Harbour Walk, Seaham Harbour, Co. Durham SR7
An early example of the use of moulded concrete blocks, used in this case to build a church in the Romanesque style with a handsome basilican interior. The church is almost identical in design, construction and date to St Joseph, Sunderland.
Lord Londonderry bought the Seaham estate in 1821 and founded Seaham Harbour to handle the coal from his many collieries. The proposed resort town behind the harbour hardly materialised, though Londonderry paid for the erection of several public buildings. The collieries attracted much Irish labour. The first priest was Fr Robert Belaney who arrived in 1858. He solicited a site for a new Catholic church from Lady Londonderry but was refused. A site in Londonderry Road was eventually granted by the estate after her death and a church and presbytery were built to the designs of John Seed of Sunderland, opening in 1870.
The present church was built on a new site for Canon Hayes; the foundation stone was laid by Bishop Collins on 23 August 1906 and the church opened on 19 September 1907. The designer was Thomas Axtell of Ryhope, an engineer whose contemporary and near identical church of St Joseph in Sunderland (qv) opened about a month later. Both churches are in the basilican Romanesque style, and both cost around £3,000. Each is notable for the use of moulded concrete blocks in the construction, cast on site. The Northern Catholic Calendar records that at the lunch after the opening of the church of St Mary Magdalen ‘Mr Axtell…remarked that Mr Bentley had told him of the effective use he had made of concrete in the domes of that marvellous cathedral of his at Westminster’.
The church was built in 1907 in the style of a Romanesque basilica by Thomas Axtell, and is almost identical to his contemporary church of St Joseph, Sunderland, the latter ‘having the advantage in length’ (Northern Catholic Calendar). The building is constructed of cast and moulded concrete blocks, rock-faced externally. The roofs are covered with Welsh slate. The church has an aisled continuous nave and sanctuary with nave and aisle apses and an aisled west porch. The porch is lower than the nave and aisles proper with a central high round-headed door with a triple roll moulding to the door surround under a chamfered arch on pilasters with moulded imposts and a drip string. Over the door is a large rose window in a moulded surround. Statues on brackets in round headed niches flank the door arch. Below them are single small windows, with a pair of similar windows in each porch aisle. The verges of the gables have Lombard friezes. The side walls are of six bays divided by pilaster strips with pairs of windows with drip-moulds in each bay to both the pent-roofed aisles and the clerestories. The sanctuary apse has five windows in panelled bays and a half-conical roof; the lower aisle apses are of similar form with three windows. The eastern gable verges also have Lombard friezes.
Internally the wall surfaces have all been recently painted. The nave has six-bay arcades of round chamfered arches on cylindrical columns with crocket capitals and paired clerestory windows above each arch. The windows mostly have simple coloured glass motifs on a clear ground. Higher chancel and west arches with a west choir gallery, now extended forwards into the western nave bay. Tie-beam and crown post roof on moulded corbels with arch braces to the collars. The apse is panelled in its lower part with inset paintings of the Apostles and an easel painting of Our Lady as the reredos. The windows have stained glass. The panelling was installed in 1921 together with a new high altar, as a war memorial. The south side chapel has an altarpiece of 1909 dedicated to the memory of Fr Fehrenbach. The sanctuary was reordered in 1971. The nave pews and west gallery extension may well be of this date.
List description (the church was listed in 2016, following Taking Stock)
Summary: Roman Catholic church, 1906-1907 to the designs of Thomas Axtell; Romanesque style. The attached presbytery, linking range, enclosing stone wall and the detached hall are excluded from the listing.
Reasons for Designation: The Roman Catholic church of St Mary Magdalen, 1906-7 to the designs of Thomas Axwell of Ryhope, is listed at Grade II for the following principal reasons: * Architectural interest: an impressive Romanesque design with well-executed concrete block detailing to the exterior; * Materials: one of a pair of churches in the diocese that pioneered the use of moulded concrete block construction cast on site; * Interior quality: a handsome and spacious interior derived from a quality basilican plan and careful use of materials and detailing; * Degree of survival: an intact exterior, and despite some inevitable minor re-ordering of the sanctuary, a largely intact interior, which retains its original detailing and some original fittings.
