East Sussex

The Keep holds over a million records relating to the county of East Sussex: East Sussex Record Office’s holdings date from 1101 to present day; University of Sussex Special Collections include the Kipling Papers and Leonard Woolf archive; and the collections of Royal Pavilion and Museums cover the history Brighton and Hove, from the 17th century to the present day. To make your search of this vast catalogue easier, we are regularly adding useful information to the places section of our website. For a brief introduction to this fascinating county, please read on.  

What exactly is East Sussex? What makes it like it is? And what distinguishes it from neighbouring counties, and especially from its opposite half to the West?

Like neighbouring Kent but unlike Surrey or Hampshire, Sussex was not just a county, but an Anglo-Saxon kingdom, with its own bishop, whose diocese shared a boundary with that of the secular powers. There is evidence that in some senses, Sussex was already sub-divided into East and West in the 7th century, when the territory began to be ruled by pairs of kings. 

Although historic Sussex was an awkward shape – it is over 90 miles from East Guldeford to West Wittering – it was not just the distance which prompted division. 

As this geological map shows, the underlying soil, and hence the surface landscape and land-use, are quite distinct. All the marshland and virtually all the High Weald are in East Sussex; the downland is equally shared; but most of the agriculturally rich greensand, and all the coastal plain, is confined to the West. It can be argued that these literally underlying divisions have had a profound effect not only on the appearance of the two counties, but of their relative prosperity, and on the characters of their inhabitants. 
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In East Sussex, we see three major land-types: the Weald, sitting on clay, farmed in small fields enclosed from the forest; the Downs, low chalk hills cut by north-south rivers, with a narrow belt of very rich soil at their foot; and the marsh, low-lying reclaimed land, to be found in the far east and the Pevensey Levels, where in the 19th century sheep out-numbered humans ten to one.

The other major influence has been the sea. The topography of the region has to an extent cut Sussex off from the rest of the land-mass of England. Although, contrary to myth, the Weald was not an impenetrable forest, movement was a lot easier down river, and out to sea. People became very versatile and ingenious in their use of water transport; in 1324 a millstone made all but the last six miles of its journey from France to Rotherfield by water, and in the 1570s newly-cast iron bars were floated down to Pevensey using small streams. We can tell that Sussex looked to the sea, rather than to London, from a variety of sources, but perhaps the most striking are the earlier estate maps; almost all of them place south not at the bottom of the map, but at the top. The railway would later change this perspective, along with much else.

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All this has made East Sussex a seafaring county. Much of the Newcastle coal trade was carried by Brighton and Hastings vessels. The county’s coastal position has also put it in the front line and made it vulnerable to attack, whether by longship, privateer or flying bombs, and has left tangible traces on the landscape, for example the Martello Towers. But more profoundly it has distinguished the county from its neighbours by making London of infinitely less significance to Sussex than it is to Kent or Surrey

Architecture and the environment
Each of the East Sussex landscapes was suited to and characterised by a different animal; it was the pig who opened up the Weald, driven north from the rich manors on the coast, and the sheep who inhabited the Downs in enormous numbers. In the winter they were folded on the arable beneath, where they acted as a moving dunghill, enriching the soil for corn, for which it was prepared by the labour of ox-teams rather than horses.

The effect of the geology was not limited to agriculture; building-materials taken or grown from the land came to characterise the distinctive areas of the county: in the coastal region, stone was imported from France for grander buildings; knapped flint continued in use until the end of the 18th century; and even flint pebbles, picked from the beach by women and children, were laid into courses to form the walls of cheap houses. These examples, in St Nicholas Lane Lewes, were built in 1828 by Henry Alderton, a Newhaven bargemaster:

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east sussexIn the Weald, nature supplied more variety. Timber, initially limitless and cheap, provided material for houses which have lasted five or six hundred years and more, and was capable of highly sophisticated effects. It also provided the weatherboarding which distinguishes many Wealden towns. Slabs of local sandstone were also laid on roofs.

