Four miles or so further west along the coast from St Leonards (see post here) is the odd (my personal perception!) town of Bexhill-on-Sea. I spent several summer holidays there in the mid 1950s staying with my slightly melancholy grandparents who’d moved to a utilitarian bungalow when my Grandfather retired. There were some recurring pleasures to our stays but even as a child the town seemed a bit dull and full of old people! I have only recently found out that comedian Spike Milligan (treasured by my family for his absurdist antics in the Goon Show) was stationed there during the 1940s for military training, and he described the town as “the only cemetery above ground“! There was even an episode of the Goon Show that included Bexhill!
However, since learning more of this settlement’s history (for example – the attempt to make the town a rival to Monte Carlo, the birth of British motor racing, a rather unlikely socialist mayor, and serious smuggling activity) I concede that I’ve underestimated Bexhill-on-Sea; so these insights – along with other personal reasons, more on this below – have allowed me to become intrigued by, and even quite fond of the town!
Until a few years ago I was naively unaware that smuggling in the 18thC and 19thC was such a feature of this part of England, I’d always associated smuggling with the West Country but this corner of England is an obvious locality for the business given its proximity to France; it just felt inconceivable that what I saw as this lethargic settlement could ever have been involved in such an energetic and brutal trade. Although smuggling has become romanticised the reality was very different “The evil influence and power of the smuggling fraternity has been likened to that of the Mafia, such was their vice-like control in many maritime areas.” From Smuggling in the Bristol Channel 1700 – 1850, Graham Smith, Countryside Books 1989.
The following quote from the same book destroys any notion of sleepy seaside fishing villages “For sheer brutality the gangs operating in Kent and Sussex were quite unsurpassed in the whole history of smuggling….They maimed and killed with a callous impunity. Nothing seemed too outrageous or dangerous for them to tackle….There has never been an adequate explanation why Kent and Sussex should produce such savage smugglers.”
But France was effectively a near neighbour of these towns along this stretch of coast, and it seems, especially during the Napoleonic wars, that locals would have been hard-pushed not to have become entangled in this illegal trade:
“The French government actively encouraged smuggling. Despite the war English smugglers were given free access to the French Channel ports. The French urgently required English gold coins; it is doubtful whether they could have paid their armies without the steady influx of English gold. It was estimated that about £10,000 in coin was being smuggled out of the country each week. Long rowing galleys specially for the trade were built in France, they became universally known as ‘guinea boats’. Rowed by up to twelve men they were fairly fast, by repute up to nine knots – very difficult to sight especially in the dark and, not being controlled by the wind. they could take quick evasive action” (Graham Smith)
According to Bexhill’s Commmunity Land Trust in the history of the town on their website “many of the local people were actively trading with the enemy by way of smuggling. The best known of the local smugglers were in the Little Common Gang and the most famous incident was the infamous Battle of Sidley Green in 1828” in which two men were killed.
Athough the smuggling of tea, silks, brandy and rum have (largely) passed, the trade continues in various other commodities, often drugs, but also, appallingly, people, sometimes with tragic consequences. In January 2020 a man was arreseted in Bexhill, convicted of smuggling people from Vietnam, he was part of an international trafficking network that had been operating between 2015 and 2017. Border Force coastal patrol vessels (like the one below in nearby Folkstone) cruise along this coast, intercepting boats carrying suspected migrants, people who are risking absolutley everything, to escape from persecution or war.
A Healthy Resort
A very different facet of the South Coast is its reputation for having a healthy climate, something I only recently learned. There were beneficial qualities to be had from its long hours of sunshine and the sea air was especially ‘efficacious’ for the lungs; this healing quality became a major factor in the town’s development as a health resort in the late 19thC when many convalescent homes were built. It was never clear to me why my grandparents chose to move to Bexhill, they were Yorkshire people (see Discovering Sheffield – in the footsteps of family ghosts) but had lived in semi-rural Oxfordshire for 40 or so years where my grandfather worked for Nuffield Motors, so they had no connections with Bexhill at all. But remembering from my childhood his almost permanent cough, it’s occurred to me that they may have chosen the town because of his chronic chest problems.
The healthy seaside air led in turn to the rapid growth of private boarding schools in the area – “private education was one of Bexhill’s major local ‘industries’” (Bexhill Museum website)
“As Bexhill developed as a healthy resort, those who helped administer Britain’s Empire were happy for their children to be educated here as boarders. (This and following quotes from Sussex Express)
The schools were not only local employers and purchasers of food and local services. Home on leave from armed or colonial service, the parents would either patronise the local hotels or rent accommodation. Later, many chose to retire to the town, so profiting the town’s solicitors and estate agents.
This economy prospered until the Second World War. [Their location made them very vulnerable in event of an invasion and many school were evacuated to different parts of the country] The first cracks appeared when some schools did not return after war-time evacuation.”
One particular girls’ school became well known in the mid 1930s as a finishing school for the daughter’s of Germany’s Nazi elite and became the inspiration for of a film, called Six Minutes to Midnight.
