Colliery Railways: Rainton and Seaham Railway 1831-1988

Rainton and Seaham Railway 1831-1988

The Past

In 1813 Sir Henry Vane Tempest of Wynyard, MP for County Durham, died from an apopleptic fit at the age of 42 and left his considerable fortune and his mines at Penshaw and Rainton to his only legitimate child, 13 year old Frances Anne. At a stroke, as it were, she became the second largest exporter of coal from the River Wear with an income of £60,000 per year, a tidy sum now, a fortune then. ‘Rainton Colliery’ was a collective term for several old, shallow pits, some of which had been worked since at least 1650. The coal in the Rainton district is just below the surface and in all probability mining had gone on there for a millenium or two before that.

The entire ‘Rainton Royalty’ was owned by the Dean and Chapter of Durham Cathedral and leased to Frances Anne. At the time that she inherited the Rainton complex incorporated six main pits and many small ones covering an area of some 9 square miles. The main pits were the Nicholson’s, Rainton Meadows, the Plain Pit, Woodside, Hunter’s House and Resolution. The smaller pits, some of which were worked directly by Frances Anne and the others leased out to independent operators, included the Quarry Pit, Annabella, the North Pit, The Knott, Old Engine and Pontop Pit. The Rainton and Penshaw collieries were complemented by workshops at Chilton Moor. The coal was pulled by horses from the Rainton pits on a wagonway (which had probably existed since the opening of Rainton Colliery) to the staiths at Penshaw (via Colliery Row, Junction Row and Shiney Row), from which point the Wear was navigable. There it was loaded on to small vessels and taken to Wearmouth where it was transferred to larger vessels for the onward sea voyage. Wages for this and the local port tax of six shillings a chaldron amounted to £10,000 per year. A port at nearby Seaham, linked to Rainton by a wagonway, would have enabled Frances Anne to save paying this and gain an edge on her competitors.

For the moment the heiress was a minor under the care of guardians and her business was run by agents appointed by the Court of Chancery. In 1819 Frances Anne, as old as the century, married a man old enough to be her father – 41 year old Lord Charles Stewart, a five foot nothing reactionary and minor hero of the Napoleonic Wars. ‘Fighting Charlie’, as the family called him, had never been to County Durham in his life and knew nothing about his new wife’s business, coal. On the credit side he stood to eventually inherit a marquessate, money and land from his father and childless elder half-brother Robert Stewart. That same half-brother, better known as Viscount Castlereagh, was Foreign Secretary, Leader of the House of Commons and Prime Minister in all but name and able to exert immense influence on behalf of his friends and relatives.

Sir Ralph Milbanke’s plan for a harbour at Seaham (‘Port Milbanke’) now came to Stewart’s knowledge and he determined to buy the estates of Seaham and Dalden 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 brother’s Irish property. Stewart simply wanted to avoid middlemen on the Wear and be independent of the port of Sunderland. As yet there was no thought that coal might lie under Seaham itself, but such ideas could not be far away. Chosen spot for the proposed harbour was the limestone promontory called Dalden (or Dawdon) Ness on his new estates. Frances Anne was rich but her money was controlled by trustees who had no confidence in the venture and for the next seven years Stewart failed to find financial backing despite obtaining the favourable views of leading engineers of the day such as Rennie, Telford and Logan.

Stewart was certainly not idle during this waiting period. A seventh large pit, Adventure, was sunk at Rainton from 1820 to 1822, and an eighth, the Alexandrina or Letch, in 1824. A completely new colliery complex was sunk at Pittington (consisting of the Londonderry, Adolphus and Buddle pits) from 1826 to 1828 on land leased from others. Stewart also leased land at Hetton in 1820 from the estate of the Earl of Strathmore. Here the future North Hetton Colliery (later called Moorsley) would appear in 1838. In 1825 Stewart combined this tract of land with an adjacent part of the Rainton Royalty, which he leased from the Dean and Chapter and where two more pits (Dun Well and Hazard) were planned, and sub-leased the lot to William Russell of Brancepeth. Included in the deal was the nearby North pit and permission to use the old wagonway to Penshaw and the staiths there. Stewart received rent and royalties and also had a share in the new North Hetton Coal Company that was established. When the Rainton to Seaham line was constructed in 1831 he made sure that the last four named pits were roped into his rail network.

