(The following sketch of St Mary's, believed to have been formerly named St Andrews, was written by a former President of the Sunderland Antiquarian Society, Mr Henry L. Robson, decd.)


THIS little church, now some 900 years old, stands on the sea coast [just to the north of Seaham Harbour, on the B1287], six miles south of the town of Sunderland, in the County of Durham. It is almost unique in that it has come down to us from the distant past without any great alteration. In size it is practically the same to-day as it was when it was first built.

For centuries this church supplied the spiritual needs of the inhabitants of two little villages, Seaham and Seaton, and also of the dwellers in the scattered farmsteads. Here throughout the ages, the parishioners were christened, married, and eventually buried.

undefined The upkeep of the nave was the responsibility of the people, and that little nave, only 47 feet by 17 feet, still stands today, without aisles, as it was originally built, kept in repair by countless generations of people. This nave was more to them than a place of worship. It was, with the exception of the Manor House, the only building of any size in the parish, and for centuries perhaps the only building constructed of stone.

Here meetings could be held, local affairs discussed, officers elected, and decisions made. It was the one centre of culture and learning in their lives, affording some relief to the monotony of their drab workaday existence. The interior walls, covered with coloured pictures of the Biblical story, were of never ceasing in­terest to young and old, and a source of knowledge to all. At the major feasts, Easter and Christmas, religious stories were portrayed in pageantry, the forerunner of play-acting and theatres in this country. In this nave would be kept any valuable property or documents belonging to the parish or to any of the parishioners, stored away in the great iron-bound chests kept for that purpose. Here would be seen the parish weapons, for the young men were liable to serve when occasion demanded; here also would be the parish coffin, the brewing vat, and many other articles of com­munal use. At the church, on feast days, the people would gather, first for service, then for jollification. It was, in every sense, the centre of their lives.

Today, everything has altered new towns, new buildings, new institutions, new churches, a new life has arisen - but the old church of St. Mary stands unchanged, a reminder of the England that was, and of the English people of long ago.

Seaham was in an isolated position. The nearest church to the north was six miles away at Bishop Wearmouth, to the west six miles again at Houghton-le-Spring, and to the south some three miles away at Dalton le Dale. Only one road of any importance connected it with the outside world, the road westward to Seaton village, and on to Durham. To the north and south for centuries there was no road of any description, travellers having to negotiate deep unbridged denes. In the 18th century, and probably earlier, there was a bridle road to Sunderland, Ryhope Dene having been provided with a bridge. When about 1790, the turnpike road from Sunderland to Stockton was laid down, Seaham, though not directly on this road, had access to it, and so the villagers were brought into near contact with the public transport of the country, the horse-drawn coaches of those days. In the 19th century, with the growth of the industrial town of Seaham Harbour, the denes were properly bridged and main roads driven through; and about the same time a railway line was laid down with a station near by. But by that time the ancient village of Seaham had disappeared, only the church, the vicarage, the manor house and one cottage being left standing.


Up to comparatively recent times, historians in Durham were unanimous in placing St. Mary's in the Early English period of architecture, i.e., in the 13th century. But in the year 1912, a local builder, Mr. Matthew Nicholson, whilst engaged in some repair work on the walls of the nave, discovered a small blocked-in window. Further investigation was made, with the result that two similar windows at the same height were found, with traces of another. This brought antiquarians to the scene, and a thorough examination of the building was made. From this, it became the view of these experts, that we had here, a church of pre-Conquest origin, some even going so far as to place its construction in the 8th century. This, if correct, would rank it among the very oldest a wall in the monastic buildings which has a Norman door at one end and a Saxon door at the other. Also in the tower at Jarrow, built at the same time, one can see windows showing Norman and Saxon technique. At Durham, where the monastic buildings are known to have been started in Norman times-1070 to 1080- Saxon features are found in the earliest parts.

It is unfortunate that the Commissioners, who carried out the Domesday Survey for William the Conqueror in the year 1087, did not include the Bishopric of Durham in their operations, and so, we, in these parts, are deprived of a wonderful piece of evidence. Even the Durham Survey, known as the Boldon Book, drawn up about 100 years later, did not include the parish of Seaham, as it was not one of the Bishop's personal possessions. So we are left to the evidence of the building itself; and that evidence points strongly to the conclusion set out-that the church was built in the period of the Anglo-Norman Overlap, some time between the years 1066 and 1090.


