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Seaham Past

      "THE HAMLET BY THE SEA"  was written by AYLMER FIELD in 1906  and appeared in the SEAHAM WEEKLY NEWS that same year.

In this well written and informative account the author contrasts the 'contemporary ' Seaham of 1906 with the Seaham of the past.  

Reading it today we can add another hundred years to the story of Seaham and will find it a fascinating piece of history

The Hamlet By The Sea

Written In 1906 by Aylmer Field

To the casual observer the coast of Durham seems to present little beauty, and indeed, most people would pronounce it to be a most unattractive region.  Bleak, exposed, and bare, most of its trees have long since been swept away to supply the iron furnaces which abounded here long before the days of the coal pits now so numerous.  They pollute the air with their smoke, and disfigure the scenery with their surroundings, and it is only on closer acquaintance that you can discover the remains of vanished beauty, still to be found in unspoilt nooks and corners.  The flat plain lying at the foot of the inland hills, and extending to the lofty cliffs that guard the sea, is seamed by deep valleys, relics of the glacial age, and locally termed
“denes.”   One of the deepest and narrowest of these runs into the sea about midway between Sunderland and Hartlepool, which, separating as it does the ancient Church and Hall from the busy manufacturing town of Seaham Harbour, seems like the dividing line between to-day and yesterday. On one side (but at a little distance from the Dene) there are a railway, coal pits, docks, bottle works, and every sign of a flourished modern town. On the other side is a haunt of ancient peace, with gardens and green turf surrounding the old hall, church, and vicarage. And yesterday comes first in order.

We will first speak of the time when Seaham was centred in the Dene when Seaham was the Dene, and the Dene was Seaham.  Water and ice have both had a share in fashioning that black rift, in whose deepest part high walls of rock on either hand, and shadowing trees above, making a twilight of noonday.  Without going back to the frozen time when the glacier ploughed its way through the solid rock, and cut the deep hollow which still holds the much diminished burn, or to the forgotten day hinted at by the ancient burials now and then found on the surrounded hills, the earliest historical record of Seaham is in the 930, when King Athelstan included it in his gift of lands to the shrine of St. Cuthbert.  At this time, and probably till much later, Seaham consisted of a few cottages, huts of fisherman and smugglers, built on the little plot of level ground in the hollow of the Dene, just below the Church.  The burn, into which the wild country around then drained, and not robbed of its supply by the pits, probably held a much greater volume of water than at present, and the sea also coming further up than it does now, made it easy for the men to run their boats up from the little cove at the mouth of the Dene, and secure them in an almost impregnable position between its rocky walls.  At a time when few craft larger than small fishing boats were to be seen off this coast, this little bay, sheltered by its curving wall of cliff, must have been a harbour not to be despised, and if its stream was too narrow to admit the black beaked galleys manned by Danish sea rovers, the scourge and terror of the coast so much the better for the inhabitants of the village of Seaham, safe in their rocky fastness.  

But we must not dwell longer on these old and far off things than is necessary to show the genesis of the place. In the time of Henry 3rd it was a freehold manor in the possession of two sisters, Matilda and Hawysia, whose descendants held it for many centuries.  A succession of events, doubtless important enough in their day, but which do not now concern us much, brought it, in the seventeenth century, into the hands of the Collingwood family.  By this time the village had risen from the damp and dim recesses of the burn, and consisted of one long street of scattered houses on either side of the long road still to be traced coming past the Church, and through the lawns, their gardens running down to the Dene on one side, and on the other up the hill. The Church, one of the most interesting in the country, was already a place of great antiquity, there was a vicarage and an inn, and several roads ran through the village.  

       “Some time previous to 1680, George Collingwood sold his moiety of his Manor of Seaham, together with the Tower of Dalden,

        to Mark Milbanke, ancestor of the present proprietor, Sir Ralph Milbanke, Bart,”   says Surtees, writing in 1816.  

