Wild Cliffs, Savage Sea - BY DOUGLAS d’ENNO
Above: This wood engraving by R. H. Nibbs is entitled The Cliffs to the East of Brighton and appeared in An Illustrated Hand-Book of Brighton, and its Environs (with some account of the Fishery) by Chas Fleet, published in Brighton in 1847. Perhaps the artist viewed the scene from Black Rock; if so, the furthermost cliff might well be Saltdean’s eastern headland.
Above: In this etching dated 1 January 1808, John Augustus Atkinson (c. 1775–1830) vividly captures the drama of smuggling on the coast. This was big business at both Saltdean and Rottingdean Gaps until well into the nineteenth century. Prior to the erection of Saltdean’s coastguard cottages in 1834, a watch was kept from a watch-house.
Above: This watercolour of 1827, entitled Shipwreck at Rottingdean, is thought to be the earliest known view of the Saltdean cliffs. Note the direct access to the beach in those times, a feature that made Saltdean Gap a natural centre for smuggling.
Above: This part of the Sussex coast is the graveyard of many a vessel. Local shipwrecks marked by Richard J. V. Larn (b. 1931), widely regarded as one of Britain’s leading historic shipwreck experts, in his Sussex map indicate the loss positions of, among others, the True Christine (1780), Nuestra Señora de Begoña (1786) and the Captain Long (1890).
Above: The life-saving Manby mortar, later developed into the breeches buoy, was officially adopted in 1814. Its designer was Captain George William Manby FRS (1765–1854), an English author and inventor. The mortar fired a thin rope from the shore attached to a strong one into the rigging of a ship in distress, allowing the crew to be hauled to safety. It was successfully used on, for example, the Hamburg trader August, which came to grief at Saltdean in 1866
Above: J. D. Johnston of Brighton invented this cliff crane and trailer, which are thought to be standing on Rottingdean’s clifftop. The Stranger’s Guide in Brighton of 1837 refers to a crane ‘for use between Rottingdean and Newhaven … procured by private subscriptions’ and to another ‘lodged at the Coast Guard Station, at Black Rock’, which ‘has on several occasions been called into successful operation’.
Above: This postcard shows how Saltdean Bay would have looked early in the twentieth century. The only dwellings are the coastguard cottages put up in 1834. Sadly, the sea claimed four young lives here on 4 August 1912. All the boys were members of the Gonville and Caius College Mission, Battersea, and were camped at the time in nearby Rottingdean.
Above: Some combination of wind and tide around a newly built groyne caused a hidden and dangerous swell. When Conrad Betts showed signs of distress some 400 yards from the shore, three companions, Frederick Taylor, George Allen and Frederick Bedford, vainly attempted a rescue but drowned, as this plaque in St Margaret’s Church, Rottingdean, records.
Above: In August 2004, the author made a pilgrimage to Caius House, the former mission church in Battersea. The Caius Youth Club was run from the premises, which were also used for community events. Erected in 1892, the building was demolished in 2009 to be replaced by a new Caius House.
Above: My visit was rewarded by the sight of the memorial that I suspected had to exist. It was a splendid stained-glass tribute by Burne-Jones, the lowest panel of which is depicted here. When the mission church was redeveloped, the window, donated in the boys’ memory by the designer’s widow, Georgiana, was relocated to the entrance to Caius Library in Cambridge, where it stands protected in a beautiful backlit wooden case.
Above: A counterpart lease in the Beard family archives dated 4 December 1834 refers to ‘seven newly-erected cottages at Saltdean, bounded on the south by the Newhaven and Brighton Turnpike’. Among the coastguards stationed here in 1835 was a Frederick Redding. Sadly, two years later, the burial took place of the infant daughter of a colleague, one John Wilson.
Above: Before the cottages were built, the coast here was under observation from a watch house. Interestingly, Elizabeth Fry (1780–1845), the renowned social reformer, supplied the stations in and around Brighton in 1824 with wholesome reading material, such as bibles, testaments and other uplifting volumes. In a letter dated 21 March 1825 from William Bell and D. Stringer, sent ‘in the name of the Salt Dean [sic] party’, Mrs Fry was warmly thanked for the books supplied.