When Castlereagh committed suicide in 1822 his half-brother Charles became the 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry. If he had been able to build his railway and harbour in the first years of the 1820s Charles Stewart would have gained an immense advantage over his competitors. The savings made on cutting out the Wear middlemen would have enabled him to deliver his coal to the export market at a price that ensured a fat profit. In 1820 another option had been available. His chief ‘viewer’ John Buddle recommended that a connection was built from the Rainton & Penshaw wagonway to link up with another wagonway from Newbottle Colliery to staiths near to Wearmouth. This colliery and wagonway were the property of the Nesham family who were keen to strike a deal. Doubts about the wagonway’s ability to handle all of the additional coal from Rainton and Penshaw collieries and the fact that he would be dependent on others discouraged Stewart from proceeding. In 1822 Lord Lambton snapped up both Nesham’s Wagonway and Newbottle Colliery. The wagonway was then extended southwestwards to join up with Lambton’s other collieries at Cocken, Littletown and Sherburn. This shrewd move gave Lambton the same advantage as the Hetton Company, independence from the Wear middlemen.

The opening of the Stockton and Darlington Railway in 1825 enabled pits west and northwest of Darlington to send their coal cheaply to the new port at Middlesbrough. Next came the Clarence Railway which further connected Teeside (Port Clarence) to inland pits. Vast new docks were also planned for Sunderland. Finally the information that Colonel Thomas Braddyll planned to build a harbour at Hawthorn Hythe and a railway from there to his new colliery at South Hetton spurred the Marquess into action. It was no longer a question of gaining an advantage but of survival in a very competitive industry. Without the new harbour and railway it was only a matter of time before his collieries were gobbled up by others and incorporated into their railway systems. The problem in 1828 was that he still did not have the money for such an undertaking. Hearing that Londonderry was determined to proceed Braddyll abandoned his own impractical scheme and tried to buy a share in the project but the Marquess decided to go it alone. Braddyll was however persuaded to lend Londonderry £17,000 on condition that his future South Hetton coals would be shipped from the new port and facilities at Seaham Harbour.

Because of money problems the construction and running of the Rainton line was contracted out to Shakespear Reed of Thornhill who put up the cash and charged so much per chaldron carried. Their contractor was Benjamin Thompson and so inevitably the railway became known as Benny’s Bank. Shakespear Reed got 3/- per chaldron for the guaranteed 50,000 chaldrons to be shipped each year, with a reducing rate thereafter. The line cost them £20,000 to construct. In 1840 Londonderry was able to exercise his option to buy out Shakespear Reed for £22,721 16s 1d. The deal thus proved very profitable to both parties.

Breakdown of costs of the Rainton and Seaham Railway.

Seaham Self-Acting Plane £ 779 15 2
Londonderry Engine Plane £ 1770 15 7
Seaton Self-Acting Plane £ 759 0 7
Gregson’s Plane £ 991 12 1
Warden Law Engine Plane £ 1548 6 1
Copt Hill Engine Plane £ 2210 10 6
Rainton Engine Plane £ 2453 11 5
Sidings at Rainton Bridge £ 168 19 6
Sundries at Rainton Bridge £ 446 16 0
Coal Waggons £ 6336 0 0
Sub-Total £17,465 6 11
Engine Houses £ 2,534 13 1
Total £ 20,000 0 0.

On July 25 1831 the first coals ran down the new railway line from the Rainton pits to be loaded onto the new brig the ‘Lord Seaham’. The Rainton & Seaham railway was initially 5 miles long, from Seaham Harbour to Rainton Meadows pit but later additions created a network of over 18 miles of railway track. Fixed steam engines hauled the coal from the Rainton collieries to the top of the Copt Hill. At a point 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 point crossed the road by means of an overhead bridge. Thereafter the going to Seaham was comparatively easy and more fixed engines and an inclined plane took over to bring the load across the fields of Warden Law and Slingley, skirting to the south of Seaton village. From Seaton Bank Top another inclined plane and then a final fixed engine brought the coal to the top of the Mill Inn Bank, where one day Seaham Colliery would be sited. The last leg from there to the new harbour was downhill and also utilized a self-acting incline system. According to Tom McNee from 1831, on Saturdays only, a specially constructed coach brought people from the Raintons to Seaham Harbour to shop. The journey must have been a tortuous one, involving up to four changes of haulage machinery, but doubtless it beat walking.