Some cottages were pulled down, a house was built, designed more as a summer retreat than as a permanent residence, and a garden was laid out.  Surtees (in whose time the old house of Dalden was still “standing stout,” partially ruined, but still capable of repair) says further 

      “  A situation, not perhaps naturally very attractive, has been rendered extremely pleasing by the taste and attention of its owner. 

         The grounds are laid out with the most elegant simplicity, and a warm sunny vale to the south, which shelters and conceals the 

         garden, is filled with rising plantations.  Yet I cannot help regretting that the deserted Tower and Dene of Dalden should not 

         have received an equal share of attention; half the sums expended on Seaham would have rendered Dalden a spot of no 

         common beauty.” 

Seaham Hall and Dalden Dene have changed considerably since that time, and if the gentle historian could rise from his grave and revisit his former haunts, he would hardly recognise either place, Dalden being altered hardly in the manner he proposed, and the old house of Seaham having grown to twice its former size.  The village and inn are non-existent.  Some years before Surtees gave the foregoing description of Seaham, it was visited by the “Highland Lady,” then a child, brought by her mother to 

        “a little bathing hamlet on the coast of Durham. We lived in a little public house, the only one in the place. Except the clergyman’s

         family, there was none of gentle degree in the parish; 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.” 

That daughter became the wife of Lord Byron, and the ill-assorted marriage took place in the drawing-room of the “villa.” In the register of “Old” Seaham Church is written: - “George Gordon Byron, Lord Byron of Rochdale, and Anne Isabella Milbanke of this parish, were married in Seaham House by special license, 2nd Jan., 1815, by me, Tho. Noel, Rector of Kirby Mallory, Leicestershire, in presence of John Cam Hobhouse of Chantry House, Wilts., and Richard Wallis, Vicar of Seaham.”   There are many traces of Byron’s stay remaining to be noted hereafter.   In about 1822, the estate was sold to Frances Anne Vane, daughter and heiress of Sir Henry Vane Tempest of Wynyard, and wife of the third Marquess of Londonderry.  

The acquisition of the property by the Marquess and Marchioness of Londonderry marks an epoch -  the death of the old Seaham, and the birth of the new.  The Marquess, soldier and statesmen, turned his attention to business as successfully as he had hitherto done to war and diplomacy. Coal had already been found on the estate, and to facilitate its export, docks and a harbour large for those days, were opened near the mouth of Dalden Dene, about a mile way; roads were made, a new town was out, and in course of time the inhabitants of the village of Seaham were deported thither, their houses razed to the ground, and the site taken into the demesne of the much enlarged and altered house. Naturally all these changes were not effected at at once, in fact, it took years to accomplish them. The Harbour was begun in 1823 and was opened in 1828, amid great rejoicings, commemorated by many pictures still hanging in the dining room on Seaham Hall.
The excavations for the new harbour disclosed the skeleton of a man, said to have been murdered and buried there at some remote period doubtless some smuggler or preventive officer of ancient days. His bones should have re buried near the place of their discovery, so that the spirit of the victim might have protected the new work! 

The house grew also, but hardly in the same ratio and many of the alterations were made after 1854, in which year the Marquess died. Frances Anne, as great a builder as Bess of Hardwick herself (witness the harbour town and church, the twice built Wynyard, the Irish Garron tower, and the greatly magnified Seaham Hall), was all her life under the spell of bricks and mortar, and living as she did during her long widowhood, here more than at Wynyard, she was constantly carrying out some improvement.   She built at least the billiard and ball rooms, with the rooms above, added the front hall and portico, enlarged the dining room, re modelled the kitchens and offices, and made many other alterations. She threw down the wall that divided the Milbanke’s garden from the public road that ran in front of the house, obliterated the last traces of the old village, and laid its site out in lawns and flights of steps leading to a sunk garden well seen from the windows.  

