological advances had been made which at last made it possible to investigate just what lay under the rolling limestone hills of East Durham. At Rainton, four miles west of Seaham, coal is just below the ground. A few hundred yards away at Hetton, at the start of the limestone escarpment, the coal is several hundred feet below the surface. It was there on December 19 1820 that the new machinery was put to the test. Deep mining was an entirely new, dangerous and expensive business, far beyond the financial means of most coal owners, and necessitated the creation of a large company for the purpose. Whilst digging proceeded the famous engineer and pioneer of steam engines, George Stephenson began construction of a railway from the pithead at Hetton to Sunderland in March 1821. The new line, the first in the world to be designed to use locomotives, was some 8 miles in length and ran to the Hetton Company’s own staiths on the river Wear, where coal could be loaded directly on to large vessels, thus missing out a number of middlemen at Penshaw and on the river.
The excellent publicity received launched the Stephensons on to even greater things, as the world knows. More importantly for the history of County Durham, coal was found at the Hetton Lyons Blossom Pit sinking, at 650 and 900 feet, in seams six and a half feet thick! By 1832 Hetton Lyons and its two sister pits Eppleton and Elemore were annually producing 318,000 tons of coal worth £174,000, and the combine was the largest mine in England. Hetton Colliery and its railway proved that 650 feet of limestone, water and quicksand and a large hill (Warden Law) blocking the way to Sunderland were not insurmountable obstacles to the exploitation of the rich reserves of coal and that achievement did not go unnoticed. Before long others, such as Lord Londonderry, Lord Lambton (1st. Earl of Durham) and Colonel Thomas Braddyll of Haswell, would enter the arena and the tapping of the deeply concealed Durham coalfield began in earnest.
In 1801 the total population of all County Durham was a mere 150,000. Half of these people lived in the ancient towns of Gateshead, Stockton, Hartlepool, Sunderland, Durham and Darlington and the rest of the county, not just the highground, was as empty as some parts of western Ireland are today. In 1820 Seaham, Silksworth, Ryhope, Murton, Hetton, South Hetton, Haswell and Shotton were tiny communities in an East Durham landscape which had been agricultural and unchanging for countless centuries. Over the course of the next century however the population of County Durham increased by more than twelve-fold to 1.88 million in 1901 as the coalfield expanded both eastward to exploit the concealed seams and southward towards Yorkshire.
Most of the newcomers arrived from the other counties of the Great Northern Coalfield (Cumberland and Northumberland) but some came from established mining areas far afield. Murton and Seaham collieries for instance received a large number of Cornish lead and tin miners when they opened in the 1840s and 50s. Another wave came in the 1860s. The effects of the potato famine on the Irish, with starvation and typhoid from 1846-51, brought many of them too. Seaham Harbour certainly took its share of these as is evidenced by the Irish Back Street but strangely few of them reached Seaham/Seaton Colliery, even at this lowest of low-points in Irish affairs. Seaham Colliery and Seaham Harbour also absorbed at least two waves of unemployed agricultural labourers from Norfolk and Suffolk in the 1860s and 70s.
3. Seaham Harbour & the Rainton Railway
The favourable views of William Chapman regarding the new harbour at Seaham and a railway connection to the Rainton pits were reinforced by the opinions of other leading engineers of the day — Rennie, Telford and Logan, whom Stewart consulted before finally deciding to proceed. Lack of cash caused the postponement of the project several times. Though he was still short of money Lord Londonderry decided in 1828 that a start must be made to the new harbour and railway. The Rainton & Seaham railway was initially only 5 miles long, from Seaham Harbour to the main Londonderry pit at Rainton Meadows, but later additions created a network of over 16 miles of railway track. Fixed steam engines and early locomotives hauled the coal from the numerous Rainton pits to the top of the Copt Hill. At a site just opposite to the public house the new line passed under the Seaham to Houghton road in a short tunnel.
The Hetton Colliery Railway at this very same point traversed the road by means of a level crossing. Thereafter the going to Seaham was comparatively easy and more fixed engines took over to haul the loads across the fields of Warden Law and Slingley, skirting to the south of Seaton village. From Seaton Bank Top a gravity incline and then a final fixed engine (the Londonderry Engine) brought the coal to the top of the Mill Inn Bank, where one day Seaham Colliery would be sited. Two habitations, the Londonderry Engine Cottages, were erected to accomodate the men who operated the engine and their families.
These were the first dwellings of what became Seaham Colliery Pit Village. They stood just behind what became Walter Willson’s store. The last leg of the Rainton & Seaham railway, from there to the new harbour, was downhill and utilized a self-acting incline system. The 1830’s saw further exploitation of the concealed coalfield. South Hetton, Haswell, Thornley, Kelloe, Wearmouth (Pemberton Main), Wingate and Murton collieries were sunk. The known coalfield advanced to the edge of Londonderry’s land at Seaham and Dalton. The next decade saw Castle Eden, Shotton, South Wingate, Trimdon, Trimdon Grange and Seaton/Seaham collieries appear
4. The Great Strike of 1844
In April 1844 all of the Durham and Northumberland collieries came out on strike, including Londonderry’s. The miners’ demands included a half-yearly contract and at least 4 days work or wages every week. There were as yet no producing pits in Seaham, just the digging by the North Hetton Colliery Company going on at the projected Seaton Colliery, but in the infamous ‘Seaham Letter’ Lord Londonderry warned all traders there not to give credit to the Rainton and Penshaw strikers, or else they would become ‘marked’ men and would henceforth be denied any business. If the tradesmen in Seaham Harbour persisted he threatened to remove all of his own custom to Newcastle. He even suggested that he was prepared to ruin ‘his’ town if he did not get his own way. He evicted those ringleaders at Rainton and Penshaw who were his tenants.
He also imported a number of workers from his estates in the north of Ireland to act as strike-breakers, and more evictions followed to make way for them. The other owners also despatched agents all over the kingdom to recruit replacements for the strikers and they too carried out mass evictions. Large numbers of blacklegs and their families were brought from Wales on the promise of excellent wages and free housing. They were not told that they were intended as strike-breakers. When they arrived in the northeast of England they discovered their true function but had no money to return home. They had no choice but to work to raise funds. Thanks to their efforts after four months the strike was broken.
Once again the ‘Masters’ were triumphant and could take their pick of those returning to work. The lot of the blacklegs now became a hard one. The special wages they had received during the strike came to an abrupt end and they were afforded no special protection from the former strikers. At Seaton Delavel in Northumberland the Welsh blacklegs were repeatedly thrashed by the native people and eventually all but one was driven back to the Land of Song. He remained in the village for 20 years, an outcast denied communication with anyone, before at last even he got the message and departed. The union was now extremely weak and many collieries gave it up altogether. It was effectively finished by 1852 and dead and buried by the following year. Unionism would not recover its strength for another generation. Thirty five years would pass before the next major confrontation and in that time Seaham Colliery appeared and became one of the most important mining villages in the county and thus at the forefront of the battle for miner’s rights. One good thing was achieved in this interlude. The Mines’ Regulation Bill passed into law in the Parliamentary session of 1850, despite the fierce and completely unprincipled opposition of the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry, making the appointment of inspectors of mines necessary.
