I’ve been keeping an eye out for Sussex smuggling stories and came across one centred on the small village of Wannock that’s located between Polegate and Jevington. In 1827 Joseph Seymour became the tenant of Wannock’s watermill and took on some local farmland.
Evidently his two sons, Joseph and Stephen, were less than enamoured with the hard labour necessary to earn a living on the land. Instead, they decided to supplement their income by linking up with the local smuggling ring. In consequence young Joseph would undertake several outings to France each year where he would buy contraband. The illegal goods would then be carried over in French vessels and landed at night on the shore at Birling Gap and Cow Gap.
When they were as sure as they could be that no nosey excisemen were out and about, the smugglers would transport the contraband on the short journey inland to Wannock where there were safe hiding places. It is said that secret passages still exist in the village at Wannock Place and the Old Mill House.
A local history records that Joseph’s proceeds from his ‘evening job’ were diverted into more legitimate activities. He built a windmill at Polegate and a new watermill at Wannock before establishing a strawberry field near the village’s Walnut Street. Wannock was once renowned for the quality of the walnuts that grew there in great profusion. There are still a number of walnut trees to be found in local gardens.
Joseph Seymour’s great-grandson Charles Thomas branched out from strawberry cultivation in 1895 to open ‘Charlie’s Tea Gardens’, one of two such establishments in the village. Neither has survived. Lost also is the dance hall that stood on stilts over a local beauty spot called Wannock Glen.
These days Wannock is a very quiet place of some 300 dwellings, many of which have wonderful views up to the South Downs. It has a village hall but no pub, church or shops. It falls into the combined parish of Willingdon and Jevington and both these places have churches and a pub or two. Jevington’s pretty church has Saxon elements and a 14th century font.
The area was a base for airships during the First World War. From July 1915, these craft would patrol above the English Channel looking for German submarines. They also undertook reconnaissance flights over France spotting targets for the British artillery.
It was dangerous work and the highly flammable hydrogen gas that enabled the airships to rise could prove a treacherous ally even more deadly than the real foe. Tragedy struck just before Christmas 1917 when an in-bound airship lost its way in fog and darkness. It came down near Jevington but unfortunately landed on the Aldis lamp of another airship that was already on the ground. The envelope split and the hot engine exhaust ignited the escaping hydrogen. The pilot was killed and two crew members were badly burned. The moored airship also caught fire and Lieutenant Albert Watson gallantly braved the flames intent on ensuring that all his crew escaped. He lost his right arm when two big bombs on board exploded.
Wannock may be a Saxon place name. According to one source, Wannock supposedly contains the element ‘Wan’ from ‘Woden’. The village is listed in the Domesday Book and also appears in a Napoleonic-era report on the British defences along the South Coast.
Bizarrely, Wannock also happens to be the original name given to llamas! In 1724, the London Journal reported that the MP Sir John Eyles had presented King George I with a ‘Tyger and Wannock’ as a gift. On arrival, the animals were ‘shewn to the Court; when his Majesty was pleased with the sight of them and fed the Wannock with his own Hands, without receiving any Mark of the Beast’s Unluckiness of Displeasure.’ Newspapers marvelled how llamas had ‘a Body like that of a Deer; a large Neck and Head like a Camel’. The only risk to a man was when a llama ‘spits directly in his Face, and bedaubs him plentifully.’
I doubt if anyone way back then could have imagined the day would come when llamas by the thousand would be living in Sussex close by the Downs and up on Ashdown Forest.