The history of Seaford
PUBLISHED: 14:55 14 May 2018 | UPDATED: 14:55 14 May 2018
As well as being the home constituency of three British Prime Ministers, Seaford can lay claim to a rich educational past and historic naval importance
There’s a rope across the entrance and an apologetic sign to explain the Martello Tower is closed. It feels rather like a long shot but I press the bell, presumably a modern addition, and am delighted when Kevin Gordon opens the door. A former British Transport policeman, he’s now the official chronicler of the Seaford (pronounced Sea-ford) Museum and Heritage Society and a lot more besides as I am shortly to discover.
Inside what was the very last Martello Tower built in Britain are dozens of volunteers busy cleaning up artefacts, filing documents, painting walls and staring at computer screens. Kate Turvey, the long-serving chairman of the SM & H Society, explains they are in the process of installing a lift and handrails to improve accessibility. Although she’s a little coy as to when precisely it will re-open, some time in the spring seems a fair bet.
During the mid-morning tea break, Kevin reveals a few pertinent facts about Seaford’s history. A one-time Cinque Ports ‘limb’ whose naval credentials diminished towards the end of the 16th century when silt nudged the River Ouse eastwards to Newhaven, it has demonstrated considerable versatility and enjoyed significant success.
Can any other parliamentary constituency in the country claim responsibility for more Prime Ministers? A notorious rotten borough, no fewer than three of its MPs rose to the highest office in the land before the constituency was eventually incorporated into Lewes following the 1832 Reform Act. Henry Pelham represented the town from 1717 to 1722, William Pitt the Elder from 1747 to 1754 and George Canning in 1827. Furthermore, Sir Winston’s Churchill’s wife, Clementine, once lived in Seaford.
Unable to compete as a tourist destination with either Brighton or Eastbourne, Seaford cleverly established a reputation as an ideal location for education. “Private schools played an important part here from about 1880 to 1960,” Kevin explains. Although they were of varying size, at one time there were as many as 60 educational establishments in the town.
The military, too, have had a significant impact and during World War I there were two enormous camps in Seaford with a total of nine parade grounds and a startling 25,000 soldiers, which increased the town’s population by more than 600 per cent.
Battles not involving the military have been fought down the centuries with the sea as the enemy. One historic problem was longshore drift that, in the mid-19th century, threatened to render Seaford Bay too shallow for navigation. One rather bold solution was to blow up part of the towering chalk cliff at Seaford Head thereby creating a bank to divert the current. Tons of explosives were deployed, an estimated crowd of 10,000 gathered – including Charles Dickens – and at 3pm on 19 September 1850 a huge explosion shook the ground and a vast bank of chalk tumbled into the sea. Despite initial optimism, it soon became apparent that the chalk was powder rather than boulders and it all washed away within a couple of weeks.
Fifteen years later a sea wall was built to protect Seaford from flooding but it was destroyed by a huge storm in 1875. The town has been badly flooded about 20 times in the last 150 years but has escaped relatively unscathed since the beach was raised in 1987. Three million tonnes of shingle was dredged from the Channel and the western end of the sea wall was reinforced with 58,000 tonnes of granite boulders. Every year work is done to redistribute shingle shifted by the sea.
Kevin and I leave the Martello to take a stroll around town and he points to the top of the steps that once led down to the beach quite a way below. Now you don’t have to negotiate even one step before reaching the pebbles.
We pass the Wellington pub where Kevin assures me the Duke of Wellington did indeed stay back in 1845 and wander up to St Leonard’s Church. The tower, which was added in the latter half of the 15th century, is unique, apparently, as it was built inside the existing church and not to one side. Kevin points to some delicate carvings at the top of a pillar. Because the crucified Christ is depicted with his feet on the ground, the carving is reckoned to be pre-1300. After that time his feet would have been in the air, I’m assured.
A few of the beautiful stained glass windows are the work of the Victorian designer Charles Eamer Kempe, who was born in Ovingdean near Brighton. A distinctive wheatsheaf symbol in one corner, taken from his coat of arms, identifies it as one of his. There are more than 100 examples of his work in Sussex.
With a keen appreciation of the unusual, Kevin shows me a wall tablet that commemorates Admiral James Walker. Having enjoyed a glorious naval career, the Admiral now has the distinction of what Kevin believes is one of the few, if not the only, exclamation marks on such a memorial. It reads: “A most brave and distinguished officer who served, fought and conquered with Rodney, Howe, Duncan, St Vincent and the immortal Nelson!”
Another tablet commemorates the life of William Pringle Morgan. A doctor who looked after pupils at several of the local schools in Seaford, he was struck by the case of 14-year-old Percy, a gifted child who nevertheless couldn’t either read or write. In 1896 he published a description of a reading-specific learning disorder in a report to the British Medical Journal entitled Congenital Word Blindness, which was subsequently called ‘dyslexia’.
Several dates scratched into the church walls around the 1750s were the work of captured French privateers, suggests Kevin as we leave the church and continue our stroll.
We stop by the site where once stood the Empire cinema. Sadly it burnt down in 1939 claiming the life of fireman Alfred Mace. A plaque on an adjoining wall commemorates the tragedy.
A block of four terraced houses in East Street have an identical mini-bust above the front doors. Kevin thinks it is General Gordon, who completes the quartet of major military men who have visited Seaford; the others are Wellington, Churchill and Kitchener.
We sneak behind the old telephone exchange for a sighting of a rare royal cipher. Edward VIII was only affixed to letterboxes and government buildings in 1936 between January 20 and December 11 and so this is something of a collector’s item.
Rather more excited by geology than history, my pulse quickens at the sight of a glacial erratic lying near the kerb in Crouch Lane. My joy is not long-lived, however, as Kevin explains that, rather than being casually left by a glacier, the rock was deliberately placed here in the Middle Ages to bring good fortune to the adjacent market.
We briefly interrupt mechanics servicing a car at KRK Motors to admire a round metal plate on the ground that looks like an outsized manhole cover. In fact, it is a tyring platform that was used by wheelwrights.
We hop into my Honda for our final visit, which is to Seaford Cemetery on the outskirts of town. Kevin, who has so far written six books including one entitled Secret Seaford, confesses to an unhealthy interest in death and is presently working on a book on the subject.
His knowledge of who is buried here is impressive if slightly spooky. Dozens of soldiers who were stationed in Seaford from various countries are buried here, most of them victims of influenza. Their neat plots are beautifully maintained by the Commonwealth War Graves Commission. The identical headstones are deceptive in that they camouflage a wide variety of characters delightfully resurrected by Kevin’s colourful descriptions.
One is worthy of note purely because his name is ES Hornblower. A former pupil of Alleyn’s School in Dulwich, he died in 1917 and his name is inscribed on that school’s war memorial where it was spotted by another former pupil, C S Forester, who effectively immortalised him in his famous novels.
Another grave of note is that of Commander Joseph Coxwell of the Royal Navy. A professional balloonist, his most famous flight was an exploration of the upper atmosphere on behalf of the British Association of the Advancement of Science. With one passenger who soon fell unconscious, he took off from Wolverhampton on 5 September 1862. As the balloon soared ever higher, Coxwell lost all sensation in his hands but managed eventually to pull the valve-cord with his teeth. The balloon dropped 19,000 feet in 15 minutes and landed safely near Ludlow. Later calculations estimated its maximum altitude at between 35,000 and 37,000 feet. Surely another book for Kevin and, who knows, maybe a movie.
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