5. Seaham before the Londonderrys In her later years Lady Frances Anne would boast to her visitors at Seaham Hall that before the Londonderrys arrived there had been not a habitation or even a path in what became the boom town of Seaham Harbour. This was not strictly true. East Durham had been agricultural for countless centuries and the few residents had to live somewhere near to the fields they tended. In 1828 at least two farmsteads existed in the future Seaham Harbour, Dene House Farm (now demolished) and Dawdon Hill Farm which still survives. The latter thus has an outstanding claim to being the oldest continuously inhabited structure in ‘Seaham Harbour’ though it may have rivals in terms of ‘Greater Seaham’ for some of the other outlying farms are clearly far older than Seaham Hall (1792). Apart from these two fixed habitations there is evidence of transients living on the beaches and sometimes occupying the numerous caves along the rugged coastline.
The Portsmouth Telegraph of October 14 1799 reported thus: Woman from the Seashore — ‘On Thursday night a woman was brought to the Lunatic Hospital near Newcastle who has lived upwards of three years among the rocks on the sea-shore near Seaham. From whence, or in what manner she first came there is unknown, but she speaks in the Scottish dialect and talks of Loch Stewart and AberGordon in a rambling manner. She is about thirty-five years of age, inoffensive and cheerful, and during her residence among the rocks was fantastically dressed in the rags which chance or the wrecks threw in her way; she always kept a good fire of wood or coal, which the sea threw up, and it is supposed lived upon shellfish & c. What is remarkable, a beard has grown upon the lower part of her chin, nearly an inch long, and bushy like the whiskers of a man.’ The parish of Dalton-le-Dale contained just 211 inabitants in 1821. 35 of these lived in the ‘township’ of Dawdon, where the future Seaham Harbour would be located.
6. Events 1828-41 By 1831, three years after the foundation of the town and port of Seaham Harbour, Dalton parish contained 1,305 people, 1,022 of them in Dawdon. The population of Seaham (Old Seaham and Seaton-with-Slingley) in 1831 was 264, barely up from 1821. The first list of Greater Seaham residents that I have been able to find is contained in Pigot’s Trade Directory for County Durham for 1834, six years into Seaham Harbour’s history. This mentions only the names of tradesmen wealthy enough to pay to have their names included and even then simply descibes their addresses as ‘Seaham Harbour’ but it gives us some clues as to which buildings and structures were erected first. Pigot’s Directory mentions several public houses (The Golden Lion, King’s Arms, Londonderry Arms, Lord Seaham Inn, Lynn Arms, Noah’s Ark, The Wellington, the Wheatsheaf and the Windmill, which later may have become the Braddyll Arms) and so we know that at least part of North and South Railway Streets, South Crescent, North Terrace and Adolphus Place were constructed by 1834. Not until seven years later was a full list made of all the residents, the census of June 1841, the first to include personal details in the returns
In June 1841 after thirteen years of existence and a decade fully operational the new port was already functioning to capacity and would be greatly expanded over the next decade. According to the census Seaham Harbour already had a Harbour Master, Coast Guards, Customs Officers, Pilots, Seamen, Ropemakers, Ship Builders, Ship Chandlers, Sailmakers, Bellmen and Keelmen. The census also mentioned all of those trades necessary for the construction of a new town – Joiners, Carpenters, Builders, Labourers, Blacksmiths, Stonemasons and Painters. Pit Sinkers, Coal Trimmers and Brakesmen were also mentioned. Trimmers worked at the docks but the nearest pit being sunk was Murton (which finally came on stream in 1843). Seaton-Seaham Colliery was still in the future and the nearest producing pits were South Hetton, Haswell and Eppleton. The Pit Sinkers must have commuted to work, possibly by getting rides on the wagons on the Braddyll Railway. There were also Engineers, Enginemen, Enginewrights, Wagonmen and Wagonwrights resident in Seaham Harbour to operate the two vital mineral lines.
Also mentioned in the 1841 census were cotton weavers, tinners and brazers, dressmakers, tailors, drapers, shoemakers, potters, hairdressers, paper makers, straw hat makers and bookbinders. Seaham Harbour in 1841 also had clerks, agents, lawyers and schoolteachers. These middle classes were employers of housekeepers, a governess in one case, servants and gardeners. Supplying entertainment to the community we find brewers, coopers (barrel makers) and publicans. Only a few of the pubs were named in the census – many smaller establishments (‘beer shops’, often simply somebody’s front room) were not. Provisions were supplied by butchers, grocers, breadbakers, shopkeepers, pedlars and druggists. Producing the food for the growing town were the farmers, agricultural/farm labourers, husbandmen, millers and millwrights in the surrounding fields. Transport in this, the twilight of the Age of the Horse, was provided by carriers, cartwrights, waggon drivers and coach drivers. Seaham Harbour also had a postman (The Penny Post was introduced the year before the census).
It is said that the first two things that any new settlement needs are a cemetery and a prison. The new church of St. John’s (completed 1840) provided the former and the ‘Kitty’ in Back North Railway Street supplied the latter. Two unknown males were resident in the lock-up on the night of the census. Keeping law and order were two policemen and a prison officer. Reinforcements could be sent for from Sunderland or Durham and there was a large garrison of troops permanently based in Sunderland to deal with any situation in the coalfield. Like all ports Seaham Harbour would have been a den of vice, drinking, gambling and prostitution. The pimps and ladies of the night would have disguised their presence in the census by declaring to the enumerator that their profession was something very different, a dressmaker perhaps, or a labourer. Until the coming of gas lighting in the next decade Seaham Harbour may well have been a very dark, threatening and frightening place when the sun went down. Some people would say it still is.
The 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry originally envisaged a magnificent town designed by the famous Newcastle architect Dobson to back the port of Seaham, but shortage of cash prevented this and in fact compelled him to lease land to anyone. Only on the North Terrace and at Bath Terrace were better quality houses built. Much of the rest was ramshackle and degenerated into slums well before the end of the century. What emerged by the time of the 1841 census was a grid-pattern development on both sides (but primarily the north) of the unfenced Rainton and Seaham Railway. We know that the Londonderry Arms was the first building to begin construction and that the Golden Lion was probably the first to be completed.
South of the Rainton line there was very little development of housing by 1841. South Crescent, South Railway Street, Back South Railway Street and Pilot Terrace were complete and a recent start had been made on Adolphus Street, Frances Street, South Crescent and Church Street. Beyond those embryonic avenues the fields began which led to Dawdon Field House farm. Before very long though those same fields would be earmarked for further industrial development. A pottery already existed but this would vanish before the enumerator visited again. Examples of its produce can be seen at Sunderland Library.
North of the mineral railway line was the real town – a hollow rectangle whose sides were North Terrace, (what would become) Tempest Road, Henry Street and North Railway Street. Inside the ‘Rectangle’ was still virtually empty but a start had been made on John Street. Outside the rectangle was still countryside broken up by the occasional new structures like the Baths, the Garden House (later called Adam & Eve’s Gardens), Wood Cottages on Terrace Green and New Lodge and by that solitary old building, Dene House Farm. Already the farmer was hemmed in by the Rainton line and a bridge had to be thrown across the waggonway to allow him access to his fields to the south. The day would come when he would have to wend his way through acres of humanity to reach his diminishing workplace. In the census of 1841 the population of Dalton-le-Dale parish was 2,709 (which included Dalton village, East Murton, Cold Hesledon and the new Seaham Harbour, regarded as part of Dawdon township).