History: The founding of Seaham Harbour to handle coal from the various collieries owned by Lord Londonderry attracted much Irish labour and the need for a place of Catholic worship, although it was not until the late 1860s that a site was granted from the Seaham Estate. The foundation stone was laid by Bishop Collins on 23 August 1906 and the church opened on 19 September 1907. It was constructed to the designs of Thomas Axtell of Ryhope, an engineer whose contemporary and near identical church of St Joseph, Sunderland opened about a month later. The cost of both churches was c£3,000, and both churches are notable for their use of moulded concrete blocks in the construction, cast on site. The Northern Catholic Calendar records that at the lunch following the opening of St Mary’s ‘Mr Axtell …remarked that Mr Bentley had told him of the effective use he had made of concrete in the domes of that marvellous cathedral of his at Westminster’. In 1921 the apse was part panelled and a new high altar was installed as a war memorial and in 1909 the S chapel received an altarpiece. The sanctuary was re-ordered in 1971, from which time the nave benches are also considered to have been added and the west gallery extended.
Details: Roman Catholic church, 1906-1907 to the designs of Thomas Axtell; Romanesque style. MATERIALS: cast and moulded concrete blocks, rock-faced externally; Welsh slate roofs. PLAN: the building is oriented north to south but the following description is liturgical. An aisled continuous nave and sanctuary with apses to the nave and aisles, an aisled west porch and a south-east sacristy. EXTERIOR: a prominent building on an elevated site, constructed in the style of a Romanesque basilica, with round-headed windows with sloping sills, prominent kneelers and a pitched roof of slate with a stone cross finial to the nave gables. The E end has Lombardic friezes to the gable, below which the tall sanctuary apse has five windows in panelled bays and a half-conical roof. The lower aisle apses are of similar form with three windows and the gable verges have Lombardic friezes. The north and south walls are of six bays divided by pilaster strips with pairs of windows with drip moulds in each bay to both the pent-roof aisles and the clerestories. The west end has a tall aisled porch that is slightly lower in height than the nave. The high, centrally placed door is reached by steps from either side and has a triple roll-moulding to its surround under a chamfered arch on pilasters with moulded imposts and a drip string. Above is a large rose window in a moulded surround. Statues on brackets in round-headed niches flank the door arch and below are single small windows with a pair of similar windows in each porch aisle. The verges of the porch and aisle gables also have Lombardic friezes. The south-east sacristy has a pitched roof and a gabled west end with a three-light mullioned window and a small rectangular porch. The attached presbytery, linking range, enclosing stone wall and the detached hall are excluded from the listing. INTERIOR: a lofty and light interior with the concrete walls recently painted white. There is a high chancel arch with hood mould and a sanctuary apse that is panelled to its lower parts. A central easel painting of Our Lady flanked by three inset paintings of the Apostles forms the reredos. The five round-headed lights of the east window have stained glass and the dome has a ribbed ceiling. The high altar, installed in 1921 as a First World War memorial, has simple stone supports with marble detailing to their front. The aisle apses serve as north and south chapels, and the Gothic timber altar piece to the latter has a central painted panel of Our Lady flanked by and incorporating a stained glass apse window at either end. At the east end of the south aisle wall there are three round-headed doorways to the sacristry building, with a continuous hoodmould, each fitted with an original six-panel door. The nave floor is boarded, with carpet to the aisles, and the benches to the nave and aisles have square ends and roll mouldings. The round-arched arcades are of each of six bays on cylindrical columns with crocket capitals and paired clerestory windows above each arch; windows and arches have continuous plaster hood moulds with a sill band to the windows, and the aisle windows are similarly treated. The latter have mostly simple coloured glass motifs on clear ground. The tie-beam and crown post roof is carried on moulded corbels with arch braces to the collars. The west end has a high arch with a west choir gallery that has been extended forwards into the west nave bay; this is accessed via a timber staircase of stick balusters and carved newel posts through an arch at the west end of the south aisle.
This List entry has been amended to add the source for War Memorials Register. This source was not used in the compilation of this List entry but is added here as a guide for further reading, 16 August 2017.
Books and journals: Pevsner, N, The Buildings of England: County Durham, (1983), 401
Websites: War Memorials Register, accessed 16 August 2017 from http://www.iwm.org.uk/memorials/item/memorial/71031
Other: Churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle: An Architectural and Historical Review, AHP; 2012
Architect: Thomas Axtell, engineer
Original Date: 1907
Conservation Area: No
Listed Grade: Grade II