The church when built consisted of-the present aisleless nave, a tiny chancel 101 feet square, south door and maybe north, and an addition at the west end which may have been a baptistery. It was lighted by a series of four small round-headed windows in each wall of the nave, of which three still exist; and no doubt similar windows in the chancel. Its roof was of the high-pitched variety so common in all early buildings. and there were no outside buttresses.

This building stood unchanged for about 100 years, when the first alteration took place. It was found that the chancel was too small for parish purposes, so it was taken down and a larger one built. This second chancel was practically the same width as the nave, and extended much further to the east. From the evidence of its architecture, it must have been constructed about the year 1180, at a time when the Romanesque, Norman round-headed style was giving way to the first period of the Gothic pointed type, called Early English. This period of change between the two styles is known as Transitional. The east end is lit by two long, narrow windows, very like the lancets of the Early English style, but having rounded Norman heads. Above these windows, on the exterior, is a hood-mould, carried along to the side walls as a string course, with the typical nail-head ornament of Transitional times. The side walls have similar windows, but slightly narrower.

Inside, in the south wall, is a piscina with an aumbry or cup­board alongside it, each with a pointed arch, and each showing the nail-head ornamentation. At this time, but more probably some time later, a pointed arch was inserted between the chancel and the nave. This arch is of two orders, and the wall is thickened inside to carry the outer order, but the inner one rests on corbels, beneath which are carved, on each side, two human heads. The outer order also, on its west side, where it sinks into the wall, is ornamented with a head. The insertion of this chancel arch almost proved disastrous for the little church, as the side walls could not stand its thrust, and had to be propped up by two enormous, ugly buttresses. From the inside of the church, it can clearly be seen that the walls are out of perpendicular.

The next change took place at the west end, where somewhere round about 1230, a tower was built to carry the bells. This has a long narrow pointed lancet window in its lower west wall, and four more, one in each face, in its upper storey. Inside, the tower arch rests on corbels beneath which, on both sides, is carved the typical dog-tooth ornament of the Early English period. This tower is also without buttresses.


Some time in the 15th century, the high-pitched roof was re­moved, and replaced by one of much lower pitch; the mark of the ancient roof can still be seen on the east face of the tower. This lowering of high-pitched roofs was going on all over the country at this time, as a consequence of a much greater use of lead as a roof covering. At the same time, nave, chancel and tower were provided with battlements, also in line with common practice.

Towards the end of the 16th century, the south porch was built. Before this porch existed, the south door was protected from the rain by a hood or drip-stone, and the porch can be seen cutting through this. This porch is peculiar; it has a round-arched door­way, showing the influence of Classical architecture, which was now superseding the pointed Gothic in England, and its roof con­sists of large, heavy stone slabs supported on two cross ribs with walling above each.

On the north side of the nave, in the first half of the 19th century, a small vestry was built covering the ancient north door, which gives it connection with the church. It is not shown in a drawing of the church dated 1827.

These, with the exception of the insertion of a few larger win­dows, are all the changes that have taken place, leaving the building practically the same size as it was at the outset, and with the north and south nave walls still intact. Three of these inserted windows, two in the north of the nave and one in the south, are lancets, and most probably belong to the early 13th century. They occupy the same positions as the smaller round-headed windows, and one of those in the north wall extends downwards till it cuts into the band of herring-bone work. In the south wall, also, between the porch and the chancel, are two very much wider windows. They are of perpendicular Gothic type, but may be of fairly recent construction. Inside the church, at the top of the more westernmost of these two, can be seen traces of the little original window it replaced.


Seaham was a very poor parish, very sparsely populated; in the year 1821 it only contained 40 inhabited houses, occupied by 44 families, and had a total population of 198; and it is probable that never at any time in its previous history had the figure been much greater. We cannot therefore expect to find expensive fittings in the church; but there are, nevertheless, several points of interest.

