Seaham Part 5 – Through Rose-Tinted Spectacles

“Naughty girl! I’ll pack your bags and send you to Greystones!”

As a small girl growing up in Seaham Harbour in the 70s, the threat of Greystones was generally enough to make me mend my ways. Set on the headland in front of Seaham Hall, directly overlooking the grey North Sea above Seaham Hall beach, Greystones was actually the Girls’ Remand Home – a sort of female Borstal ( Young Offenders Institution in current parlance). Named after the adjacent 19th Century vicarage, which looked like something out of a Hammer Horror Film, it was the bleakest of spots. I often wondered about the unfortunate, invisible girls who resided there, and the nature of their “crimes”.

Luckily, as I was a shy timid little mouse back then, always top of the class, always with my nose in a book, the prospects of me ever actually being packed off to Greystones were somewhat slim. I’m not sure having a messy bedroom would have met the criteria for being classified as a Young Offender. It was demolished in the 1980s, and no trace of it remains. The Vicarage is still there of course, its blackened stones now sandblasted and gleaming, a comfortable and opulent mansion, private electronic gates keeping out the rabble. Gazza lived there for a while, which probably tells you all you need to know.


St Mary the Virgin Vicarage, later known as Greystones (not my photo)

It’s fair to say there wasn’t a great deal for children and teenagers to do back then. There wasn’t a great deal for anybody to do if I’m honest. There was one restaurant, the Phoenix, on the Mill Inn Bank (where the small Tesco is now) where everyone went for every single special occasion, and a few insalubrious cafes in Church Street – Valentes, Murleys Bakery, and upstairs above Liptons. All I can recall of each is the abundance of formica and the fog of cigarette smoke.

In its heyday Seaham had several cinemas and even a couple of theatres. However when I was a child the only one that remained was the Fairworld Cinema, just off the bottom of Church Street, opposite the Engineers Arms and roughly where the back of Byron Place shopping centre is now. I can remember being taken there by my parents when I was very small to see various Disney films – The Aristocats, Mary Poppins, Clarence the Cross Eyed Lion, Battlestar Galactica, The Rescuers, and Condorman.

The lights would go down, accompanied by the usual cheers and owl hoots, followed by the Pearl and Dean Music and the ubiquitous advert for Ibbitsons Pork Butchers. There was always a double bill, with an interval in between. An usherette would come round and stand at the bottom of the steps, with a tray suspended from a ribbon around her neck, selling ice creams in little tubs and those square plastic cartons of orange juice where you had to stick a straw through the foil lid. Some kid was always sick and you’d inevitably be sat there watching the main feature accompanied by the faint smell of vomit and disinfectant.

When I got a little older I used to go the cinema with my friends on a Saturday morning. I have a particular memory of my friend Allison and I taking our younger brothers to see all three Superman movies which were being screened in a single day. For some bizarre reason known only to the projectionist, they weren’t screened in order. In our very early teens we had a phase of going to see popular tearjerkers, usually involving some dying woman or sick child . Who Will Love My Children, The Last Snows of Spring, that sort of nonesense. They were all terrible cheesy melodramas but we loved them. A double bill of the Jazz Singer (Neil Diamond) and Kramer vs Kramer (Streep/Hoffman) just about finished me off and I cried so much I was sick. However, my absolute favourite was Airplane, which I saw as a 12 year old, and thought it was THE single most hilarious thing I’d ever seen. Especially the bit with the boobies. I still love that film now. Just don’t call me Shirley.

Seaham Fairworld

Seaham Fairworld, just prior to demolition. The original cinema on the site could seat 1200 people. The cinema I knew as a child finally closed in 1982, and was demolished to make way for the Byron Place shopping centre.

We used to hang out at a shabby little park, littered with broken glass and fag ends, in a field near the railway line, between the rows of single storey pit cottages and the Northlea housing estate. The swings were usually rendered unusable, tied up in their chains around the top of the frame. There was a climbing frame with monkey bars; if you could “do the bars” that was quite something ( I never could) although you risked life and limb if you fell off onto the shards of broken bottles that lay beneath. 

The whole park would be closed down on health and safety grounds these days. There wasn’t much else in the way of leisure facilities, so the opening of what turned out to be the world’s crappest leisure centre in the early 80s caused quite a stir. There wasn’t anything in it apart from a couple of squash courts and sports hall. No swimming pool. What a disappointment.

When I was 10 years old I joined the Girl Guides (2nd Seaham Christ Church Company). We used to meet at 7 o’clock every Wednesday evening at Dillon House opposite the bus station. It’s still there, and still used by Guides today. Girl Guiding in those days was very tame by today’s standards. We would play team games (which included learning the points of the compass and how to set a table correctly…), sing songs and learn various skills.

