KEVIN GORDON - A tale of a whale and the railway

Kevin Gordon 28-6-13
Kevin Gordon 28-6-13

Not an awful lot happened at Normans Bay but when it did it was something big. The area is named after the Norman invasion of 28th September 1066. However at this time, the whole area here would have been under water and William and his troops would have probably landed a little further to the east at Bulverhythe.

Smugglers have used the isolated shore here for hundreds of years to land their contraband, no doubt using the nearby Star Inn which was known to have been selling beer as early as 1596. As well as smuggling, the main activity along the coast at this time would have been iron being exported from the weald. The pub was originally called the Sluice Inn but changed its name in 1801 when the landlord married a Miss Star.

Kevin Gordon 28-06-13

Kevin Gordon 28-06-13

In 1703, there was more excitement during the great storm of 24th November when a 70 gun third-rate ship-of-the-line HMS Resolution was dashed ashore here. Although the 221 crew were saved, the ship was lost. She had originally struck Owers Bank off Littlehampton and was swept along the Sussex coast in heavy seas. The Captain, Thomas Liell, wanted to beach the ship, but it took on water and he was forced to issue the command to abandon ship. As the crew, shivered on the beach between Pevensey and Bexhill their minds must have gone back to a few months earlier when the ship was patrolling around the warm seas of the West Indies.

There was more activity at Normans Bay on 13th February 1822 when over 300 smugglers armed with clubs fought with excisemen who had ambushed them as they waited to land contraband from the ship Queen Charlotte. The government men were better armed with firearms and the sound of gunfire was heard by the crew of the ship who quickly set sail; the smugglers disappearing into the night.

At 8pm on Monday 13th November 1865, William Richards, the Coastguardsman at nearby Pevensey Sluice spotted what appeared to be the upturned hull of a ship off the coast. He alerted Mr Bussell, the chief-officer of the watch and the two men watched as it headed towards the beach under a strong south-westerly wind. It was not a boat it was a whale - a huge Finback whale over 70 feet long and weighing more than 50 tons.

Whales were, it this time, hunted for their blubber which was a source of whale-oil which was used for lamps, margarine and soap. A huge whale was very valuable indeed and the following day the Mayor of Hastings, Alderman Ross, attended the scene with his Town Crier, Mr Cox. The carcass of the animal was claimed by the Town of Hastings under the Cinque Ports Charter but there was a counter claim by the local Customs-House on behalf of the Board of Trade. It was agreed that an auction should be held and this was conducted by Mr Groome the Collector of Customs at Rye. Bidding started at £15 and the animal was eventually sold to a group of ten local fishermen led by a Mr Mark Breach for £38.

Anxious to make the most of their unusual purchase, the fishermen erected a canvas screen around the scene and charged sixpence for a guided tour. On the Wednesday, hundreds of sightseers descended on the bay and within two days the fishermen had made back their money. People travelled by train to either Bexhill or Pevensey Stations to walk along to Normans Bay. Such was the demand that special excursion trains were laid on and in order to assist the crowds a temporary station was quickly built of old sleepers and timber. Thirsty tourists went to the nearby Star Inn and on one occasion the pub ran dry and it is said that the landlord had to barricade himself and his family in an upstairs room to protect them from disappointed customers.

Thousands of people visited the dead whale despite its offensive smell. The fishermentour guides seemed to know their stuff; one, pointing out the huge mouth said “This whale has the smallest swaller he has. He strains all his wittles through these ‘airs which goes around his mouth for you see he has no teeth and he eats nothing larger than a sprat”. I am sure William Flower would have been impressed. He visited from the Royal College of Surgeons and later contacted Cambridge University suggesting that the skeleton could assist biology students. It is estimated that over 40,000 people travelled to Norman’s Bay that winter to view the creature.

The owners of the whale made a cute investment and probably made back their money many times over. The carcass was carefully stripped, not only to secure the precious whale-oil but also to preserve the skeleton. This was done under the guidance of Mr Flower. The skeleton of this once beautiful creature is mow on display at the Museum of Zoology at Cambridge where it is still a popular attraction. It hangs above the main entrance and is illuminated at night. And what has Norman’s Bay to show for all this excitement? Well a railway station. The sleepers and timbers which were hastily erected to make a temporary station became a permanent station now known as Norman’s Bay.

Why not pay a visit - you wont see a whale, but the Star Inn is still serving thirsty sightseers.