Seaford’s part in warning against foreign invasion

Kevin Gordon
Kevin Gordon

I SHOULD imagine that beacons have been used for many years as a means of communication. This was particularly the case to warn us good Sussex folk from invasion against the French.

The first records of these devices in England date from the 14th century when we were at war with the French – the Hundred Years War. There would have been a beacon, ready to be lit on Seaford Head. In July 1545, a French fleet headed by the French Admiral Claude D’Annebault attacked Seaford. Locals, under the command of Sir Nicholas Pelham of Lewes used farm implements and stones from the beach to pelt the enemy into a hasty retreat. How did Pelham raise this makeshift army so quickly? I am sure his motley army was warned by beacons. The French went on to attack Brighton and Hove and a contemporary print shows the “ye Towne Fire Cage” lit on high ground where Kemp Town is now located.

Other beacons were more substantial. Orders issued in 1585 stated that beacons would need to be ‘in the accustomed places’ and that five households would be appointed for each pair of beacons. Two people were needed to watch the beacons at all times – a rule that lasted until after the Spanish Amada passed in 1588. In 1584 an entry in the Seaford Town Records says: “Robert Best will not watch at the sea-side according to the laudable custom.” This indicates that there was obviously a form of coastal watch at Seaford.

The beacons were all the way along the Sussex coast. At Beachy Head (the most southerly part of East Sussex) a series of beacons were constructed in-land at Willingdon, Wilmington and Firle (Beacon) to send warning quickly to Lewes, the County Town.

By the Victorian era, more sophisticated means of communication had been developed but beacons still used – not for warning but for celebration. Bonfire beacons were lit on Seaford Head to commemorate Royal jubilees and coronations. When George V was crowned on June 22, 1911, both Seaford and Newhaven celebrated with beacons lit at 10pm. The one at Newhaven was so big it was still alight the next morning! The teenage girls of Ladycross School decided they were going to watch a beacon being lit – not at Seaford but Firle!

They set off from school in pelting rain at 8.30pm and by the time they reached Blatchington Golf Course their shoes were waterlogged and they were soaked through. They soldiered on and finally reached the huge bonfire in the pitch dark. At first there were just a few people there but by 10pm a large crowd had gathered. On the stroke of 10pm a rocket and a loud bang was heard from Newhaven. Two men with flaming torches ran to the beacon, pulled aside large branches that covered openings and applied the torches to the dry gorse underneath. Soon the whole bonfire was ablaze and lit up a large area (and hopefully dried the girls!). One of the party, Miss D Patterson said she could count 18 other beacons from Firle and was sure she would have seen more if it was not for the bad weather.

After nearly an hour, the girls decided to head back to Seaford, lit for a short distance by the beacon. The weather was still bad, the Firle beacon was soon out, it was pitch black and they had no torches. They got lost. They were aiming for Alfriston race course but were too close to Newhaven, some fell in rabbit holes or tripped as they walked through dark fields of barley, climbed fences and stumbled through gorse hedges. Eventually, led by Miss Brunton, they heard St Leonard’s Church Clock strike midnight and saw the Seaford beacon, which guided them back to their school an hour and a half later. I am sure they deserved the hot cocoa and biscuits that were waiting for them.

Isn’t that a fantastic story? I am sure every girl remembered the beacon and their adventure until their dying day. Can you imagine the Health & Safety implications today?

This leads me to the special beacon built by Seaford Bonfire Society for her Majesty’s Diamond Jubilee last Monday where unfortunately red-tape prevented a bonfire being built on its traditional spot. The beacon however was built on the retaining wall of the old Splash Point Hotel and was clearly visible from the east end of the town. Following the excellent concert on Martello Fields which every one seemed to really enjoy there was a laser light show from the top of the Martello Tower. A few minutes earlier the huge golden orb of a full-moon hoved into view from behind the cliffs, a truly beautiful spectacle.

At 10.15pm a shaft of green laser light sliced through the night air to the beacon which was soon alight to the cheers of the thousands of Seafordians.

As I was caretaking at the Martello Tower I was able to see the beacon on Castle Hill, Newhaven and the glow of the Firle and Alfriston Beacons. Michael Ann was the Beacon Master for East Sussex and reports that about 300 people witnessed the lighting of the Alfriston beacon which he believes was the largest in the county. There were over 50 official beacons in East Sussex and our beacons will be added to a list which will be presented to Her Majesty.

I would have liked to ended this report by saying there was no sign of the French – but I can’t. I spoke to a part of two French families who were visiting us. They said that they had had a fantastic evening and it was. Thank you to all concerned.