Available Parish Registers at Durham Record Office
St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Baptisms 1646-1861
St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Marriages 1652-1967
St. Mary the Virgin, (Old) Seaham, Burials 1653-1966
Events (baptisms, banns, marriages and burials) at St. Mary’s are very rare today. The baptismal register begun in 1861 has still not been filled and sent to Durham Record Office for transfer to microfilm.
Population changes in the 19th century:
|Seaham (Old & New)||115||121||103||130||153||729||2591||2802||2989||4798||5285|
All of the census records for 1841-1911 are transcribed and available on this site.
The undoubtedly ancient place of worship at Old Seaham was originally dedicated to St. Andrew and then rededicated to St. Mary at some point after 1066. Although St. Mary’s is classified as an Anglican church today it should be remembered that for hundreds of years before the Reformation it was a Roman Catholic place of worship when they were no such things as Protestants. County Durham became Protestant late in the reign of Elizabeth (1558-1603) and we must assume that St. Mary’s converted at much the same time. Renovation work in 1913 revealed herring-bone masonry associated with Saxon structures so it is probable that the church is far older than the mid 11th Century usually attributed to it. There is evidence that the original (wooden) edifice may have burnt down (possibly by Vikings) and been built over by a Norman structure at some point after the Conquest.
The ancient parish of Seaham comprised the tiny village of that name as well as the hamlets of Seaton and Slingley and outlying farms such as Cherry Knowle. It was bounded on the north by the townships of Ryhope and Burdon, on the west and south-west by Warden Law and Eppleton, on the south by Dalton-le-Dale, and on the east by the German Ocean or North Sea. Seaham was included in a grant of land to the shrine of St. Cuthbert by Athelstan, first King of All England, early in the 10th. century. The estate or manor was eventually sold off to a private individual and by the 13th. Century it had descended from him to two heiresses, the sisters Matilda and Hawysia. The former married a man called Yeland, and the latter married a Hadham, between whose descendants some disputes respecting the division of the property seem to have existed, but which were terminated in 1295 by a solemn deed executed in the parish church.
At some point before 1408 the Yeland share of Seaham and Seaton became vested in the family of nearby Dalden estate. Later that share passed successively, sometimes by marriage, other times by purchase, to the Bromeflete, Bowes, Collingwood and Milbanke families. The latter sold out to the Londonderrys in 1821. The Hadham share of Seaham and Seaton continued in that family until the failure of male issue early in the 16th. Century, when it passed by marriage to first the Bamford and then the Blakeston families. The share was then acquired by the Swinburnes of Nafferton in Northumberland who passed part of this on to the Milbankes who in turn sold on to the Londonderrys. The remaining part ended up with the Gregson, Pearcey and Brough families.
The advowson (ownership and power to appont new parish priests or vicars) of St. Mary’s church appears always to have been attatched to the ownership of the manor of Seaham and to have been held alternatively in the Middle Ages by the families of Hadham and Yeland. Inside the church is a very ancient stone coffin, bearing the inscription ” hic jacet Ricardus Miles de Ilehand [Yeland] “, one of the early lords of the manor. The first rector recorded was John de Yeland in 1279. In 1475 the rectory was annexed to the Abbey of Coverham in Yorkshire. After the Dissolution in the reign of Henry VIII the patronage became invested in the Crown.
The tiny church is a very plain structure, consisting of nave and chancel, with a square tower, and contains a maximum of about 150 seats. Some of the pews are still decorated with the brass plaques of previous well-to-do worshippers, including the Londonderry family. The leading features of the church are Transitional in character from the early Norman era. The two windows at the east end are of this style, being splayed on the inside. The nave is of later date, but the windows, with one exception are comparatively modern. The old roof, considered to be too heavy for the walls, was replaced at the beginning of the 20th. Century. On the front of the porch is a sundial, dated 1773, above which is the following inscription:
I am natural clockwork by the mighty One
Wound up at first, and ever since has gone
Its pin (‘) drops out, its wheels and springs hold good;
It speaks its Maker’s praise, though once it stood,
But that was by the order of the workman’s power,
And when it stands again it goes no more.
Until well into the present century there was a parish charity called Martin’s & Bryce’s, being the interest of £10 left to the poor. According to the Parliamentary returns for 1786 one William Martin bequeathed £5 in 1696 and a Thomas Brice left £5 in 1762. The £10 yielded 10 shillings interest annually (5%). It is not clear whether this charity still exists at the time of writing (1998), still yielding 50p annually. The parish burial registers reveal that the William Martin concerned was probably the ‘widower of Seaham’ interred on February 2 1695. In the Old Style Calendar then existent the old year ended on March 24 and the new year began on March 25 so a date of 1696 for the bequest is likely to be accurate given a gap between the death and the completion of legal formalities. Less likely candidates are the William Martin (‘son of Richard of Seaton’) buried on December 7 1696 and the William Martin (‘son of Thomas and Elizabeth of Seaton’) buried on November 21 1698, who were both probably children. For Thomas Brice there is just one candidate – the gentleman (‘of Seaham’) interred on September 25 1762, whose family had long been resident in the village.
The baptismal registers for St. Mary the Virgin began in August 1646 in the middle of the Civil War and with a Scots army occupying most of the county. Many of the early entries relate to the then lords of the manor the Collingwood family. These sold out the twin estates of Seaham and Dalden to the Milbankes in c. 1678. A later Milbanke, Sir Ralph, married a sister of Viscount Wentworth. This couple demolished Seaham Cottage in 1792 and replaced it with Seaham Hall. Their only daughter Anne Isabella married the poet George Gordon, Lord Byron, at Seaham Hall on January 1 1815. Byron’s signature is in St. Mary’s marriage register. The marriage lasted just long enough to produce a daughter and then the couple parted. Sir Ralph’s wife Judith inherited her childless brother’s money not long after and it was decided to move to her ancestral headquarters at Wentworth in Leicestershire. The estates of Seaham and Dalden were sold at auction to the Londonderrys in 1821.
The population of Seaham village in the 1801 census was just 115. As late as 1841 there were only 153 residents. The Londonderry family, new lords of the manor, then swept away the hamlet to make way for a lawned area around Seaham Hall. The vicarage was replaced with a new structure but otherwise only the church survived from what had been a thriving community for centuries, perhaps millenia.
With the sinking of Seaton Colliery (1844-52) and Seaham Colliery (1849-52) and the creation of a pit village at what is now called New Seaham, St. Mary the Virgin church entered the busiest period in its history. By the time of the 1851 census, when the pits had yet to start producing, the population of ‘Seaham’ (Old and New) had risen to 729. By 1861 it was 2591. The old church and especially its graveyard could not cope with such numbers and something had to be done to relieve the pressure. In 1857 therefore a new church was constructed near the colliery village and a separate parish was established for New Seaham in 1864 but that rough and tough mining community was still lumped together with sedate Old Seaham for census purposes. By 1891 New & Old Seaham together had 4798 souls. The early records for Seaham Colliery village can be found in the St. Mary the Virgin registers. Since 1864 St. Mary’s has served only Seaton and outlying farms and ‘events’ are very rare. The baptismal register book begun in 1861 still has not been filled.
— by Tony Whitehead