In 1838 North Hetton Colliery (Moorsley) came on stream and began sending its output down the Rainton line. Lord Londonderry sank two more pits in the Pittington area on land owned by the Pemberton family – at Belmont in 1835 and Broomside (Lady Adelaide and Antrim pits) in about 1842. A ninth large Rainton pit followed in the late 1840s and was named after the new Lady Seaham, wife of the future 5th. Marquess. All of these pits and the works at Chilton Moor were linked up to the Rainton and Seaham railway which now had some 15 miles of track. In 1849 another colliery was sunk 3 miles to the west of Pittington on the old Tempest property at Old Durham, within sight of the Cathedral. This was called the Ernest pit. A spur line connected Old Durham colliery with the Durham and Sunderland Railway and coals passed along this line for a couple of miles before connecting with a branch of the Rainton & Seaham railway at Broomside Colliery.

In 1844 the Seaton Colliery or High Pit was sunk, not by Londonderry but by the North Hetton & Grange Coal Company, on a site chosen because of its proximity to the Rainton and Seaham line. The Marquess it seems was still nervous about the expense of sinking a new deep colliery and preferred others to risk their money in what might prove to be a fruitless undertaking. Before long he had his proof when the Hetton Company discovered rich but deep seams of coal. On April 13 1849 the sinking of Seaham Colliery or Low Pit was begun by Lord Londonderry. It was right next door to the High Pit and also right alongside the Rainton and Seaham line. It is not recorded what the North Hetton & Grange Coal Company made of this development. The first coal was drawn from Seaton on March 17 1852. Seaham started producing later but the exact date is not known. At 1800 feet the mines were among the deepest in the country and their workings soon extended under the North Sea. The Londonderry colliery portfolio was now the largest in Britain in the hands of a single individual and was producing over one million tons of coal per year from an area of some 12,000 acres between Seaham and Sunderland on the coast and extending as far inland as Durham.

Charles Stewart, 3rd. Marquess of Londonderry and Founder of Seaham Harbour, died in 1854. His widow, for 35 years in his shadows, now stepped into daylight and began running the businesses herself. She added Framwellgate Colliery to the family portfolio in 1859 and this too was linked up to the Rainton line which now, at its peak, had over 18 miles of track. At the end of 1864, a few weeks before her death, the Marchioness bought Seaton Colliery and merged it with Seaham.

Frances Anne’s heir Earl Vane (later the 5th. Marquess of Londonderry) was advised that the best days of the Rainton and Penshaw pits were over and to concentrate on the new winnings at Seaham and the proposed new colliery at Silksworth. The slow process of abandoning central Durham began with the transfer of the workshops from Chilton Moor to Seaham in January 1866. For another generation the Rainton complex remained productive but declining and the Rainton and Seaham railway kept operating, carrying millions of tons of coal to Seaham Harbour. Ominously the instruments of the Rainton Band were sold off to the 2nd. Durham Artillery Regiment in 1877. The end of the band presaged the final end of Rainton Colliery 19 years later. Before then the family divested themselves of many unwanted assets. Framwellgate and Penshaw collieries were sold off in 1879 and the Plain Pit at Rainton closed at about the same time. The severe depression of the early 1890s finished the rest of the inland pits off. Pittington/Broomside and Belmont Collieries (which had already been sold off) closed in 1890-91. Old Durham Colliery closed in 1892 after being worked for some 50 years. Adventure was shut down in 1893. The four remaining Rainton pits (Rainton Meadows, Nicholson’s, Alexandrina and Lady Seaham) were closed down in November 1896. Buyers were eventually found for Rainton Meadows and Adventure drift. Meadows had closed by 1923 but Adventure somehow survived the Great War, the General Strike, World War Two and nationalisation and finally closed only in 1978.

The rest of the ‘Rainton Royalty’ was taken over by Lambton Collieries Ltd. and worked from existing collieries at Cocken and Littletown. As the coal from Meadows and Adventure pits and from North Hetton/Hazard/Dunwell could be carried on N.E.R. lines the wagonway from the Raintons to Seaham Harbour was redundant after a working life of 65 years. The sections west of the Copt Hill were dismantled in December 1896. The run from the Copt Hill to Seaham Colliery remained open for a while longer to enable the Hetton Colliery Company to ship their coal at Seaham if their own line to the Wear was choked but this section too had gone by 1920.