7. Events 1841-65 On August 23 1843 the township of Dawdon was severed from the parish of Dalton-le-Dale, and made into a separate chapelry, and in 1845 was created into a separate incumbency, whose patronage was vested in the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry. That old tyrant appointed a like-minded Scot, the Reverend Angus Bethune of South Shields, as the first Vicar. He became personal chaplain to Lady Frances Anne and baptised three generations of the Londonderry family (in London not Seaham). Bethune, who lived into his nineties and who has a street at Deneside named after him, also became the town’s chief magistrate. He could always be relied upon by the Londonderrys to rule in their favour and he played an important and sinister role in the suppression of the disorder which followed the Seaham Colliery Disaster of September 1880. He is buried at St. Mary the Virgin.
In the 1851 census therefore the figures for Seaham Harbour were separated from Dalton-le-Dale. By then the population of the infant town had reached 4,042 (including the absent mariners), double the size of a decade earlier. Dalton-le-Dale’s population actually fell slightly in that period. Seaton-with-Slingley increased by 25 people. The population of ‘Seaham’ itself (formerly just Old Seaham and outlying farms) radically increased for it encompassed the new Seaham and Seaton collieries. At the time of the 1851 census neither pit was yet producing and the population of Seaton/Seaham collieries was still quite small. By 1865 nearly 1000 colliers would live and work there. The sinking of Seaton Colliery (the High Pit, owned by the North Hetton & Grange Colliery Company) began in 1844 but coal was not drawn until 1852. Seaham Colliery (the Low Pit, owned by Lord Londonderry) began sinking in 1849 and production started after Seaton but the precise date is unknown. Seaham Harbour accomodated the overspill from the new concerns.
In 1843 Lord Londonderry’s eldest daughter Fanny was married to the Marquess of Blandford, eldest son and heir of the Duke of Marlborough. The union was celebrated in Seaham Harbour by the naming of the new Blandford Place and later of Marlborough Street. The south docks at Seaham Harbour were finally completed in 1845. Between them Lord (the driving force) and Lady (the money) Londonderry had created a port and town where none had existed twenty years before. In the decade 1841-51 most of the existing streets expanded in size to absorb the waves of immigrants coming from all directions. New streets were built – Bath Terrace, Blandford Place and Adelaide Row.
Within the ‘Rectangle’ of North Terrace – (what would become) Tempest Road – Henry Street – North Railway Street there was further development. John Street trebled in size and William Street appeared. North of the Rainton railway was still the most important residential and business sector of the growing town. A Gasworks was constructed in the dene and the town was at last illuminated at night. South of the Rainton line there had been few changes. Blandford Place and Adelaide Row were erected, South Terrace expanded from 1 to 9 households and Church Street, destined for greater things, now had 45 families but the development was mostly on the north side of the street and even that had a large gap in the middle of it. It was still possible to see Kin(g)ley Hill from Back South Railway Street. Frances Street went up from 1 to 12 households but Adolphus Street barely grew at all.
In about 1855 Greater Seaham was surveyed in preparation for the first national Ordnance Survey. The resultant map was printed in 1857. The original can be examined at the Durham Record Office at County Hall. Surveyed at the time it was, half-way between the censuses of 1851 and 1861, the map gives us priceless clues about the development of our town of Seaham Harbour. Several places are shown (e.g. some of the streets inside of the ‘Rectangle’ which were not mentioned in the 1851 census and we can thus deduce that they were built between 1851 and 1855. Likewise several places (e.g. Seaham Cottages, Marlborough Street) are mentioned in the 1861 census but are not on the map – therefore we know that they were built between 1855 and 1861. We have one other priceless clue about these early days in the history of our town in the form of the remarkable and exquisite wooden model of Seaham Harbour made in c. 1861 which hangs at the back of Seaham Library and was apparently made by an employee of Lady Frances Anne, a Mr. Cummins, for show at the Paris Exhibition. It is not known whether or not it reached the show. For years it gathered dust in the attic of the Londonderry Offices and was discovered only in the 1960s when the Londonderry family finally abandoned the building to the Police. It was restored and now hangs proudly in the intellectual centre of the town.
The decade 1851-61 saw another great expansion of the population of Greater Seaham, from five to nine thousand people. The main reason for this next phase of development was the stimulus of the new Seaton and Seaham Collieries but additional demand for housing was created by the new Londonderry Wagonworks and two new bottleworks. The immigrants came from all directions but especially from the Emerald Isle.
Seaton Colliery began production in 1852. Seaham Colliery began producing later but the exact date is not known. By the end of the decade nearly a thousand colliers and their families were employed at the two pits. Seaham/Seaton Colliery pit village was erected to accomodate them but the building could not keep pace with demand. Seaham Harbour, Seaton and Dalton-le-Dale tried to absorb the overflow but those tiny communities could not cope with the influx of newcomers. Four rows of houses were built at Dawdon which were initially called Seaham New Cottages but which eventually became known as Swinebank Cottages. It is not known if these 83 dwellings were owned by Seaton Colliery or Seaham Colliery or both. In the census of 1861 several more new structures were described as ‘New Cottages’ – these would eventually become Ropery Walk, Candlish Street, Gallery Row and Fenwick’s Row. The future Ropery Walk was inhabited by the workers of the Londonderry Wagonworks. The future Candlish Street, Gallery Row and Fenwick’s Row were occupied by the employees of the two bottleworks which opened in Seaham in about 1853. Before the decade was out Fenwick’s was bought out by Candlish and the two bottleworks became one. Fenwick himself was remembered in the name of the street.
Despite the erection of ‘New Cottages’ the demand for more and more housing was far from exhausted. Several new streets or habitations were constucted in Seaham Harbour – Sebastopol Terrace (for the well-heeled), Green Street, Back Adelaide Row, Back Church Street. Inside the ‘Rectangle’ the available space was filled up – North John Street, Back John Street, Back William Street, Back Henry Street and Back Tempest Place all appeared. The gap between the ‘Rectangle’ and Dene House Farm also began to fill up — Vane Terrace was built. A start was also made in filling the space between Blandford Place and the new railway station — work began on Marlborough Street. It contained 45 families in the 1861 census but would soon have far more.
