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
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
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
All this has made East Sussex a seafaring county. Much of the
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
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:
In 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.
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
The iron industry reached new heights after the blast furnace was introduced from
Particularly 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
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
Also in the Weald, particularly in the
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
Due to the continuity of ownership of the
In the 20th century, the South Downs attracted craftsmen, poets, artists and literary men and women: Eric
The changing coastline
As 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 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.
What looks like a planned town at
Eastbourne, the town also developed in the 1860s across the manor’s strip-field system, starting from a settlement in the
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
Religion and politics
West Sussex is a county of the established church and Catholicism,
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.