The last remaining section of the Rainton & Seaham, from Seaham Colliery to Seaham Harbour, which was a self-acting inclined plane, remained open and working until after the Miner’s Strike of 1984-85. That strike was lost and the fate of the rump Durham coalfield was 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 connection from Seaham Colliery to the docks was finally severed in 1988 following an accident with a runaway locomotive. Thus was closed the last section of the Rainton and Seaham line completed 157 years earlier which had brought life to the infant town. ‘Benny’s Bank’ was probably the last working self-acting gravity line in Great Britain – a direct link back to the Industrial Revolution and the Founders of Seaham Harbour.

The Present

This last section from the Seaham Colliery to Seaham Harbour, so recently abandoned, will one day make a very pleasant walkway if Easington or Durham County Councils can be persuaded to take an interest in the matter. For the rest of the line, the section from Seaham Colliery to the site of the Rainton collieries, abandoned between 1896 and 1920, it is of course far too late for such notions. Much of the land it occupied was taken back by neighbouring farmers or has been obliterated by new housing or roads or open-cast mining. When the line was constructed, 1828-31, a nucleus of small coals (the most-readily available material) was used to construct the embankments. People from the village of Seaham Colliery were able to extract over 1,000 tons of this during the General Strike of 1926, a posthumous gift from that long dead tyrant the 3rd. Marquess. Thus there is no trace of the line between Seaham Colliery and Warden Law apart from a continuous trail of pieces of coal on the ground.

At Warden Law however an 800 yard stretch was over level ground and somehow escaped destruction at the time and encroachment by farmers later. It is still possible to walk along the old track here and this section is clearly visible from the air nearly a hundred years after it’s closure, delineated by two rows of trees. Further west the old line is still visible in a wood to your left just before the golf club on the Seaham to Houghton road. Between the Copt Hill and Rainton Bridge the line has been built over for housing or taken back for agricultural use. At Rainton Bridge the railway was sliced by the new Durham to Sunderland A690 road sometime in the 1960s. Beyond the A690 the original line again is clearly visible, with 30 foot embankments covered in coal fragments, for about half a mile. For the next mile the Rainton and Seaham is obliterated by the open-cast mine (situated on the very site of some of the original Vane Tempest pits) before emerging near to West Rainton. The last mile of track from here to the terminus at the site of the old Adventure colliery is clearly visible and delineated. The branch lines to Pittington, Chilton Moor and Framwellgate are still visible but are overgrown or built on in parts. The branch from Rainton bridge to North Hetton Colliery (via Dunwell and Hazard) has been converted into a beautiful country lane.

In it’s heyday the Rainton and Seaham line was used by over a dozen pits owned by the Londonderrys and others, an umbilical cord linking central Durham with the coast. The Raintons and Pittington today are dotted with old pit workings, shafts and spoil heaps and criss-crossed by the trackbeds of old railways and wagonways which bear silent witness to the industrial prosperity of other days. The coal at Rainton was not exhausted in 1896 – it had simply become uneconomic to produce. Today the northern part of the old Rainton Colliery (roughly a triangle whose corners are the old Plain Pit, Rainton Meadows and the Nicholson’s Pit) is a huge open-cast mine which can be seen to your left as you drive from Durham to Sunderland on the A690. In the middle of the nineteenth century Rainton and Pittington were important railway hubs almost completely surrounded by Londonderry pits. Today they are tranquil villages far from any busy railway line and the nearest colliery is a hundred miles away in Yorkshire.

The Future

There probably isn’t one but it is conceivable that the section from Seaham Colliery to Warden Law could be reclaimed and turned into a walkway. Unfortunately the A19 is a major obstacle in the way of this plan but it is surely not so busy that a Pelicon crossing could not be installed for occasional ramblers. Thereafter a small amount of land would have to be compulsorily purchased back from farmers. The Rainton and Seaham was the vital link between the inland railway pits and the new port and town of Seaham Harbour. Without the railway line there would never have been a Seaham Harbour. It is that important.

— by Tony Whitehead