The Dowager Marchioness built her imposing Londonderry Offices in 1857 next to Terrace Green. This impressive structure still stands and is currently Seaham’s Police Station. Its predecessor as Police HQ was erected on the corner of Tempest Road and Vane Terrace at about the same time as the Londonderry Offices. It served the town and the force for over a century. In the same era Rock House was built just across the road. The decade 1851-61 also saw the appearance of several ramshackle structures which would soon degenerate into slums and which contributed greatly to the very high death-rate in Seaham Harbour — the worst in the county by 1900. Amongst these were Pattison’s, Hunter’s, Nicholson’s and Todd’s Buildings. By 1850 the docks at Seaham Harbour were seriously overloaded by coal from a dozen inland pits and something had to be done to ease the pressure before Seaton and Seaham came on stream. The solution was to create a railway from Seaham Harbour to the much larger port facilities at Sunderland. On a bitterly cold day, February 8 1853, the 3rd. Marquess, now aged 75, dug the first turf of the Londonderry Seaham and Sunderland Railway. He was fated not to see the completion of this project. Passenger traffic began on the line on July 1 1855 with stations at Seaham Harbour, Seaham Colliery, Seaham Hall (for the private use of the Londonderrys and their guests), Ryhope East and Hendon Burn. The new line was connected to the Rainton and Braddyll railways. Seaham Harbour Station was a short walk from the edge of town at Blandford Place. By 1861 the space in between was developed as the ‘Marlborough’ area and the edge of town advanced to the new railway line.
Already in poor health the 3rd. Marquess caught influenza at the end of February 1854 and this developed into pneumonia. He died at his London mansion, Holdernesse House, on March 6. He was succeeded in all of the titles he had inherited from his father and brother by his eldest son (from his first marriage) Frederick Stewart who thus became the 4th. Marquess of Londonderry. All of the titles the 3rd. Marquess had gained since 1821 however passed to his eldest son from his second marriage, Henry Stewart (Lord Seaham), who thus became Earl Vane. Henry simultaneously became heir to his half-brother Frederick who was childless and looked like remaining so and also to his mother Frances Anne. On her husband’s death she regained all of her possessions including the Durham pits, Wynyard and Seaham Hall. For 35 years the Marchioness had deferred to her husband and contented herself with the roles of mother, wife and society hostess but now she grasped the opportunity to come out of his shadow. From then on Seaham Hall was her headquarters and the collieries and the harbour her business. She developed the habit of spending the summer and early autumn at Garron Tower in Ulster, Christmas at Wynyard and the rest of the year at Seaham Hall, with the exception of a short visit to London for ‘the season’. In December 1859 she laid the foundation for another new enterprise, the Seaham Harbour Blast Furnace, in Dawdon Field Dene, next door to the ancient farmhouse.
The last major famine in peacetime in Western Europe occurred in Ireland at the end of the 1840s. Blight destroyed the staple crop of potatoes in several successive years and the population, never prosperous, was reduced to starvation. Millions emigrated to Australia and North America to escape the horror that engulfed those left behind. Many could afford only to reach England and Scotland and those two countries found themselves overwhelmed by the sheer numbers of illiterate, penniless and starving Irish who turned up in every town and village looking for work. Far from being sympathetic the British public were openly hostile to the newcomers who were prepared to work for far smaller wages than the average Briton and were thus perceived as a threat. Seaham took more than its fair share of the Irish and you will find hundreds of them in the census of 1861, especially in the ‘Irish Back Street ‘ (Back South Railway Street). Many Seaham people (the author included) descend from this Catholic Irish influx in the 1850s — it is the explanation for the high proportion of Catholics in the town compared to the rest of England.
Immigration to our ‘boom’ town was not limited to the Irish in the decade 1851-61. The first of several waves of refugees from the dying lead and tin mining industries of Devon and Cornwall began arriving in the 1850s. A street was named after them at Seaham Colliery and an entire district of Murton but you will also find lots of Cornishmen and Devonians in Seaham Harbour in the 1861 census. A swarm of unemployed agricultural labourers also came from Norfolk — lured north by the prospect of higher wages and more consistent work by the agents of Lord Londonderry and others.
In 1859 the Government, alarmed by the apparent belligerency of France under Napoleon III, formed the Volunteer movement and invited towns and cities, especially those on the south and east coasts, to look to their own defence. The Marchioness responded by creating the Seaham Volunteer Artillery Brigade in 1860. In 1862 she built Seaham’s first Drill Hall on Castlereagh Bridge. Seaham Harbour and Seaham Colliery men flocked to the colours. Drill Halls were also constructed by Frances Anne or her heir at Silksworth, Rainton, Durham and Seaham Colliery. Eventually 12 batteries (over 1,000 men) were created, out of a total County strength of 16 batteries. An indication of how seriously the Londonderry family took their private army can be found throughout the 1861 and later censuses — the number of professional soldiers they were prepared to employ and house in order to keep ‘their’ Volunteers in tip-top condition. All Londonderry agents were expected, indeed required, to train as officers. The 6th. Marquess, grandson of Frances Anne, built a huge new Drill Hall in 1888 and donated the Drill Field, now the site of Princess Road school playing field. He used to delight in leading the annual inspection and parade from the Drill Hall to the Drill Field in full ceremonial dress. One of the Volunteer uniforms is retained at Durham Records Office at County Hall. In 1908 the Volunteers were absorbed into the Territorial Army. There is a still a pub in Seaham called The Volunteers, last remnant of Frances Street.
In 1863 a Local Board of Health was created to conduct Greater Seaham’s affairs. It was led from 1873-94 by J. B. Eminson, chief financial agent for the Londonderrys in Seaham from 1869-96. The Board became Seaham Harbour Urban District Council by the Local Government Act of 1894. Eminson also led the new body from 1895-96. During his 27 years service he filled the leading position in the town. He was also Chairman of Seaham Magistrates and a member of the Easington Guardians (Work House). Despite the semblance of a kind of democracy after 1863 Seaham was still a family fiefdom.
When an Act of Parliament prohibited the working of coal-mines without two outlets from each seam Lady Frances Anne decided that the simplest way to comply with this legislation in the case of Seaham Colliery was to buy Seaton Colliery from the North Hetton and Grange Colliery Company and amalgamate it with Seaham. This was done in November 1864, and was virtually the last business deal she completed. The health of the Dowager Marchioness declined rapidly after 1862. The news of the death of her second and favourite son Adolphus in June 1864 broke her heart. Within weeks she suffered a major heart attack at Garron Tower in Ulster and returned to Seaham in September seriously ill. By Christmas she seemed to have recovered but this was to prove an illusion. In the New Year she had a relapse and died at the Hall on January 20 1865, three days after her 65th. birthday. She was buried with her husband and her Vane ancestors at Long Newton in the south of County Durham.
Her remains were escorted there from Seaham, the town she had founded, by the Volunteers she had created. Her possessions, apart from Garron Tower in Ulster, passed to her eldest son Henry, Earl Vane. The Founders of Seaham Harbour and Seaham Colliery had certainly been characters. Their immediate and much less colourful descendants took little interest in their homes and businesses in the Northeast of England. Their visits were rare and usually confined to shooting parties at Wynyard, their mansion near Stockton. By and large they were content to leave everything in the hands of agents, hard men who were paid by results.
Nineteen years would pass before the next generation of the Londonderry family were again regular visitors to the town their ancestors had created. For months and years at a time Seaham Hall remained empty, maintained by a skeleton staff. With the death of Frederick Stewart, 4th. Marquess of Londonderry, in a nursing home at Hastings on November 25 1872, the connection between the marquessate and Seaham was restored. His titles and possessions passed to his half-brother Henry, Earl Vane, who became the 5th Marquess of Londonderry at the age of 51.
