KEVIN GORDON: Seaford’s ‘best museum in the world’

A display at Seaford Museum depicting life in 1815 at the time of the Battle of Waterloo.
A display at Seaford Museum depicting life in 1815 at the time of the Battle of Waterloo.

The Napoleonic Martello Tower at Seaford has been facing out to sea for over 200 years and now houses the delightful Seaford Museum which was once described by the artist Grayson Perry as one of the best museums in the world!

It is open more often during the summer months and is indeed open every day this weekend (see for details).

This weekend also sees the opening of a new exhibition at the museum to coincide with this year’s 200th anniversary of the Battle of Waterloo. Surprisingly, despite the small former port of Seaford being described as ‘forlorn and widowed’, it was an important place during the Napoleonic Wars. It was a garrison town and also a key political constituency. The town was a ‘rotten borough’ not only for national elections but also for local elections where two key families, the Chambers and the Harisons, took turns to fill the position of town Bailiff (mayor). Despite losing its harbour over 200 years earlier, Seaford was also an important port with ships anchored in the ‘Seaford Roads’ – Seaford Bay.

The creators of the exhibition, Richard Pinder and Rodney Castleden, have provided us with a fascinating insight into Seaford 200 years ago. The displays are well illustrated and are enhanced by life-size figures created by local artist Abigail Barker. For me, however, the highlight is the model Martello tower, cleverly restored to show how the tower would have looked at the time of Waterloo.

France declared war on England on February 1, 1793. There were already two military batteries (forts) in Seaford Bay with cannon facing out to sea in anticipation of French attack. Men from all over England (often accompanied by their families) came to Seaford to save us from invasion. When war was declared the members of the West Kent Regiment practiced shooting by firing at the painted head of a French general, Charles-Francois Dumouriez. His effigy had been set up under Seaford Head (probably where the Martello Fields are today). The men were first marched past the target to have a good look at an enemy Frenchman and, as they passed, ‘every man seemed eager for the attack, swearing to a man that they would blow out the general’s brains’. The men were drawn up 70 yards from the target and before long he was destroyed. The Times reporting ‘he soon lost his nose and his curl’.

This event would have been watched with interest by many Seafordians including the Bailiff Thomas Harben and within a few months he had raised a local militia known as the Seaford Volunteers, later the Seaford Company of the Cinque Port Volunteers. These men certainly needed to be alert. The French made several attacks on shipping off Seaford and on one occasion even landed on the beach under Seaford Head. News of the (somewhat comical) invasion attempt by the French at Fishguard in 1797 would have also concerned the good folk of Sussex.

The Royal Navy was busy fighting the French fleet. Admiral James Walker from Seaford was a hero of the Battle of Camperdown off the Dutch coast and after Nelson’s victory at the Battle of the Nile it is reported that ‘all the people of fashion’ in Seaford attended a grand ball to celebrate.

By 1808 a sturdy Martello Tower had been built on the beach, one of three planned for the bay. This has been skilfully recreated in the model on display at the exhibition to give you an idea what it would have looked like for the men who were stationed there. The exhibition also introduces us to some of the people who made their mark on Seaford.

An Easter Walk along the seafront at Seaford is always a joy but it is not complete without a visit to Seaford Museum so please do call in. With its eclectic collection of social history, local history and the splendid new exhibition, it really should not be missed.

I will be providing an historic guided tour around Seaford tomorrow (Easter Saturday), departing from the Tourist Information Centre in Church Street at 10.30am so if you wish to know more about the town please join me.

Tickets from the Tourist Office or on the day.