I can still put up a tent in the dark and cook a meal for six on a campfire, should the need ever arise. However there was only ever one thing one the menu, panacalty, followed by banana in tin foil with melted chocolate or two digestives stuck together with a melted marshmallow. Girl Guiding taught me a great deal ( not cooking, obviously) and I’m eternally grateful to the ladies who gave up all of their free time to ensure that we were educated and entertained.

Although some of the activities would cause raised eyebrows today (we worked for badges in needlework and “homemaking” and even childcare) I also learned really useful stuff like mapreading (Allison Swainston, I’m looking at you) and first aid. We even had a two week holiday to London. (I’ll save the Captain Sensible incident / pair of socks stuffed in my bra episode for another time) .

The best thing about Girl Guides was that it afforded the occasional opportunity to meet Boy Scouts, although the chances for romance were somewhat limited as these meetings usually took place at the dreaded monthly Church Parade. There was always the annual Christ Church show though, when our poor parents had to sit through painful renditions of popular classics and watch their children mime to the pop hits of the day in various forms of fancy dress.

So it was that I found myself on stage, aged around 13, wearing a man’s waistcoat, a bow tie and a fake moustache, with a cushion stuffed up my shirt and a plastic rose in my hand, giving a “performance” of Save Your Love by Rene and Renata. Trust me. You had to be there. I won’t even mention the very un-PC version of Doctor I’m in Trouble (Allison Swainston, I’m looking at you again) or the piece involving fake ostriches a la Bernie Clifton (google him, kids).

For slightly older teenagers there was there was the legendary “Cuthie’s Disco”on a Tuesday night, held in St Cuthbert’s Parish Centre, and the occasional Vane Tempest Disco. ( The Vane Tempest was one of Seaham’s 3 coalmines, and the Vane Tempest Hall was a large social facility housing a bar, a stage, and various function rooms, originally built for the miners and their families). I LOVED the Vane Tempest Disco.

Everybody who was anybody was there. I can still remember my various outfits – an orange jumpsuit with matching snood and little white ankle boots, white cropped trousers and a FRANKIE SAYS vest, and then when I was in my goth phase a long black skirt with tassels, black silk blouse, lots of crucifixes and way too much eyeliner. It was the eighties, OKAY? And I can still remember who walked me home. But we’ll gloss over that.

Seaham Vane Tempest Hall

The Vane Tempest Hall – home of the legendary disco and where many teenage romances began (photo credit Dan Myers)

The main highlight of the year was the Civic Show, which used to take place on the field between the railway and the Vane Tempest Colliery, just along from Seaham Harbour Cricket Club. The show usually ran over a whole weekend in late August/ early September and attracted various very minor celebrities. The Civic, as it was universally known, was part entertainment, part village fete and part fun fair.

There were all the usual marquees, where the leek show, flower show and baking competitions were held. Unfeasibly large onions and dahlias jostled for position with  Victoria Sponge cakes which looked like they’d seen better days. I distinctly recall the humiliation of having to attend in my girl guide uniform one year, as we’d been asked to “help out” by the Council. I spent the entire weekend trying to avoid bumping into my much cooler, more fashionable friends.

Every year we’d be treated to various displays, usually of a military nature, from the White Helmets Motorcycle display team, the Red Devils Parachute Team, the Navy Gun carriage competition, mock warfare (usually involving chaps in camouflage running about shouting a lot, setting off smoke grenades and firing blanks). If we were really lucky we’d get the RAF Police Dogs who’d run over various obstacles and jump through flaming hoops, before bringing down an escaping “offender”. I salute you, Air Dog Max, star of the show (and occasional half time entertainment at Roker Park).

Civic Show, Seaham

Seaham Civic Show c 1969 (photo credit Dan Myers)

Behind the marquees and set back from the show field was the fun fair. There were two rides I absolutely loved, the Waltzter and the Meteor. These are pretty tame by today’s theme park standards but back then they were the very epitome of thrill-seeking. Only the brave went on “the eggs”, a sort of ferris wheel with spinning cages rather than seats, that had a propensity to break down and leave the occupants hanging upside down. I went on it once. That was enough. I hated it. I emerged almost in tears and covered in bruises.  If you were cool you went down to the Civic on the Friday night, when only the fun fair part was open. I was never cool, but I was allowed down on the Friday evening once or twice.