The nave is still full of the old high box pews of Georgian times; one of them still has a name-plate dated 1811. In the chancel are two large family pews. One was for the family of the Rector, and one for the lord of the manor. It is interesting to think that Anne Isabella Milbanke, who later was to become Lady Byron, often sat in one of the pews in her younger days; and that the great Byron himself on his visits to Seaham, would also sit there. Perhaps, instead of listening to Rector Wallis, he was often forming lines in his mind which were destined to ring down the ages.

Inside each door, north and south, is a holy water stoup, the projecting part of which was broken off when the pews were in­stalled. This is interesting as showing that both doors were once in use, probably up to the time of the Reformation. Most of our parish churches started off with two doors, generally opposite one another in the north and south walls; but almost invariably the north entrance has been blocked up, some say for superstitious reasons-the north door was associated with the Devil but more probably for the sake of warmth and the cutting out of draughts.

The font, standing under the tower arch, is an interesting piece of work. It has a smallish round bowl, resting on a round shaft, and just below the rim of the bowl is a band of ornamentation in the form of a scroll, which seems to consist of dragon-like figures. They have a head at each end, curled up in the form of a spiral. Some authorities have placed this font in the Norman period; but it looks too slender and graceful for that time. It is difficult to date; it may belong to the 13th century, or it may be a Restoration font installed after the year 1660. We know that during the Civil Wars of the 17th century, the Presbyterian form of worship was established in the country, and the Presbyterians, particularly the Scots, disliked large stone fonts, and replaced many by small basins. Hence many old fonts were thrown out and destroyed, and had to be replaced after the Restoration. The wooden font cover, also appears to be of Jacobean date.

The wooden pulpit is of importance, not because of its carving, but because it can almost certainly be dated. At the Visitation of St. Mary's by Bishop Barnes in the year 1579, it was found that the church did not possess a pulpit, and that the church door was broken off. The church-wardens were ordered to remedy this state of affairs at once. This pulpit must then have been installed; it is of typical Elizabethan type, ornamented with the usual arcade of blank, round-headed Classical arches. It is probable that the porch was also erected at this time, as a result of the injunctions.

In such a tiny church as this, one would have thought that there would hardly have been room for more than one altar. Yet at the East end of the south wall of the nave is a piscina niche in- dicating the presence of a chantry chapel. It has a round arch, and may date back to late Norman times. It was probably endowed by an early lord of the manor, to make sure that regular masses would be sung for the repose of his and his family's souls. In the year 1501, the chantry priest serving this altar was a man named Richard Atkinson.

Before the Reformation, the chancel was screened off from the nave, and the Rood (the figure of Christ on the Cross) would be fixed above the entrance doorway. The holes, at either side, into which the Rood Beam fitted, can still be seen.

At the back of the aumbry in the chancel is a bold carving of a priest's hand raised in blessing. This is peculiar and rare. Why it was placed there is not apparent, but the hand would be copied from the paten which usually stood in this cupboard. Early patens, or plates for the Communion Service, were generally ornamented with a hand raised in blessing-the Manus Dei.Above the altar is a poker drawing showing the head of Christ Salvator Mundi. This drawing was the work of the Rector, Richard Wallis, 1783-1827, and was presented to the church by his son-in-law, Thomas Surtees Raine. Richard Wallis was a very talented man; he was not only an artist, but also a poet of no mean ability, his best known works being 'Farthing Giles' and 'The Happy Village'. He assisted at the ceremony of the famous Byron marriage.

In the tower are two long-waisted bells, but neither bears any inscription. These are probably the same two bells mentioned in the inventory of all church property taken in the year 1547, just after the change in church control. The return for Seaham was given as-"One Challice gilt weying X unces and two belles".

In the gable of the porch is a sun-dial dated 1773, giving the names of the Rector, church-wardens, and the parish clerk of the time; and with it an interesting verse extolling its work and use­fulness. The lettering, unfortunately, is now becoming illegible.

There are several tablets in the church in memory of former Rectors and Vicars, but no monuments of any kind. The old church is no longer the centre of an independent parish, having been amalgamated with the more populated parish of St. John's, Seaham Harbour, after the death of the last vicar in 1933; but services are still held here each Sunday.

© H L Robson, April 1961