Who owned what before Eastbourne council bought the South Downs

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In our archives I have discovered an old map showing the land purchased by Eastbourne Borough Council to form Eastbourne Downlands, which was set up to protect this spectacularly beautiful part of the South Downs, writes Llood Brunt from East Dean & Friston Local History Group.

There were very few planning restrictions in the 1920s and large areas of the downs were being lost to speculative house building. Concerned voices were raised at the prospect of Eastbourne losing its surrounding Downland.

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In 1924 Councillor J W Woolnough spoke to the local Chamber of Commerce about the rampant loss of the open downs to ill-conceived housing schemes.

Writing to The Times on May 24 1924, Arthur Beckett, president of the Society of Sussex Downsmen, stressed that “something stronger than mere protest” was essential to counter “the increasing vandalism” seen on the Sussex Downs, and the Rev A A Evans, vicar of East Dean, wrote to endorse his views.

Many in the town realised Eastbourne depended upon tourism for its prosperity and the Downs were one of the main attractions.

EBC, persuaded by Mr Woolnough’s Downs Preservation Committee, concluded the only practical way to prevent development was to buy the downland adjacent to Eastbourne.

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Although the council’s plan to fund the land purchase by increasing local taxes was approved unanimously at a statuary meeting of rate payers, the council had to get Parliament’s approval to buy the land.

During evidence to a Select Committee of the House of Lords, J Abady, counsel for EBC, said, “The Corporation’s desire, and I do not know that anybody questions it, is to preserve that beauty spot, to preserve it in its existing condition without being fenced in or ploughed up or built upon or dealt with in any way which would affect the general amenities. I do not think there is any question about that.

“The land in question consists of 4,100 acres. We want to ensure the character of the land is preserved as it is at present”

The Select Committee then asked the mayor of Eastbourne, Charles Knight, “Is it the deliberate intention of the Corporation, in promoting this clause, to secure the public the free and open use of the Downs in perpetuity?”

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Eastbourne nostalgia SUS-181030-145320001

The mayor replied “Absolutely”.

The Eastbourne Corporation Bill was passed by both Houses in 1926 and the compulsory purchase of 1,659 hectares (4,100 acres) was completed in 1929. Funded by the extra local tax revenues, £91,291. 1s 7d was paid to 10 local landowners for their land, including agents’ fees.

The parcels of land are listed on our old map as: Col. Gwynne 8.5 acres coloured brown; W E Mawhood 416.75 acres coloured yellow; Mrs Smith 261.875 acres coloured burnt sienna; Gilbert Estate 364.88 acres coloured pink; Chatsworth Estates 1,768.00 acres coloured green; Mrs Harding 804.729 acres coloured light blue; Edward Hobden 402.118 acres coloured purple; Z G Michalinos 40 acres hatched left; H B Marchant 52 acres hatched right and Foxholes Brow 25 acres marked ‘housing scheme’

There were some small adjustments to the figures after our map was produced so the areas above do not quite add up to 4,100.076 acres of the final purchase, reported by the town clerk, H W Fovargue, which excluded the Corporation owned land.

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Nearly three quarters of the total area was farming land and EBC decided to continue this use. The remainder was designated open public access land, and included the land around the famous beauty spots of Beachy Head and Belle Tout, which was previously in the parish of East Dean.

On October 30 1929, the Times newspaper reported the celebrations in Eastbourne, after the land was secured: “The Duke and Duchess of York took part today in the celebrations of the purchase by Eastbourne of Beachy Head and of many acres of down and farm land stretching away almost to Birling Gap, which are now saved for ever from building or other exploitation. The whole town and great crowds from many parts of Sussex assembled for the day’s rejoicings. The town was beflagged wherever the Royal visitors went during their long day, and their passage through the streets was marked by the greatest enthusiasm.

“The preservation of these Downs has cost the town nearly £100,000, and Eastbourne is duly proud of having led the way in this movement for securing amenities by municipal effort. Today has been the culmination of a campaign begun nearly five years ago, and its justification is to be seen all along the Eastbourne side of Beachy Head, where already a fringe of houses had begun to invade the downs themselves. The Corporation now owns the whole of Beachy Head and 4,000 acres northwards and westwards of it, comprising chiefly down-land, but also a farm, a golf course, and the old Belle Tout Lighthouse, which can be seen from Beachy Head and is the residence of Sir James Purves-Stewart.

“The Duke and Duchess of York saw the wild beauty of these rolling acres in typical conditions. A strong west wind had prevented the corporation from erecting a marquee for the commemorative ceremony, which consequently took place in rather rough weather. There were storm clouds on the horizon, but the long views were fairly clear.”

The farmland is still divided into four farms: Bullock Down Farm, Chalk Farm, Black Robin Farm and Cornish Farm, with the farmers paying rent to EBC.

In 2017 there was a proposal by EBC to sell off these farms but, after strong public protests, the idea was dropped. Locals and visitors alike must be grateful for the far-sighted Eastbourne Downlands purchase which preserved this idyllic landscape for us all to enjoy.

East Dean & Friston Local History Group hold regular meetings throughout the year at East Dean Village Hall. For more information about activities, visit www.edflhg.uk