Every year my mother would give me the same three warnings: don’t talk to any of the show folk, don’t get into cars with any strange men, and don’t bring home any goldfish. Of these, not bringing home a goldfish was the one she seemed to emphasise the most. She had a pathological hatred of goldfish. One I had owned as a small child jumped out of its bowl during the night. The next morning, said fish lay camouflaged against our orange and brown shag pile carpet, and my unsuspecting mother stepped on it in her bare feet. We buried what was left of it in the back garden, and I got a puppy instead. RIP Gussie.

It’s easy to look back on those times through rose tinted spectacles, or to think, “ooh times were hard, back in my day”. In truth, they weren’t ( with the exception of the Miners’ Strike). We weren’t poor, nor were many people I knew. There was almost full employment. I didn’t know anyone whose father didn’t have a job. That was to come much later, when the mines began to close. It’s just how things were then. It was just…ordinary.

And I never did do anything wicked enough to get sent to Greystones.

Would you send this child to Greystones?


You can read more about Seaham, its people and its history on this blog. There are 6 articles in this series.

My first book, The Horsekeeper’s Daughter (2017) tells the true story of a young Seaham woman who left behind the mining villages of County Durham in 1886, to start a new life alone in Australia. You can read more here.

The Horsekeeper's Daughter book cover

My new book, Above Us The Stars: 10 Squadron Bomber Command – The Wireless Operator’s Story, will be published in Summer 2020 and is now available to pre-order. The book tells the true story of the Clydes, a Seaham family during the Second World War, and follows the fight for survival of 19 year old RAF wireless operator Jack Clyde and his bomber crew.

Above Us The Stars book cover

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  1. Tracy hambleton March 18, 2018

    I was born and bred in seaham my family still live .unfortunately when i 12 i had move away because my dads pit was closing (dawdon) love your site brings bk memories

  2. Tracy March 18, 2018

    I enjoyed reading this and sparked lots of memories of eras gone! I only visited seaham-didnt live there but dad rent collected around dawdon for a little while and made some good friends that we continued to visit! You mentioned the phoenix pub but didn’t mention the assembly rooms which as I remember had the drawing power for lots of people’s ‘special occasions’ perhaps more than the phoenix? The ‘naughty girls home’ was indeed a place that looked threatening enough for me to keep out of too! I loved summer days spent on the beach waiting for dad to finish work with the droning of the colliery headgear in the background and watching the vane tempest wheels turning taking men up and down the shaft lovely memories for which I thank you for stirring

    • Jane March 18, 2018 — Post author

      Thank you Tracy! Yes I only remembered about the Regency afterwards. My best friend had her wedding reception there! Glad you enjoyed reading it.

  3. Carl John Akenhead March 18, 2018

    Excellent reading…. Should be much longer…. And Where’s the photos of you in the girl guides x

  4. Kath Skinner March 18, 2018

    Jane, like I always say, your way with words is incredible! This blog stirred so many memories for me. My first wedding reception was in the Phoenix in 1972. The civic shows were partly organised by my Uncle George Burdis who worked for the council at the time and we looked forward to them every year. I could watch all of it going on out of my bedroom window in Derwent Close. Beautiful memories & happy days. Thank you Jane 😘

  5. Allison Swainston nee Hall March 18, 2018

    Well Jane what can I say? How lucky was I to share those lovely memories with you.One thing I do know , no we weren’t fashionable but boy regardless whatever we did, our days were filled with many laughs.Camping at Raby Castle when we planned on escaping with our belongings packed in “Jemima” said water carrier and swinging our toiket bags whilst singing “Ebony and Ivory” at the top of out voices after a “bucket bath” in a cow shed.Oh what happy days and again written from the heart.
    Thanks for the stroll down memory lane!

    • Jane March 18, 2018 — Post author

      Funnily enough I was just telling somebody about Jemima the other day ! Haha such happy days x

  6. Ronald Meir March 19, 2018

    The vicarage was the original greystones delivered papers there for 4 years 1970-4 remember the lasses threatening me and once taking me papers right little so and so’s

  7. Alison Rudzki March 21, 2018

    Oh my goodness. Once again I’m filled with nostalgia and snorting with laughter my dear friend x Greystones terrified me and I think I was even tamer than you. I could read these stories of our childhood all day long. No wonder you can do the tent erection thing….We spent every summer under canvas searching for ‘Olly Beak’ remember?

  8. David July 5, 2018

    A good read and totally accurate. 😎👍

  9. Kevin Cleary August 22, 2018

    I’ve just become aware of your blog and can’t stop reading them, memories flooding back lol. I was born and bred in Seaham and still have family there. Being I little older than you I remember your version of the civil show but loved it better when it was held in the deneside park grounds at the back of The Avenue.

    • Jane August 22, 2018 — Post author

      Hi Kevin thanks for getting in touch – so glad you’ve enjoyed it !

