Those who know Eastbourne as a thriving, modern, yet highly reputable seaside resort might be forgiven for assuming that the town has no history before the time when it began to attract visitors.
This is so far from being the truth that not only has it a history but its origins go back long before history was written; more than that, when any sort of records came to be made, there, among the first of them, was Eastbourne. Understandably, when early records were made, they were records by kings and for kings; and there, proudly, stands our own town.
It has been said of at least one other resort that it has a Queen Anne front and a Mary Ann back; behind the beach and the promenades and the lines of smart hotels there are the decaying remnants of gentility, poky little corners, sleazy back streets. Even to make acquaintance with past history and remains that are of archaeological interest one has to pass into and through the Mary Ann back. So far as Eastbourne is concerned this is not true. There is no Mary Ann back but there are places of historical and archaeological interest. Take a look at the fine old parish church that goes back to the latter part of the 12th century, or the nearby Lamb Inn put up 100 years later, or the elegant
18th century Manor House which is now Eastbourne’s art gallery. These places seem old enough but as we stroll about the town we are walking over the dwelling places of far earlier forbears.
One of the busiest little thoroughfares outside the town centre is Green Street, linking Victoria Drive and the High Street of Old Town. It was here nearly 50 years ago that Iron Age pottery, dating from about 500 BC, was found; what is more, some of the first pieces found were miscasts, from which it has been assumed that there was a manufacturing pottery and, as one archaeologist has put it, the workers were glad to bury their mistakes.
In the same area has been found evidence of an even earlier culture a lump of foundry bronze and beside where Terminus Road now runs were tools from the Bronze Age. So, one can go back another thousand years. Traces of fortified dwellings and flint implements picked up on the Downs take us yet further back to the Stone Age of around 2,000 BC. It is quite clear that from the very earliest days down to Roman times and so on to the present, there has been occupation of this favoured place. Those early people knew a good spot when they saw it. Those Roman times really began a hundred years after Caesar’s tentative landings in 55 and 54 BC and continued for 500 years or so thereafter. With the increasing importance of Britain as Roman province Eastbourne became a place of some importance too. A villa of high quality was built in the neighbourhood where the Queen’s Hotel now stands, Remains of the villa, including a bath in good condition, were discovered 260 years ago and about 130 years later, when the sea wall was under construction; portions of a corridor with tessellated pavement were unearthed. The man who occupied the villa, a place equivalent to one of our stately homes of today, was clearly a person of considerable importance, an area commander perhaps or a local governor. To support this, there is evidence of a much used track of Roman times coming in from the west by way of Jevington and following the lines where now are Green Street, Charleston Road, the footpath through Gildredge Park, Saffrons Road, South Street, Trinity Trees and Seaside to the villa. Fifty miles to the west is and was then Chichester, the ancient Regnum, which was the capital town of the area and the place from which the government proceeded; this was, no doubt, also the place from which the general at Eastbourne took his orders. Hence, probably, the well-worn track we tread today. On the seashore a few hundred yards to the west of the villa are traces of an outcrop of greensand stone which the Romans quarried to build Pevensey Castle, part of the system of coast defences against the marauding Saxons. This same material was used over the years to build churches and large dwellings in many parts of Sussex. The only supply of this stone in the county was a quarry where the Cavendish Hotel now stands. Curiously, the nearest source of supply for the restoration of those buildings that remain today is on the Isle of Wight.
So, that greensand stone is, as near as can be, the one and only original Eastbourne rock!
Another reminder of the Romans was the discovery, within the last 80 years, of some 3,000 small Roman coins. They were unearthed, in three separate hoards, on the Downs near Beachy Head, and were almost certainly buried for safety by Roman soldiers who went off to fight the invading foe. Those Saxons were not to be denied and soon afterwards the last of the Roman garrisons were withdrawn from Britain 500 years after Caesar’s first visit. They arrived in force and slaughtered the remnants of the resisting British whom they had trapped in Pevensey Castle. Eastbourne became a considerable Saxon settlement. Known then as Burne, the place (and the name) was based on the Bourne Stream, which rises north of the old parish church. So the Hundred of Borne began to appear in the records. The Hundred was governed by a mote, recalled in today’s Motcombe Gardens, where the Bourne Stream still flows. The East, or Est, (they weren’t particular as to spelling in those days) was prefixed to distinguish it from the less significant Westbourne, miles away to the west. Here began the link with royalty, which has been strengthened through the succeeding centuries. The Eastbourne estate was one of several possessions of the Saxon kings and there is an oblique reference to it in the will of Alfred the Great who died in 901. Seventy years later it is recorded that Alfred’s great-grandson Edgar held the estate, and it subsequently came to Edward the Confessor, who died in 1066, the one date that everybody remembers. So, to William who having landed at Pevensey conquered the country and rewarded his chief officers with gifts of land. Thoughtfully he kept the manors of Eastbourne and Pevensey for himself, as Domesday Book confirms, and for over 200 years it was held by persons under crown grants. Indeed, when one holder joined an insurrection and was hanged the penalty of failure his widow remained in possession and the king, Edward II, not offended, spent a night there in 1324 on a royal progress through the county. It stayed in the same family for another 200 years and was sold in 1525 to three old Sussex families named Burton, Gildredge and Selwyn, whose names are commemorated in today’s road naming, just as De Roos Road recalls an earlier holder. During the Civil War, William Wilson, who had bought part of the land belonging to the manor, gave evidence on behalf of the then vicar, James Graves, who was accused of malignancy, apparently against the Puritans; but Wilson was an ardent royalist and offered sanctuary to Charles I if he should escape from Carisbrooke and to Charles II after his defeat at Worcester. The Compton family became tenants of Wilson now a baronet for his loyalty and later bought the estate which passed, through marriage, to Lord George Henry Cavendish; and the Dukes of Devonshire have exercised a benevolent and practical influence over the town ever since. After all, it was one of the Dukes who paid for the three-tiered walks at the western end of the sea front. People who see such scenery abroad will declare, You see nothing like this in England. It was exactly 200 years ago that the royals came back once more, in person, to Eastbourne. Possibly persuaded by a certain Dr. Russell’s Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water and its beneficial effects in dispersing many common ailments the three younger children of George III one of whom was Prince Edward, later to become the father of Victoria came, with their tutor and governesses to stay at Sea Houses, close to the sea. In the meantime, while the eldest brother was planning his oriental palace at Brighthelmstone and generally making Regency whoopee, the younger members of the family were behaving rather more responsibly. In fact, the diary of a lady-in-waiting records that they would rise early, bathe and walk on the sands for an hour. Then breakfast. From that time onwards the town has retained its royal links. Within the last hundred years Edward VII stayed several times; his son George V recuperated here after an illness in 1935; Queen Mary paid a number of private visits; and on occasion the then Prince of Wales (later Edward VIII) and Prince George were also at Eastbourne. The present Queen, as the young Princess Elizabeth, and Princess Margaret played on the beach and built sandcastles under the watchful eyes of their parents, the then Duke and Duchess of York.
At the time of the present Queen’s Silver jubilee in 1977 the story was told of Eastbourne’s Mayor, Mrs. Winifred Lee, being presented to the Queen Mother at a Buckingham Palace garden party in 1966. Said the Queen Mother: Ah, Eastbourne. That’s where the children first saw the sea. So the town continues its pleasant way, looking back occasionally to take guidance from its long story but more purposefully looking forward and adding to its history. Always it is the place that visitors and long time residents alike remember when they are away ... Ah, Eastbourne.