8. Events 1865-81 Seaham’s most famous resident, Lady Frances Anne, died on January 20 1865. She missed the arrival of Seaham’s most infamous resident by only a matter of days. Five days before her death, on January 15, a 38-year-old stoker called William Mowbray died of typhus and diarrhoea at his humble home in Henry Street East at Hendon in Sunderland, leaving a widow and two small daughters. The widow, Mary Ann Mowbray, soon received £35 from the British Prudential Assurance Company and promptly moved to Bolton’s Buildings (19 North Terrace) on Seaham’s seafront. Her room may have been on the ground floor looking out to sea though the current owner says that it was in a cottage at the back of the house. Before long Mary Ann began an affair with a married man, Joseph Nattress, but her two little girls were in the way of a serious relationship. When the younger girl died of ‘typhus’ in April 1865 Mary Ann farmed out the remaining child to her mother who lived at Seaham Colliery. Unfortunately Nattress’s wife then found out and insisted that her husband move away from Seaham. Mary Ann had to accept the fait accomplis and she moved back to Sunderland before the summer was out. Her stay in our town was brief (a maximum of six months in a 40 year life) and the bulk of her career was spent elsewhere in the Northeast.
She is known in history as Mary Ann Cotton (her fourth, bigamous, husband was Frederick Cotton) who is suspected of being Great Britain’s most prolific murderer. Most authorities credit her with 14 or 15 victims but she may have been responsible for as many as 21, a figure which includes her own mother. Mary Ann returned to Seaham (Colliery) very briefly in March 1867 to nurse her mother who was already dying of hepatitis. She may have speeded her unfortunate parent on the way but this is unlikely for it would not have benefited her in any way – quite the reverse in fact for her mother’s demise meant that Mary Ann had to take back her remaining daughter.
There was little further development in Seaham Harbour in the decade 1861-71. A start was made on Emily Street, Caroline Street and Cornelia Terrace. The ‘Marlborough’ area was now beginning to take shape. In the ‘Rectangle’ space was somehow found for Little John Street. Sea View Villas and the North Battery appeared on the seafront. The Blastfurnaces closed in 1865 but were soon replaced by the Chemical Works. Watson Town was erected for the employees of the new concern. The Vicar of St. John’s got a magnificent new house and the Roman Catholic priest got a parsonage next to the Police Station and the new RC church and school
The decade from 1871 to 1881 was one of almost continuous disaster for the ordinary people of Greater Seaham. It seems that no sooner was one tragedy over than another began. The Seaham Colliery explosion of Wednesday October 25 1871 occurred at 11.30 pm, otherwise the death-toll of 26 would have been much higher — by now the pit was employing 1100 men and boys. The shock was felt at Seaham Harbour. John Clark, aged 9, sitting on the surface in a cabin near the pit shaft, was blown 10 yards by the explosion. The force of the blast was such that many ponies were killed in their underground stables 1.5 miles away from the epicentre. Two men named Hutchinson, father and son, working as ‘marrows’ (marras), fired the shot which triggered the blast. The father, Thomas senior, survived the explosion but was badly injured. For days he hovered between life and death (in his house) and medical opinion concluded that he could not survive. But survive he did – for he was destined to be killed in the 1880 explosion. Thomas Hutchinson junior left a pregnant widow and two children
Manager Dakers and Head Viewer Vincent Corbett went down the pit to assess the situation and made a decision which to some seemed harsh and to others seemed like murder. The ‘stoppings’ were rushed up to starve the fire of oxygen and save the mine irrespective of the men thereby entombed. The explosion occurred on Wednesday – by Sunday the furnace was re-lighted at the shaft bottom for ventilation. The men were somehow persuaded to return to work while the bodies of their colleagues lay entombed for several weeks in nearby workings. Religious decency then laid much greater emphasis on proper burial of a body in consecrated ground. Four of the bodies were brought out immediately after the explosion but the remaining 22 were not recovered until December 20. The appeal fund produced just over £2,000. The inquest was held at the New Seaham Inn (now called the Kestrel). Verdict — accidental death. Just as the village began to recover from the tragedy it was struck another mortal blow with an outbreak of smallpox
A terrible storm occurred on December 17 1872. Newspapers of the time reported that six Seaham-based ships were lost with all hands but unfortunately they gave no names. It may be that dozens of Seaham men went to a watery grave but there is no record of who they were. The sea had not finished yet. On Tuesday June 26 1873 a dreadful boat accident took the lives of five men within hailing distance of the end of the pier.
Having finished work and wishing for an adventure on that long summer evening of long ago seven bottlemakers (John Jefferson, Ralph Hush, James Coyle, Robert Miller, Joseph Hall, Benjamin Turns and Andrew Davison) engaged a coble and placed themselves under the charge of Morley Scott junior, an experienced junior pilot. The boat was brand new, the skipper an accomplished seaman, the seven passengers were mature and sober men and the weather was very calm so there should have been little possibility of a mishap. Morley Scott rowed the coble out of the harbour and then raised the mast to catch what little breeze there was.
When they were about three hundred yards out from the (old) north pier an event occurred which was to precipitate a tragedy — Morley Scott’s brace button snapped and he was in danger of his trousers falling down ! Being equipped with a needle and thread and a reserve button he handed charge of the sail to James Coyle, who he believed was an experienced sailor, whilst he effected an instant repair. A slight wind then hit the sail, Coyle lost his grip and the sail fell into the water. The situation was still not a dangerous one and Morley Scott, seeing the slight problem, forgot his trousers and moved towards the side of the boat to pull the mast back upright again. Unfortunately the other men in the boat, being inexperienced, all moved instinctively to help him, the boat overbalanced and tipped over throwing all eight into the water. Benjamin Turns, Andrew Davison and Morley Scott survived and were able to walk home unassisted. The other five drowned. Today there may be thousands of descendants of the eight men in Seaham and elsewhere, most of them probably oblivious of the events of that tragic day long ago.
There were ugly scenes and near-tragedies at both Seaham Harbour and Seaham Colliery when the Parliamentary Election came round in February 1874 — directed against Tories in general who were rightly blamed for the fact that none of the Seaham miners and other workers had the vote. The Riot Act was read at Seaham Harbour and extra police were brought in and some soldiers from the barracks at Sunderland. The crowd was dispersed at Seaham Harbour but a section of it then headed for the Mill Inn for unknown reasons. The pub was attacked and the landlord, John Barret Wells, was put under siege for over two hours. He fired several shots from his revolver but in the end was only saved from a beating or worse by the arrival of more police. Quite why he was picked on is far from clear at this distance in time. It may be that Wells had made the same mistake as those traders in Seaham Harbour who had their places of business wrecked – he might have placed a Vote Conservative poster in his pub window. Nationally the Conservatives had a comfortable victory in the election but in County Durham they lost to Liberals in all 13 seats. Because of the unrest in Seaham and elsewhere the Conservatives demanded and received a second election in the Northern Division of County Durham of which Seaham was a part. This duly took place and the Tories recaptured one of the two seats for the division.