  10. Julie Harland August 28, 2018

    thank uoy for the memories Jane. I have laughed all the way through this. Happy times! x

  11. Clare Atkinson December 1, 2018

    Just hit on your blog after spotting a post on Facebook by my cousin Anne Morgan about your time at St Cuthberts school. Now it’s 12.45am as I couldn’t stop reading the rest 😁. Just fabulous memories, I was born and brought up in Murton the daughter of a mine electrician and spent many a happy time in Seaham as my great aunt and honorary Nana lived there, ( Anne’s Grandma). Attended school in Seaham before moving to St Anthony’s in Sunderland. Spent many a happy hour on the beach as a little girl and later a teenager dodging the winter waves on the promenade and attending Cuthies youth club. It was Tuesday games night then and Sunday night disco with a live band occasionally on Sundays 🥰. You just bring it to life so well, definitely the sand in the sandwiches 🥴. Lovely memories as well of my Aunt Monica and Uncle Tony. Thank you you have made my evening ( early morning). Cheers Clare.

    • Jane December 1, 2018 — Post author

      That’s lovely to hear Clare. Thanks for sharing your memories too. So glad you’ve enjoyed reading all the blogs ! x

  12. Tracy Golden January 6, 2019

    Spot on Jane. So many shared memories.

    I was in the same guides as you – I joined thanks to Catherine Duffy. It gave me an outlet for my intellectual pursuits not met at school – loved studying for my Europe Badge. Trying to remember the name of the lady who ran it. Was it Mrs Fickling? She lived in the Woodlands.

    Loved the “Civie” and after a few years I managed the eggs.

    I could do the monkey bars at that park near Northlea but suffered trauma when I got my leg caught under the roundabout. Being “bumped” on the sea-saw, ouch!!! And when the “big lads” rocked the rocking horse so hard it looped the loop meant it was time to head home – you knew they had a few sly cans of lager on them and “Woe Betide Me” if my Dad found out I was knocking about with older lads drinking and smoking. I wasn’t but proximity to them risked a hiding!!!

    The leisure centre was a bit basic – but who needed a pool when you could go to the pit pond???

    • Jane January 6, 2019 — Post author

      Hello Tracy haha we have so many shared memories! Yes you’re right about Mrs Fickling. I can remember you coming to Guides actually – we used to give Catherine a lift. That park was desperate wasn’t it, yet we seemed to spend so much time there! X

  13. Marge gearing March 31, 2020

    Excellent reading although I left Seaham in the 60s remember everything you’ve brilliantly wrote about graystone can’t remember the times my mom threatened me with that place I was terrified of it thank u so much thoroughly enjoyed marge gearing Florida USA

  14. Rhonda Berry March 31, 2020

    I can remember every single thi g youve wrote and enjoyed it thourthly.ive lived in seaham harbour all my life and stll do right on the beach fro t and would never move frim my beautiful hom town.only thing i remember different was when the civic show first started it was on the liesure centre field with all the jazz bands and beer tents before it moved into wembley field.those were the days.

  15. Lindsey Southwick March 31, 2020

    A real trip down memory lane! My long lasting memory is seeing Last Snows of Spring at the pictures and crying all the way home. I grew up on Denehouse Road and remember the Vane Tempest well. Is your mum Moira? I worked at Seaham Library from 1980 to 1997 and knew her well from her time in the libraries! Love Reading your memoirs! x

    • Jane March 31, 2020 — Post author

      Hello Lindsey, so glad you enjoyed the blog! There are many more articles on my website too, as well as details of my books.
      My mum is indeed Moira! Ahhh I loved the old Seaham library – I have happy memories of working there myself during 6th Form holidays x

  16. J September 27, 2020

    I was one of those invisible unfortunate creatures ..there was actually a buliding next to greystones we called the unit that’s where you first got took as it was a secure unit ..I think it was demolished in the 90s ..but if we behaved we were allowed to transfer to greystones if there was room where you had more freedom …the crimes most of the girls committed would disappoint you as it was social services that placed most of us there

  17. Tommy August 17, 2021

    Yeah I went out with a lass from greystones when I was younger about 1984. Her and her freinds were great lasses certainly not tearaways or thugs which you might imagine when you hear remind home. Their house mistress was great… Always giving me an earful about treating her right… Really looking out for her girl.

  18. Mrs Helen Davies February 4, 2024

    A fascinating read which I happened upon when searching for info on Greystones a house I would love to have a look around. I’m a Houghton girl & grew up the same time as you.

  19. Angela mckay March 24, 2024

    I would like to find friends that were in gray stone remand centre in in the 70s

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