The inn disappeared with the rest of the village (it stood to the east of the house, on the present croquet ground), as did a little farm near the Dene garden, its site marked by a group of ancient cherry trees. By an arrangement with the Vicar, some of whose glebe was on the cliff, she substituted some land on the other side of the railway for this, and laid it (then open common) down in turf, and erected a great terrace overlooking the sea, with a road running beneath it to replace the one thrown into the newly made park. These old roads, however, survive in rights of way in several directions through it.  A born ruler, after her husband’s death she went on with his work, and took the reins of government more fully into her own hands. Mines and shipping, churches and schools, estate and household, were all under her management, and no day passed that she did not see her agents, hear their reports, and issue her orders, (sometimes expressed with an Elizabethan roundness).  Her personality made itself felt in everything, and even in death her spirit seems to brood over the place, and is suggested everywhere, from the F.A.V.L. still marking much of the household linen, to her visible presentment in the more than life-sized portrait hanging in the dining room.  Arrayed in regal purple, with a widow’s cap upon her dark, abundant hair, she gazes with a slight superior smile at the ephemeral creatures of flesh and blood who sometimes throng about her feet.  A row of great pearls is round her throat, and costly rings are on her fingers.  From these, even death did not divide her, for they were buried with her.  Two of her dogs are in attendance, perhaps the two who rest in the garden under little tombstones fast falling to decay.  The large vases that stand on the mantelpiece beneath are always filled with purple flowers.  She died in 1865, and few changes have been made in the Hall, at least, since that time. 

But enough of Seaham in the past; let us see it as it is in the present. 

There are various modes of arriving at Seaham Hall, the easiest being, in the old days, to stop (if you could gain permission to do so) at the tiny private station in the park, now closed.  So we shall probably go to one of the stations in or near the Harbour.  We might take a short cut along an old road known as the Green Lane, which would lead us into the gardens, and across the Dene by twin bridges, the old and the new, but we shall do better to take the longer road that runs along the cliffs. The wide view over the sea, and the fresh, pure air that blows from it, are not things to be missed.  Our walk of nearly a mile brings us down a steep hill into the valley at the mouth of the Dene, now bridged over, and up an equally steep hill out of it, by a road cut out of the cliff.   Before us rises the great balustrade built by Frances Anne for her pleasure, on the right is the sea, and on the left is a sandy, grass grown lane, leading past the Church and Vicarage. It is the old road from the shore to the village, and it seems to end abruptly in a high artificial mound, which might well seem the grave of the ancient hamlet. But a narrow side wicket admits us into the park, and advancing along the path, the long southern front of the house lies before us.  Standing well upon a terrace overlooking the Dene, its irregular outline draped with ivy and and climbing plants of various kinds, it looks pleasantly old fashioned, for its latest alterations were made some fifty years ago. Turn back, and walk down to the balustrade, built on the “Steep Hard by the gusty margin of the sea,” fit stance from which to watch a storm, or look upon a tranquil main.  To right and left is the distant smoke of Hartlepool and Sunderland, and beneath, high cliffs enclose a little rocky bay, once the haunt of smugglers, a secret hiding place of whom was found not long ago. A broad expanse of sea lies before you, crossed far out by many ships. Of the Church, a former Vicar (the Rev Richard Wallis) writes:- “Ancient it is, as Saxon chizzel shows,
                                                                                                                For o’er its doors remain the zig zag rows
                                                                                                                Of Runic date. Hard by the Rector lives.”
In the little church yard is a small marble cross marking the grave of Lord Reginald Stewart, the second son of Lord and Lady Londonderry, who died here three years ago. He loved Seaham well, and he rests in one of its fairest nooks, overlooking the deep hollow of the Dene.
You may perhaps encounter the Vicar, the oldest beneficed clergyman in the county, tall and erect, and carrying the burden of his ninety and odd years more lightly than many men bear half their number.