In the baking hot August of 1880 the Seaham Volunteer Artillery Brigade distinguished itself in the big gun shooting of the National Artillery Competition at Shoeburyness, picking up a beautiful trophy and over £200 in prize money, a very handsome sum in those days. The team members were welcomed back to Seaham as heroes and their crackshot Corporal Hindson was carried shoulder-high through the town. The next big event in the town’s social calendar was Seaham’s Annual Flower Show, to be held in the grounds of Seaham Hall from Thursday September 9 to Sunday the 11th. The 5th. Marquess himself, a rather shy and unassuming man, was to make one of his rare visits in order to present the prizes. Indeed he was to honour the town his parents had founded with his presence for an entire week. As it turned out he was to stay for a good deal longer than he anticipated. Many of the miners at Seaham Colliery had entries in the show and some of these men swapped shifts with those disinterested in horticultural affairs in order that they might attend. It was to prove a fateful decision for those who should have been working on the Tuesday/Wednesday night and for those who ended up working when ordinarily they would have been at home sound asleep.
At Seaham Colliery there were three shifts per day for hewers (everyone else worked much longer hours) of 7 hours each, covering the period from 4 a.m. to 11.30 p.m. The shifts were: 1) Fore Shift, from 4 a.m. to 11.30 am; 2) Back Shift, 10a.m. to 5.30 p.m.; 3) Night Shift, 4p.m. to 11.30 p.m. Each shift involved some 500 men and boys and at the overlap of the shifts there could be over 1,000 men in the pit. From 10p.m. to 6.a.m., when the colliery was comparatively quiet, was the maintenance shift, which employed far fewer workers. Fortuitously the 1880 explosion took place at 2.20 a.m. during one such maintenance shift, 100 minutes before the start of the Fore shift, which is why only 231 men and boys were below ground. The tragedy, the second worst in the long mining history of County Durham and the third worst in the history of the Great Northern Coalfield, could have been much much worse, dwarfing the great disasters at Hartley and West Stanley.
On the fateful evening of Tuesday September 7 1880 Joseph Birkbeck (or Birbeck), choirmaster and organist at Christ Church, slept through his ‘knocker’ at his home at 19 Post Office Street and thereby missed his shift and of course forfeited his pay. The decision, conscious or otherwise, was to save his life and enable him to live until his nineties. His father and namesake (17 Mount Pleasant) was not so fortunate. Corporal Hindson (22 John Street, Seaham Harbour), the crackshot, had a premonition of his own death. Three times he started out for work on that dreadful night and twice he returned home. The third time he did not return. One man’s good luck story stands head and shoulders above the rest. John Hutchinson (15 Post Office Street) went to work even though he was poorly because he knew the financial result of any failure to attend. His condition deteriorated however and he felt obliged to return home before the end of his shift. He abandoned his place of work in the Maudlin seam minutes before the explosion, leaving his marrow Pat Carroll (Cooke Street) alone, but had to sit down for a rest on his way back to the pit shaft. He actually fell asleep and was roughly awoken by the prodding of a stick by the overman Walter Murray, on the look out for shirkers probably, who told him to go home if he was unwell. At the shaft bottom Hutchinson talked for a while with Laverick the onsetter whilst waiting for the cage to descend. He had barely stepped from the cage at the surface when the pit blew. The ground shook, waking up people in the neighbourhood. The sound of the explosion was heard on ships in Seaham Harbour and as far away as Murton Colliery and the outskirts of Sunderland. Some men saw a great cloud of dust blown skywards out of the shafts. The Marquess heard the noise at Seaham Hall and was among the first on the scene.
The explosion of Wednesday September 8 1880 took place at 2.20 a.m. in the Hutton and Maudlin seams, the middle of the three levels at the pit. The highest level was the Main Coal Seam, the lowest was the Harvey. Both shafts were blocked with debris and it was twelve hours before a descent could be made. Even then the rescuers had to use the emergency kibble (an iron bucket) for the cages were of course out of action. The cage remained out of action at the Low Pit for nine days. In the pit the engine house and stables had caught fire and many of the ponies were found to have suffocated. The hooves of some of them (complete with shoes) were preserved as souvenirs, polished, inscribed and adapted to various uses, such as stands for ink-wells, snuff-boxes and pin-cushions. Fifty four ponies and a cat survived. Further on the rescuers found debris and mutilated human corpses. Body after body was then located in the dark tunnels. Nineteen survivors from the Main Coal seam were brought up the Low Pit shaft which was not blocked at the level of that seam. The main rescue work was done from the High Pit shaft where it was also possible to use a kibble. 48 more survivors were brought out this way. Of the 231 workers only 68 had thus been rescued by midnight of the first day, leaving 164 unaccounted for. None of these survived. 169 men had been working in the affected seam – only 5 of these survived and were rescued.
The roads into Seaham were completely blocked by people in the next few days. Most of these were simply morbid sight-seers who obstructed the way for the rescue teams despatched from other collieries near and far. Special trains from Sunderland to Seaham for the Flower Show (now cancelled) were instead packed with these ‘spectators’. The families of those dead or missing were unable to get anywhere near the colliery. The crowd round the pit reached an estimated 14,000 on the Wednesday night (the day of the explosion). By Sunday there were an estimated 40,000 people in the vicinity to see the first mass funerals. After that the interest wore off and the mob gradually drifted away to other entertainment. The bereaved were left alone waiting for news, any news, of their loved ones. For a fuller report on the Seaham Colliery Disaster and its aftermath see the chapter/essay on Seaham Colliery (New Seaham).
In February 1881 a special ‘court’ was held at Seaham Harbour Police Station to deal with charges in connection with the strike and disturbances at Seaham Colliery. The Reverend Angus Bethune was the presiding magistrate. The other magistrates were Colonel Allison and Captain Ord. Colonel White, Chief Constable of the County, also occupied a seat on the bench. Bethune made all the decisions, primed no doubt by his ‘associates’. I leave it to my readers to decide whether or not this was a kangaroo court. Watching the entire proceedings (and taking copious notes for future reference no doubt) were the new manager of Seaham Colliery, Barret, and his boss the Head Viewer of all the Londonderry coal concerns Vincent Corbett. Over 50 men were summonsed. Five men were charged with assaulting an alleged blackleg William Scott of 41 California Street. For this offence one Simeon Vickers (8 Cornish Street, Seaham Colliery) got two months hard labour, the others (Thomas Morgan, William Aspden, Robert Dunn and Thomas Lannigan) got 1 month hard labour. Vickers was further convicted of an additional three assaults on the alleged blacklegs William Shipley, William Harrald (sic) and an individual called Roxby. He got another three months hard labour for these incidents. Jonathan Wylde was given 14 days hard labour for assault. A great mob of supporters outside the closed court were held back by police. The constabulary were also needed in force to enable the convicted to be escorted to Durham Gaol the following day
Of the 164 men and boys killed in the 1880 disaster 32 were not resident at Seaham Colliery Pit Village. 28 of these lived at Seaham Harbour. Two (the brothers John and David Knox) lived at Seaton Village. One (John Watson) lived at Murton. One (Robert Wharton) lived at Sunderland. The badly-faded gravestones of at least two of the victims of the Seaham Colliery disaster can be found leaning against the walls of the disused St. John’s graveyard in Seaham Harbour. The heroic George Dixon’s stone leans against the west wall and Walter Murray’s leans against the south wall. Rest in Peace. Surely there is space inside St. Johns to give sanctuary to these two reminders of a grim but glorious past before time, the elements and vandals completely destroy them?