In the 13th century the Wealden clays, no friend to the farmer, began to be exploited for the manufacture of tiles and later of bricks; the image to the left shows a group of brickmakers, photographed at the Ashburnham estate yard in about 1900, standing in front of their work. Pictured below are pages from a catalogue of garden-goods, ridge-tiles and finials, produced by Uriah Clarke’s terra-cotta works on The Dicker.

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The iron industry
Until the middle of the 18th century, the county’s most important industrial activity was undoubtedly the manufacture of iron. The Weald had everything that the industry needed:  iron ore, good water-supply to power the furnaces, and plentiful timber to smelt the ore. But looking at this map of the locations of ironworks, you can see how the industry followed the geology, and how ironworking was a predominantly East Sussex phenomenon. east sussexThe Romans worked iron in the Weald on a huge scale. The headquarters of the industry, estimated to have been the third largest in the Empire, was at Beauport Park on the north edge of Hastings, where a vast slagheap was dug away for road-mending materials in the 1870s. The bloomery furnaces, producing very small quantities, are thought to have supplied ironwork to the British Fleet – or Classis Britannica – whose initials are stamped on tiles that have been found all along the coast on both sides of the Channel.

The iron industry reached new heights after the blast furnace was introduced from Normandy at the end of the 15th century. The new technology first established itself here in Eastern Sussex, from which it spread to Shropshire, South Wales and the north-east, and ultimately to North America. The furnaces were, amazingly, built with clay, stone and brick around a wooden frame, as can be seen from this fireback of 1636, showing Richard Lennard, the founder at Brede Furnace, with the tools and products of his trade; you may recognize it from Carolyn Trant’s frieze here at The Keep.

east sussexParticularly in wartime, the industry’s main output was cannon, which were cast solid in vertical timber-lined pits, and then bored out to the required calibre in a boring-mill. The industry also had more peaceable outputs – the railings of St Paul’s Cathedral were made in Sussex, and many Wealden churches are paved with cast-iron grave-slabs.

Some of the artificial lakes on which the industry relied for power are still features of the landscape, but can also be seen on estate-maps. The bays which retained the water were often adapted as roads – below is Mayfield Furnace in the 1660s, with the course of the new road pencilled in, running across the dam. Another redundant technology was re-used at East Grinstead and Mayfield in the 20th century, when bypasses were built along the course of abandoned railways.
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Hop-growing
Also in the Weald, particularly in the Rye area, hop-growing was introduced in the 16th century, producing distinctive oasthouses which have mostly been retained for residential use. As you can see from this map, compiled from returns made in 1835, hop-growing was an almost exclusively East Sussex husbandry. Hop-picking was enjoyed as a working holiday by slum-dwellers from the East End of London, but also provided employment for local people – below is a photograph from the scrapbook of the Peasmarsh Women’s Institute, compiled in 1965.
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Downland
Downland formed only one element of what are referred to as linear estates, designed to provide a variety of soil-types and resources – downs for sheep, dip-slope for arable, spring-line for the village and clay for timber, pottery and common grazing. These formations, which may be as early as the Bronze Age, determine the often narrow north-south alignments of the parishes on the north side of the South Downs in East Sussex.

east sussexDue to the continuity of ownership of the village of Alciston – it has belonged to just two estates since 1066 – we can study its husbandry in detail. Here on a 14th-century account-roll is the bailiff’s statement of the yield of wheat, one of a long series from which it has been possible to calculate tables of arable output covering 160 years in the 14th and 15th centuries. The Southdown Sheep was developed by John Ellman, tenant farmer on the Glynde Place estate. He improved the Sussex sheep to create a breed which was exported all over the world; in 1798 he sold two of his rams to the emperor of Russia for 300 guineas. Five hundred years before, the monks of Battle Abbey had run a huge flock at Alciston, which we can study in detail through the surviving accounts.

In the 20th century, the South Downs attracted craftsmen, poets, artists and literary men and women: Eric Gill at Ditchling; at Charleston the Bloomsbury set – here we have Roger Fry, Lytton Strachey and John Maynard Keynes, suddenly back in fashion; and across the fields at Furlongs more artistic talent – Peggy Angus, John Piper, Kenneth Rowntree and Eric Ravilious.