Now we go up the drive, and skirt the grass, which perhaps, if the month is July, is been cut. And the nip of the east wind is softened by hot sunshine, and mingles with the scent of the roses, and of the newly cut hay.  The best weather for Seaham is when the wind is blowing off the sea and sending the smoke inland; but a more typical day is when the wind veers about then you have airs of heaven and smoke of the pit in about equal proportions.  On a foggy day, with a wind from the east, you may see the white fret sweeping up the dene in solid masses of vapour.  Arriving at the front door, we see that this side of the house presents a curious patch work of styles.  Before us is a stately Grecian portico with tall windows on either hand, and on the right, buildings of a plainer order, remains of the older house.  Entering we find ourselves in a spacious hall with a tessellated pavement, and lined with glass cases containing stuffed animals.  Through this is the inner hall, lighted only by the glazed roof high above.  Pictures of scenery, principally Irish, adorn the walls, the grand staircase springs from it, and great folding doors admit us to the dining room. 

This is a very long and lofty room, lighted by windows looking to the north, and hung with paintings illustrating the history of Seaham. The large portrait of Frances Anne hangs over the fireplace, and a picture of the Market Place at Durham, showing the statue of her husband, is at the end of the room. Returning to the hall, we advance towards the door leading into the garden. This was in old days, the front door, and looking around, one can easily recognise in this entrance the square hall of a moderate house. Lofty folding doors have taken the place of the smaller but beautiful mahogany doors which formerly led into the rooms on either side. One of these still remains, closing a passage that leads to rooms behind the drawing room. As we stand looking through the glass door and on to the terrace, the drawing room is on our left. It is a large square room, separated by folding doors from the long ballroom added by Frances Anne, and is full of curious old furniture and valuable china.
Two old pastels hang on either side of the fireplace, and among the other pictures is that of a nun, said to be the portrait of Lady Portarlington. Beyond the folding doors is the ballroom, containing some beautiful old carved chairs and Japanese cabinets. There are many pictures here, too, one in particular of two dogs, pets of Frances Anne’s. But the chief ornament of this room is the great window at the end, commanding an unequalled view of the sea. There is
                                                          “The green freshness of the summer sea,
                                                           Made cheery by the sun, and many a ship
                                                           Whose black bows smoothly through the waves did slip.” 

Two rooms, known respectively as the music room and the billiard room, open out of this room.  In repairing the floor of one of these, the library of the old house, a long forgotten cellar was discovered.  In one corner a row of figures was pencilled on the wall, the name “Byron” was written underneath, and above a stain of smoke.  The cellar had long been bricked up, and no one knew of its existence, but at length an old man was found, who recollected having been told that into this, the cellar of the old house, Byron used to go to bring up wine.  This was his score of bottles taken out, his signature below, and the smoke of his candle above!   It should, one would think, have been preserved, but some misguided votary of cleanliness whitewashed the cellar, and the memorial perished, just as the names of the visitors to Shakespeare’s birth place were destroyed by Mary Homby’s vengeful brush!  But if there should chance to have been a similar absence of size in the whitewash, the poetic numbers might be restored in like manner. 

Returning to the entrance, more folding doors admit us to the library. This, the pleasantest room in the house, was formerly the dining room, and has been lengthened by the addition of a large bay window looking over the terrace garden and the Dene, and affording a glimpse of New Seaham Church. The white smoke of the railway is occasionally, and more perpetually the black reek of the pits, seen through the trees. Its white mantel piece of antique carving, and its glass fronted bookcases of white and gilded wood, show well against its ruddy walls. These bookcases are filled with books of all ages and sizes, from the stately folio of Domesday Book, to the tiny duodecimo Elzevirs, of which there are many. Some good prints of Lord Darlington’s and of Mr Ralph Lambton’s hounds hang upon the walls, and there are some old Empire chairs of classical shape, the Sphinx’s head forming the arms, and the caduceus the back. 