The population of Greater Seaham (including Seaham Colliery Pit Village) in 1871 was 10,370. It rose slightly to 11,017 by 1881. Consequently there was very little new development in Seaham Harbour in that decade. Only one new street (Sophia) was constructed. Summerson’s Buildings appeared though it may have been there earlier under a different name. Author Tony Whitehead’s maternal grandmother Elizabeth Robinson (nee Kelly) was born there in 1897. Cornelia Street and Emily Street were finished off and only the tiny George Street and York Place were yet to appear to complete the ‘Marlborough’ area.
9. Events 1881-1998 The 5th Marquess of Londonderry died in 1884 and was succeeded in his possessions and titles by his eldest son Charles who thus became the 6th. Marquess of Londonderry and 3rd. Viscount Seaham. On July 27 1886 he became Lord Lieutenant of Ireland (Viceroy) for an agreed three year term of office and he and his family moved into residences at Dublin Castle and Phoenix Park. He was the first member of an Irish family to hold the position. In truth he was chosen because he was the only candidate who could afford the office, which carried a small wage and a large expenditure for hospitality. In 1888 he was awarded the Garter for his services in that troubled island. His term ended on August 30 1889. A new row, Viceroy Street, was constructed at Seaham Colliery to honour the office. A Viceroy Street was also erected in Seaham Harbour and appeared in the 1891 census.
The population of Greater Seaham (including Seaham Colliery Pit Village) expanded from 11,017 in 1881 to 14,204 in 1891. There was no obvious reason for this large increase. The surges in the past had been caused by the opening and expansion of Seaham Harbour and the coming on stream of Seaton/Seaham collieries but no such major event took place anywhere in Greater Seaham in the decade 1881-91. There was therefore much further housing development in Seaham Harbour during that period — George Street, Adolphus Street West, Maria Street, Lord Street, Viceroy Street and Herbert Terrace — all of them bearing Londonderry names – appeared to fill in the few remaining gaps in the town. The decade also saw the erection of Cliff House, the new Drill Hall, York Place and Castlereagh Road. Only Frederick Street and the area between Ropery Walk and Candlish Terrace were still to be built to complete old Seaham Harbour. They would be developed in the following years.
The four remaining Rainton pits (Rainton Meadows, Nicholson’s, Alexandrina and Lady Seaham) were closed down in November 1896. With the loss of much of his income from central Durham in 1896 the 6th. Marquess decided to construct a second pit at Seaham as a replacement. In August 1899 the first sods were cut by Theresa, Marchioness of Londonderry, and her elder son Viscount Castlereagh, who gave their names to the two shafts. The first coal was drawn in 1907. By 1911 the population of Seaham was 20,000 — an increase of 33% over the previous ten years. By 1920 the new colliery, Dawdon, employed 3,300 workers and produced over 1 million tons per year. It became the premier colliery in Greater Seaham, relegating the old ‘Nack’ to a poor second place.
The 6th.Marquess of Londonderry died in 1915 and was succeeded by his only surviving son Charles, the 7th.Marquess.His inheritance however was decimated by the newly-introduced death duties and so the new lord of the manors of Dalden and Seaham was immmediately in financial difficulty.The family would never truly recover from this blow and have been in economic decline ever since.
The year 1918 saw both the end of the Great War and the fourth and most dramatic of the Reform Acts. For the first time all men over 21 and all women over 30 were enfranchised.Younger women did not get the vote until 1928. Constituency boundaries were also changed and a new seat called ‘Seaham’ came into existence, but the town itself was only a small part of a largely rural constituency which bordered with the seats of Houghton-le-Spring, Durham and Sedgefield. At the General Election in December 1918 the Liberal Hayward defeated the Labour candidate Lawson by 13,574 to 8,988. The election nationally was a resounding success for the Coalition Government. 339 Coalition Unionists and 136 Coalition Liberals were returned. Labour went up from 39 to 59 seats.The (Non-Coalition) Liberals got 26.In 1919 Labour gained control of Durham County Council for the first time, under the chairmanship of Peter Lee.
Though he was back in the driving seat at Dawdon and Seaham collieries once more the 7th.Marquess actually had more pressing problems elsewhere for there was still the small matter of his own solvency. Because of the death duties payable on the estate of his late father he was now suffering acute financial problems which needed urgent remedies. From 1917-30 he sold off scores of minor properties in Seaham, the rest of the county and elsewhere. In 1920 he sold Silksworth Colliery to Sir James Joicey. It was decided that a new, third, pit should be sunk at Seaham and that the contents of Seaham Hall should be disposed of preparatory to its sale.The auction took place in May 1922 and the Hall then remained empty, but there were no takers to buy it. In 1923 Londonderry offered it to Durham County Council for use as a hospital. It was officially opened in February 1928 as a tuberculosis sanatorium.
In 1925 the 7th.Marquess gave 18.5 acres of land to create Dawdon Welfare Grounds.In 1934 he gave Dawdon Dene Park to Seaham Urban District Council. In the late twenties he sold off farmland to the Council for the proposed Carr House Estate. The Londonderrys still owned the collieries and most of the land and buildings in the town but otherwise their connection with Seaham had come to an end after a century and four generations. The family still visited Seaham on important occasions but they had become remote figures by the 1930s. They were still at the pinnacle of society however despite their economic difficulties.
Ironically in view of what was to come James Ramsay MacDonald was proposed as leader of the Labour party in 1922 by one Emmanuel Shinwell and was duly elected.The new leader attended the Miner’s Gala in 1923 at a time when industrial relations were on a downward slope.On November 19 1923 the first sod was cut at the new colliery which was called Vane Tempest after Frances Anne and her ancestors. In that same month there was another General Election which produced a combined Labour (191) & Liberal (159) majority of 92 over the Conservatives who got 258, down 87. On 22 January 1924 James Ramsay MacDonald became the first Labour Prime Minister of a Lib-Labourer government. Sidney Webb, Labour MP for Seaham, became President of the Board of Trade. The administration did not last long and Labour could achieve little without a solid working majority. On October 8 1924 the Conservatives joined with the Liberals to defeat Labour by 364 to 198. In the General Election at the end of the month the Conservatives gained a majority over the other two parties of 215.They secured 419 seats, up 161. Labour got 151, down 40. The Liberal strategy backfired horribly – with just 40 seats (lost 119), they were virtually wiped out and would never again even hope to be the sole party in power.
In January 1929 James Ramsay MacDonald was adopted as prospective Labour candidate for Seaham where Sidney Webb had decided to retire. MacDonald gave up Aberavon where there were excessive demands on his time and pocket for Seaham where he would not be expected to visit more than once a year and where the costs were met by local people. Two months later, on May 30 1929, there was a General Election in which Labour won 288 seats to the Tories 260. The Liberals again held the balance with 59. James Ramsay MacDonald returned as Prime Minister of another Lib-Lab government. He had a majority of 28,794 at Seaham where the Liberal and Communist candidates lost their deposits.