The changing coastline

east sussexAs well as Rye and Camber Castle, this map of the mouth of the River Rother in 1594 shows the site of Old Winchelsea, and the new town laid out to replace it when, after decades of flooding, the original site was finally drowned by the storms of the 1280s. This intervention by the government of Edward the First, at the cost of billions of pounds in today’s money, entirely parallels the rescue plans – interestingly referred to as bailouts – which we have observed during the last few years. Winchelsea was not saved for the benefit of its burgesses, or of its wine-trade – a large number of stone cellars lie under most of the town – but because the safety of the channel, England’s links with Gascony and the entire defence of the realm relied on its ships and the maritime skills of its inhabitants. The king’s depiction of a warship on his gold coinage can be read as a recognition of this dependence. 

Town planning
Town planning was not the exclusive preserve of kings. Below is Battle, laid out by the monks soon after the conquest; smaller planned settlements can be seen at Ticehurst, Robertsbridge, Hastings and even Boreham Street, all the work of religious houses.
east sussexWhat looks like a planned town at Brighton, with roads meeting at right-angles along a consistent grid, is nothing of the sort; it is the underlying pattern of open-field strips, laid out probably in the 12th century, which constrained the plans of owners and builders and determined the pattern of development from the 1780s onwards. 

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Eastbourne, the town also developed in the 1860s across the manor’s strip-field system, starting from a settlement in the Old Town, and from a cluster of houses on the beach – Seahouses. But whereas at Brighton, the large number of owners forced the underlying field-pattern to be preserved, Eastbourne was owned by just two men – and the new roads had no need to respect the existing boundaries.

Eastbourne can also pride itself on one of Britain’s first printed and illustrated excavation reports – it describes a cliff-top Roman Villa, excavated by Dr Russell of Brighton, and was produced by another local physician in 1716.

The Devonshires had been relatively quick to develop Eastbourne, but along the coast at Bexhill, the De La Warrs had lagged behind. But in 1932 Buck De La Warr became mayor of Bexhill at the age of 31. A cabinet minister in the Labour government and with boundless energy, De La Warr commissioned two émigré architects – Chermayeff and Mendelsohn – to design the seaside pavilion which bears his name. The first public building in the country designed in the modernist style, the De La Warr Pavilion is regarded as a landmark in the history of modern British architecture.

Religion and politics
West Sussex is a county of the established church and Catholicism, East Sussex of protestant nonconformity. Of the 40 men and women burnt for heresy in Sussex between 1555 and 1557, all but eight came from the Eastern Division. In the 1550s, a priest was far more likely to die in office if he held a benefice in West Sussex; and to be deprived from that office, usually for having married, if his parish lay in the East. The flames were re-kindled in the 1850s in response to the pope’s re-establishment of catholic dioceses in England, and the defection of Henry Manning, the archdeacon of Chichester, to Rome. Mark Anthony Lower, a Lewes schoolmaster and virulent anti-catholic propagandist, almost single-handedly created the cult of the Sussex Martyrs.
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These solemn men, women and children of the Cliffe Bonfire Society were doubtless there to enjoy themselves, but also to perform a solemn ritual, and to remind the authorities that they ignored the still largely disenfranchised population at their peril. This was 1913, the year before the last bonfire night for six years. By the time the celebration re-emerged in 1920 it had been partially sanitised, the fortunate coincidence of the eleventh with the fifth of November allowing the night to be re-branded as a solemn commemoration of the armistice. But the fifth still retains political overtones, of a largely radical nature, and provides an annual living manifestation of the unofficial county motto: We wun’t be Druv.

Below is a view of the Lewes bowling-green, a location tied to a radical of international dimensions – Thomas Paine, the bi-centenary of whose death East Sussex Record Office marked in 2009 by buying his separation-agreement. While bowling with Paine on this same green early in the 1770s, Mr Harry Verrall remarked that Frederick of Prussia ‘was the best fellow in the world for a king; he has so much of the devil in him.’  It struck Paine that ‘if it were necessary for a king to have so much of the devil in him, kings might very beneficially be dispensed with.’ The seed of Paine’s radicalism was perhaps innate, but grew vigorously in the dissenting soil of the Eastern county town. 
 
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