Keys to the Past

Local History

Seaham (County Durham)

Seaham © DCC 2007
Seaham © DCC 2007

Seaham, or Seaham Harbour as it is often known, lies on the North Sea coast of Durham. Although most of the present village developed in the 19th century alongside the growth of the important harbour, it has much older roots.

The earliest occupation in the area dates to the Mesolithic period, when the first settlers may have had a temporary settlement close to the sea. Their simple flint tools have been found in several places in the area. In this period people found their food by hunting wild animals and gathering food from the natural environment. Coastal sites were particularly important as there would be shellfish, fish and seabirds all year round. Many other similar coastal settlement sites have been found along the coastlines of Durham and Northumberland.

Despite this evidence for the very earliest prehistoric occupants, we know less about other periods of prehistory in Seaham. Farming would probably have begun in the Neolithic and Bronze Age, although no remains from this period have survived.

It is only in the Roman period that we have more settlement evidence. A number of Roman coins have been discovered. A quern and pottery has been found when extending the town cemetery, suggesting that there may be a Roman settlement nearby.

There was certainly a settlement at Seaham in the early medieval period. Seaham Village is first noted in a land grant by the Anglo-Saxon king Athelstane to the Church of St. Cuthbert in AD 933 and the name Seaham meaning 'homestead by the sea' in Old English was first recorded in AD1050. There is also an early medieval cemetery near the church. Human bones have been found near the church since the middle of the 18th century, when burials were first reported in the area to the north of St. Mary's church. The site was explored by archaeologists in 1997 and ten burials were dated by Carbon 14 dating to the period AD660-880. Records of burial mounds in the area suggest that earlier burials might also be present. Further excavations were made in 1999. Two burials were found interred face down whilst another was in a crouched position and three further bodies were found with the remains of wooden coffins.

The village continued as a farming community throughout the middle-ages and into the 19th century. For much of this time it fulfilled a role as an estate and parish centre. By the middle of the 19th century developments initiated by the Londonderry family (owners of Seaham Hall) led to the removal of the last few houses in the village to provide a wider landscape setting for the newly rebuilt and extended Hall. It was at Seaham Hall that the poet Byron met and married Isabella Millbanke in 1815. The marriage was not a happy one and the unfortunate wife was later ridiculed in one of Byron's poems as `Lady Millpond'. Byron does not seem to have enjoyed his time at Seaham as in a letter to his friend, Moore, he complained; "Upon this dreary coast we have nothing but county meetings and shipwrecks; and I have this day dined upon fish, which probably dined upon the crews of several colliers lost in the late gales".

Following the demolition of Glebe cottage in 1964, the last surviving part of Rectory Farm, the village is today composed of only Seaham Hall, St.Mary's Church, The Rectory (Greystones) the Hall Lodge and Hall Farm a little to the west of the Hall.

Although the old medieval village of Seaham declined, a new settlement grew nearby. In 1828 work on building the harbour began. Within three years coal was being shipped out. It was the coal trade which led to the success of Seaham. The harbour lay close to the productive East Durham coal fields and soon much coal was being shipped to London. As the new town grew, many miners working in nearby mines, such as Vane-Tempest, lived in the growing number of terraced houses. In 1880 a dreadful mine disaster claimed the lives of 164 miners.

Though Seaham was badly hit by the post-war decline of the mining industry, its sandy beaches are still popular and today many people visit the harbour, which is now more a tourist attraction than a commercial port.

The First World War and subsequent conflicts have left a significant impact on the built heritage of Seaham and in surrounding areas of the wider parish. Memorials of various types make up the majority of the sites linking Seaham to its wartime past. Many of the local churches contain war memorials in the form of Rolls of Honour, books of remembrance, plaques dedicated to parish congregations or individuals who fought and died in conflict, and even items of furniture and ornaments. More traditional examples of public memorialisation include the freestanding memorials such as the large statue in Welfare Park and the remembrance crosses of Princess Road Cemetery and Terrace Green. Memorials can also be found in recreational buildings that had established memberships before, during and after the war, including Working Men's Clubs and Miner's Welfare Institutes. In some cases these buildings contain memorials that have been relocated from demolished industrial sites like the Bottle Works and Colliery buildings.

With regard to sites that were actually used for military purposes during WW1 or were used as a result of military action, Seaham has a great many stories to tell. Many of the buildings around the harbour were used as stores, bilets, Officers Quarters and canteens. The infirmary was also an important building during the conflict along with a number of buildings given over as VAD (Volunteer Aid Detachment) Hospitals, including Seaham Hotel, Vane House and the Mission Hall.

There are two known rifle ranges at Ryhope and Red Acre that would have been used as training sites prior to the war and might have been used during WW2 as well. These are located on the coast, an area that has a number of WW2 pillboxes and coastal defensive sites. Off the coast there are a number of known wrecks belonging to cargo ships, trawlers and merchant vessels that were targeted by enemy craft during each of the World Wars. Some of these, including the Vianna and the Helvetia were torpedoed and sunk by German submarines in WW1. There were also inland casualties as a result of enemy munitions during WW2 when the Presbyterian Church on Adolphus Street was almost completely destroyed by a German landmine.

Reference number:D6875
Event(s):The identification of Historic Landscapes in Durham Project; Chris Blandford Associates

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Please note that this information has been compiled from a number of different sources. Durham County Council and Northumberland County Council can accept no responsibility for any inaccuracy contained therein. If you wish to use/copy any of the images, please ensure that you read the Copyright information provided.