The enormous economic crisis in 1931 split the Labour party and led to the formation of a ‘National’ Government on August 31. MacDonald, on the verge of a nervous breakdown and deserted by most of his party, made an offer to the King to form an ad hoc government to put through the financial legislation necessary and then dissolve for a General Election. The offer was endorsed by Baldwin and by Samuel for the Liberals. MacDonald remained as Prime Minister even though he could count on only a handful of his party’s 287 M.Ps. On his insistence Labour had 4 of the 10 Cabinet seats. The Conservatives also had 4 and the Liberals 2. Baldwin, as Lord President of the Council, was one of the four Tories.
Shortly after MacDonald was expelled from the Labour Party. The Seaham Labour Party asked him to resign his seat but he refused and instead put himself forward as a ‘National’ Labour candidate. The General Election was duly called for October 27 1931. Each party issued its own manifesto with a general pronouncement from the Prime Minister in his name alone. A Conservative landslide saw them win 473 seats. Together with their ‘National’ Labour (13) and ‘National’ Liberal (35) allies they had 521 seats in the new Commons. The Liberals got 33. Official Labour got just 52 and all except one of their front-bench lost their seats. The party would be impotent for the next 14 years. Ramsay MacDonald retained Seaham with a majority of nearly 6,000 over Official Labour, thanks mainly to the non-mining vote in rural parts of the constituency. Had the vote been restricted to the town of Seaham and other mining villages he would certainly have suffered the indignity of being the only Prime Minister in history to lose his own seat. The official Labour candidate was the local party secretary, A.Coxon, a Shotton schoolmaster. MacDonald got 28,978 to Coxon’s 23,027. A new National Government was formed a week later. MacDonald remained as PM but he was now merely a puppet. Baldwin continued as Lord President and moved into 11 Downing Street from where he could keep an eye on ‘his’ PM.
Seaham Colliery was again mothballed from August 1932 to April 1934 because of it’s heavy losses. All of the hewers and some of the officials working in Dawdon’s Maudlin Seam were dismissed. A total of 2600 men were paid off by Londonderry Collieries. The whole of Dawdon colliery was closed for 4 weeks early in 1933 by a fire. In May 1935, sensing the worst and with an election apparently imminent, Ramsay MacDonald retired as PM just before the Whitsun recess and swapped jobs with Baldwin. The General Election finally took place on November 14 1935. The Conservatives won 432, a majority of 247. Labour increased from 52 to 154. The Liberals fell from 33 to 20. Both of the MacDonalds, father and son, lost their seats to Official Labour. This time the Seaham Labour Party put in a real political heavyweight, a street-fighting Jewish socialist, to oust the icon of the ‘National’ Government. Ramsay Macdonald lost in Seaham to Emmanuel Shinwell by 38,380 to 17,882.
The Slum Clearance Act was passed in 1930 and Seaham Council was quick to take advantage. The Carr House Estate (later renamed Deneside) had begun even before, in 1928, and was finally completed in 1937. People from Seaham Harbour were moved up to it and away from their old appalling conditions. The old tight-knit community at Seaham Colliery was also broken up and moved almost en masse to the new estate at Parkside. Knowing that Westlea and Eastlea estates were planned a few of the inhabitants stayed put and waited for their new houses. 404 houses for 2,017 people were completed at Parkside by September 1940, but there were no shops and no public house. Those billeted at Ash Crescent complained bitterly about the continuous noise from the South Hetton mineral line but eventually they became used to it and no more was heard about the matter.
The old streets at Seaham Colliery and Seaham Harbour were not immediately demolished but were kept for those made homeless by German air raids. The Seaham created by the Founders was beginning to disappear and this process was accelerated by the coming of war with Germany. As an industrial town and significant railway hub Seaham was an important target during the war.On the night of February 15-16 1941 four died at Seaham Harbour and Seaham Colliery. Eight months later on October 25 1941 the Seaton Colliery Inn sustained a direct hit and the landlady and a friend were killed. One day a new public house, aptly named the Phoenix, would appear on the site. In 1947 construction of the Eastlea and Westlea estates began. To make way for them the old streets of the Seaham Colliery area were demolished over the next 15 years.
On January 1 1945 a new union, the NUM, was created from the MFGB. A General Election was held in July 1945.Labour achieved a landslide with 393 seats to the 213 of the Conservatives and their allies, the Liberals 12 and Independents 22. For the first time a Labour government had an overall majority and could put into effect some of its ideals. Emmanuel Shinwell, MP for Seaham, became Minister of Fuel and Power to carry out the pre-war dream of nationalisation. On July 12 1946, the eve of the first postwar Gala, the Coal Industry Nationalisation Act received the Royal Assent. The official handover took place on ‘Vesting’ Day, Wednesday January 1 1947. Notice boards were set up outside every pit which read: ‘This colliery is now managed by the National Coal Board on behalf of the people’. Lord Londonderry was apparently very generously compensated for the loss of his three Seaham collieries but the precise amount he received seems to be a secret.
At its peak in 1913 the Durham coalfield produced 41.5 million tons with 165,246 employees at 304 pits. By 1934 the output had fallen to 30.6 million tons produced by 107,873 employees at 228 pits. By the time of nationalisation in 1947 the number of pits had dropped to 127. The three Seaham collieries, with their access to the unlimited reserves under the North Sea, seemed to be safe for another century and there were no alarm bells ringing yet on the Durham coast. Between 1951 and 1964 the Conservatives closed 44 pits in the county. From 1964 to 1970 Labour shut down another 51. By 1970 a mere 34,484 employees worked at just 34 pits. The closures were now coming ominously close to Seaham and the writing was on the wall. By 1983 7.2 million tons were being produced by 15,289 employees at 13 collieries.
The Miner’s Strike of 1984-85 — the last, longest and most bitter of them all, was calculated to stop the closure of the remainder, in Durham and elsewhere. Once again, as usual, the miners lost and the fate of the rump Durham coalfield was finally sealed by Conservative victories in the General Elections of 1987 and 1992. In 1987 British Coal ‘amalgamated’ Seaham Colliery with Vane Tempest. No more coal was produced at the old mine and it was relegated to the role of a third shaft for the newer colliery. Vane Tempest coal came to the surface at Seaham Colliery and was transported to the main railway line or the docks from there. The rail connection from Seaham Colliery to Seaham Harbour was severed a year later in 1988 following an accident with a runaway locomotive. Thus was closed the last section of the Rainton and Seaham line laid between 1828 and 1831 which had brought life to the infant town. ‘Benny’s Bank’ had been a direct link back to the Industrial Revolution and the Founders.
In 1991 both Dawdon and Murton collieries were closed and the sites levelled. In October 1992 British Coal, as part of a national strategy, announced the closure of the four remaining pits in the old County of Durham, including the Seaham-Vane Tempest combine. Seaham and Vane Tempest collieries were bulldozed in 1994. Now a great open site has replaced each of the three Seaham pits. Mining in the town has come to an end after a century and a half.
Since the war a ring of satellite council and private estates has sprung up to completely surround the original town of Seaham Harbour. Westlea, Eastlea, Woodlands, Northlea etc. Parkside received an extension and some shops at last. None of these new areas have any connection with the Londonderry family and none have street names with a Londonderry connection.
Copyright Tony Whitehead.
Visit his pay-per-view website of parish register entries and census returns for the entire county at www.durhamrecordsonline.com Your ancestors may well be there.