A double door at one side of the fireplace opens into a passage leading to the private apartments of the Marquis and Marchioness, pleasant rooms looking on the garden. Into one of these, the boudoir, we may look. Its gilded ceiling harmonizes well with the brown tone of its walls hung with valuable prints. A large bookcase fills up the end, containing family records of much interest; the side tables hold old china; and a little conservatory opening from it is always full of flowers.  Leaving it, we pass the service door of the dining room, and along a passage lined with cabinets full of old china, and find ourselves in the central hall, looking at the one large picture that hangs above the staircase.  Though apparently of some merit, nothing is known of its history the painter or the subject.  A singularly graceful female figure, white robed, and holding a lamp high above her head, looks down upon a prisoner (apparently) who is been bound by a gaoler.  There seems a hint of allegory in it, but what deed this Lady with the Lamp is elucidating, can only be guessed at.  We must go upstairs, to visit the old drawing room famed as the room in which Lord Byron was married. It is now a bed room, but still retains its marble mantelpiece, in the centre a medallion representing Cupid riding on a lion; the mahogany doors with their fretted surrounds repeated on the frieze of the walls and the beautiful view from the window this last somewhat altered since Byron looked at it. The chimneys of collieries, and houses of a busy town now rise where he looked on green fields and solitary cliffs, and instead of the village street below his eyes would now rest on the garden with its flights of stone steps, and it’s sloping to the Dene. Many bedrooms stretch to right and left, and above the private rooms are the nurseries and the schoolroom, often inhabited by Lord Castlereagh and Lady Ilchester when children, and now sometimes occupied by their children, when they come here for sea air. Opposite to us, and built over the front hall, is the old schoolroom, the lower half of the window blocked by the portico. In this shady retreat, more suited, with its north light, for a studio than a seminary, the children of Frances Anne received their education while here. There were some fine prints of Hambletonian (a celebrated race horse belonging to Sir Harry Vane Tempest) in the corridor, but they have lately been removed to Wynyard.   We will go downstairs now, and leave the house by the garden door, remembering that from this entrance Byron drove away after his wedding, finding even so early that there were trials to be encountered in the marriage state.  

Following the broad terrace, we pass the Dene garden, sunny and sheltered, and wonderfully productive.
                                         “It has its orchard fruit, its garden flowers, Fresh as the ayre, and new as are the hours.”  

At the bottom of the hill on which it is situated, a gate admits us to “Lord Byron’s Walk,” and leads us past “Lady Byron’s Well,” the reputed scene of his twice repeated proposal of marriage.  There is little water now in the burn, for a large “pit crack” has opened in its bed which, except in very rainy weather, swallows the stream.  If I were the noble owner of the estate, I would close the fissure, and retrieve my Kuhleborn
from the rocky cavern in which he has chosen to hide himself, and make him purse his former path.  If you are lucky, you may meet the head gardener, who has spent his life here, and who will tell you tales of the time of Frances Anne.

The shady drive brings us into a road leading across the railway, and through the park, with the high road to Seaton. It is worthwhile to walk to this station, to see the quaint old village, with its seventeenth century hall, once the abode of the Middletons. Here you may take farewell of this green oasis in the smoke blackened eastern coast, and look your last upon the woods of Seaham.

Source: Sunderland Library
                 Local Studies
The Hamlet By The Sea  written in 1906
                 by Aylmer Field
In the Seaham Weekly News


The SFHG has developed an archive of more than 3,500 photographs of people and places in Seaham. These can be viewed by visiting the SFHG Resource Centre in the Library when the Group is holding it's weekly meeting. If you have any interesting photographs which you would like to record in the history of Seaham or to assist family history researchers please bring them along to Linda. 

             All photographs of the past help to build a social history of the Town in which our ancestors lived and worked. 

Durham County Council hold old photographs of Seaham and surrounding areas in their "People Past and Present' archive

                                                                            People Past and Present weblink