Church of St Mary Magdalen


Heritage Category:
Listed Building
List Entry Number:
Date first listed:
Statutory Address:
Church of St Mary Magdalen, Harbour Walk, Seaham, SR7 7DS


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Statutory Address:
Church of St Mary Magdalen, Harbour Walk, Seaham, SR7 7DS

The building or site itself may lie within the boundary of more than one authority.

County Durham (Unitary Authority)
National Grid Reference:


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.


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.


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
War Memorials Register, accessed 16 August 2017 from
Churches in the Roman Catholic Diocese of Hexham and Newcastle: An Architectural and Historical Review, AHP; 2012


This building is listed under the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 as amended for its special architectural or historic interest.

The listed building is shown coloured blue on the attached map. Pursuant to s.1 (5A) of the Planning (Listed Buildings and Conservation Areas) Act 1990 (‘the Act’), structures attached to or within the curtilage of the listed building (save those coloured blue on the map) are not to be treated as part of the listed building for the purposes of the Act.

End of official listing

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