The exclusive seaside resort
The town’s previous cachet as an “exclusive seaside resort” was even more of a surprise to me; this was the dream of the 7th Earl de la Warr, the local landowning gentry, and to some extent the family succeeded. The original town of Bexhill was on a hilltop a little way inland, but the railway came to Bexhill in the mid 1840s and the Earl developed the adjacent coastal area into a fashionable resort with luxury hotels in the late 1890s, while his descendent, the 8th Earl, Viscount Cantelupe, continued the work on the sea front creating a bicycle track a cycle chalet and “a pavilion for refined entertainment and relaxation”
Bexhill and the birth of Motor Racing
An even more significant innovation was Viscount Cantelupe’s championing of the town as Britain’s first motor-racing venue (along the promenade) in 1902, “The races helped bolster the Earl De La Warr’s attempts to put Bexhill on the same level as Monte Carlo as a seaside resort for the jet set, and it was the first motor racing seen in the country.” From Discover Hastings website.
Having achieved his ambition to enhance Bexhill’s standing, he then scandalised the town in the same year when his wife divorced him for adultery (with an actress), and abandonment. There’s a fascinating Twitter thread by Bexhill Museum here that succinctly traces the various indiscretions and misjudgements of the 8th Earl De La Warr, with press cuttings of the time.
The enthusiasm for racing cars remained in Bexhill and this beautiful vehicle is on display in the town’s museum; it is, astonishingly, the locally manufactured Elva (based on the French phrase “Elle va” – “She goes”!), produced between 1955 and 1968. During the first five year of that period we regularly visited the town, but I don’t think my Dad ever knew about this car, he would have been so delighted to see it! Learn more about this sleek little Bexhill mademoiselle here!!
Back to the seaside – 1950s style
Although my grandparents had chosen a seaside town, I don’t remember them coming to the beach with us very often, but I enjoyed being there on the mix of pebbles and sand – just a little more here than at Hastings or St Leonards. However, one year a glut of jellyfish carpeted the beach and the shallow paddling zone that did spoil the fun! I think it was my grandparents who rented the beach hut for us, with deckchairs and a methylated spirit stove. Aged about 6 I learned to make tea on this contraption (photo above), sheltered from the ever-present breeze on the beach – early preparation for a future of camping holidays! The smell of meths always takes me back there and reminds me of my aquamarine plastic beaker – very mid-century a la mode!
A memorable treat (just once in a holiday) for me was a visit to the ground floor cafe at the monumental De La Warr pavilion where we had ice cream served in, what in the mid 1950s, were very modern stainless steel bowls, set on glass-topped, eau-de-nile Lloyd Loom tables. I think there were views from the cafe out to the sea, but through sand-blasted windows.
It’s alarming for me now to realise that the building was less than 20 years old when I first went there; even then it seemed to be from a distant world, but it made a lasting impression on me. It had also made an impact on the locals in 1935 when it opened; the 9th Earl De La Warr, Herbrand Edward Dundonald Brassey Sackville, Bexhills’ first Socialist mayor (his mother brought up her children as socialists after her husband abandoned her for the actress), had been behind the proposal for a new “democratic space for art, culture and recreation, and as a hub for the wider community”. This idea was popular with residents, but the reality of the prize-winning building by Erich Mendelsohn and Serge Chermayeff, in International modernist style “was a shock to many of Bexhill’s inhabitants” From Discover Bexhill website
It still seems to me out of scale with, and a strange companion to, the smaller oriental style buildings nearby – what I now discover are the late 19thC remnants of Viscount Cantelupe’s pavilion, The Kursaal, providing “high-class entertainment for the town’s elite and its wealthy visitors”. Objections to the German name in WW1 (it means a public building at a spa, in which entertainment is provided) lead to it becoming known simply as The Pavilion. Below are a few remnant of this development that was intended to be the entrance to a pier but that was never built. In the photograph of the information panel about motor racing above, an old photograph of the Kursaal is included in the centre, click on the photo to enlarge it to see the detail.
Egerton Park and the Museum
After the beach we’d often go to the nearby playground at Egerton Park where I loved being turned upside down by my Dad in the sandpit and swung by my ankles between his long legs. The museum, once a park pavilion (pavilions seem to have been a bit of a Bexhill feature) was near the playground, housing a fascinating, but confusing, mix of local and ‘exotic’ collections, including a prominently displayed giant spider crab, it was 4 ft across – I was terrified, as a 5 year old I thought it had come out of the sea at Bexhill, but, it was from Japan. And here it is, photographed 60 years after I got over the scare!
The museum is still there and a delight, and since my visits over half a century ago, two model railways have been donated to the museum by their patron, splendid local personage Eddie Izzard; one is the Izzard Family Model Railway, the second is a meticulous recreation of Bexhill in the snow in 1940, both sets allow visitors, young and old, to operate all sorts of features.
Bexhill-on-Sea five generations later…
The coincidence of our son moving in 2018 to Sussex, just a few minutes drive from where my grandparents lived in Bexhill, now has even greater resonance because that same beach that I’m pictured on in the 1950s, plus the De La Warr pavilion, the sandpit, playground, and the museum in Egerton Park are still excellent locations for exercising, airing and entertaining small people – now it’s with great pleasure that we bring the new members of our family here, our two grandsons aged three and one.
All photographs, unless otherwise stated, are by the author © Liz Milner. With thanks to those credited who allowed their photographs to be used in this post, especially Phil Sellens who has made many of his photos and copies of postcards available for use via Creative Commons.
Related posts: Hastings and St Leonards-on-Sea