Fairlight UK and the links with other Fairlights in Australia, New Zealand and Canada by Haydon Luke.
But first of all, where is Fairlight, UK?
Fairlight UK is located on the south east coast of England with a view over the English Channel. On a clear day the French coast at Boulogne can be seen.
Fairlight, East Sussex, England, is a small village on the English Channel coast about 3 miles east of the seaside town of Hastings. Its population at the time of the 2011 census was 2,259 people and the area of the parish is around 613 hectares.
The history of human habitation in our home area goes back a long way even to Mesolithic times. Archaeological evidence of hunter-gatherers has been found in our fields and on the cliff tops. In terms of recorded history the church dates back at least to 1180 though the present structure, St Andrew’s, is a Victorian re-build from 1846. Several fine farm buildings date back at least to the Tudor period
Until the early 20th century ours was a sparsely populated farming area but in the 1920s as a consequence of the agricultural depression following World War 1, one of the farms was sold off for housing development and this led to a sharp increase in population though the area still retains its essentially rural characteristics.
In the 19th century the population was much smaller, around 25% of today’s figure, and life was challenging especially in the years when British agriculture experienced depression. Families were large and in many cases younger family members, men particularly, were attracted by the opportunities overseas in the USA and in the Empire, especially countries such as Australia, Canada and New Zealand.
So it was that men and women from a small Sussex community found their way to those other countries far away from their native shore and made new lives there. Not all were successful, but many were. In the case of the three Fairlights in the old British Empire, those founding the new communities felt impelled to commemorate their place of origin in the name they gave to their new homes.
The part played by three such men in the founding of these other Fairlights is each different but joined perhaps by a common thread of determination, adaptability and courage in the face of the undeniable challenges posed by life on the frontier in new and developing lands.
What do we know about these other Fairlights and their connection with this little Sussex parish?
Fairlight, Manly, NSW, Australia.
The largest of the three is in Australia. It has a population of almost 5,500 and is attractively situated on the water of the Sydney Harbour inlet and is a small part of the district of Manly – itself a major suburb of Sydney. It was first settled in the mid-19th century. Fairlight’s namesake was in fact a house, the home of Henry Gilbert Smith (1802-1886) who is regarded as the founder of Manly.
North Harbour from Fairlight, c. 1907, ©Manly Local Studies Library
Smith had prospered in business in Australia and in 1853 bought 26 acres of land on the eastern side of the Cove. He first built a small 4 bedroomed cottage and wrote in 1855 “I am now spending a good part of every week at Fairlight…it is a most delightful spot, admired by everyone for its beauty.” This is thought to be the first time the address Fairlight was used. Then, about 5 years later, around 1859/60, Smith had a larger house built.
The house he had constructed was an elegant, Georgian style sandstone mansion, two storeys high and five windows wide, with tower and veranda, set in park like grounds on the waterfront at Fairlight. It was designed by a well-known Sydney architect, Edmund Blacket and completed in May 1860. It was Smith’s first wife who was born in our parish and he named both the house as well as the settlement Fairlight in her honour.
Fairlight House with guests, image ©Manly Local Studies Library
The local history says of Smith and the founding of Fairlight: “Fairlight House was the original home of Henry Gilbert Smith. Its original design was a traditional Georgian design, with two storeys and five windows. It originally occupied 36 acres, of what is now known as the suburb of Fairlight to and including what is now occupied by Manly golf course.
Henry Gilbert Smith was the first to recognise the potential of Manly as a resort area for those wishing to temporarily escape busy Sydney. He planned the Corso, the street that connects Sydney Harbour with the Ocean. He also had the Norfolk Pines planted that line the beaches of Manly and had hotels built along the Corso.”
After the death of his second wife who died at Fairlight House, Smith returned to England and to Sussex in 1867. Fairlight House survived until 1939 when it was sold to a builder who demolished it and put up flats [apartments] on the site. The name, however, just survives because a road named Fairlight Crescent actually crosses over the land where the house formerly stood.
After Smith sold up, Fairlight grew slowly until a tram route was developed around the time of the First World War after which the settlement started to increase and, as Sydney got bigger, it became a flourishing community. So in that respect the development of housing in Fairlight NSW and Fairlight UK were broadly in step.
Another similarity is, of course, proximity to the sea and all that brings both in terms of happy seaside recreation and the less pleasant possibility of shipwrecks. Throughout its history Fairlight UK has seen its fair share of wrecks and rescues and, because of the proximity of the English Channel, this was particularly the case during wartime.
Fairlight NSW can match Fairlight UK in that respect, too, when in 1949 the Dutch submarine KXII ran aground on the foreshore. The submarine had had an active World War 2 career having sunk at least 3 enemy ships and then been damaged during the Japanese assault on Indonesia in 1942. It limped back to Sydney with difficulty, was repaired but declared unfit for further service and sold off, subsequently becoming a tourist attraction moored off Manly. Admission; one shilling!
In June 1949 whilst being towed to a safer location “wind and swell combined to break the tow-line, and it ran aground on the sand at Fairlight broadside on.” Fortunately there was no loss of life but for a year the submarine lay beached at Fairlight becoming something of an informal playground for local children. Eventually the wreck was bought up for salvage, broken up and with some irony sold off as scrap to Japan leaving only memories behind.
Photo of the K XII aground off Fairlight Beach, c.1949.
Photo ©John Cowper
Fairlight, Southland, New Zealand.
Earlier I said that some folk from our tiny parish were adventurous and got about a bit in the 19th century. That was certainly true of John Howell, the local man responsible for the founding of Fairlight, New Zealand.
My quest for information about this Fairlight began with an unattributed photo in the Fairlight Village Archive showing what appears to be a tiny and remote railway halt. There is no other information on the photo which is clearly fairly modern. No one associated with the archive knew anything about the photo and it was clear from the research we had done on the Australian Fairlight that there was no railway there. Could the location perhaps be New Zealand?
Last November my wife, Elaine, and I were lucky enough to go to New Zealand on holiday and whilst there we discovered, quite by chance when studying our route on the map, that, lo and behold, there was Fairlight! It lay on our intended path south from Lake Wakatipu close to the border between Otago and Southland provinces and we would pass through it on our way to explore some of the fiord lands in the south west of South Island.
Fairlight, Southland, New Zealand.
So it was on 16th November 2014 that I found myself standing on a tiny station platform which in all respects matched the photo in the Fairlight Archive.
Fairlight station is in an isolated location on a plain but close to mountains and would not have looked out of place in Scotland. There was little else in the area save for a section of track, a hiking trail, a few isolated agricultural buildings and, in the distance, sheep. We explored the immediate area and it was clear that the station was no longer in use. We were intrigued and resolved to find out more, knowing we would come along the same road in a few days’ time when we headed back to Queenstown.
So, on our return we investigated further. We were keen to establish whether there was a definite connection between our parish and the place we had found on the other side of the world. Helpful librarians in Queenstown aided us and we learnt that Fairlight had been a halt on the 19th century railway from Invercargill, the port on the far south coast of South Island, north to Kingston on Lake Wakatipu. The story of the line went back to the discovery of gold in the Wakatipu district in 1862 and the consequent need to improve communication between Invercargill, which was the access port, and the area round the lake.
So far, so interesting. But how did this remote settlement come to be called Fairlight? Our investigation took two forms. First, we went back to Fairlight Station to explore more thoroughly ‘on the ground’ and, second, we decided to follow up local sources in the museum at Arrowtown near Queenstown which we had been told had a lot of material on the early settlements.
On the ground we found that in recent times the section of the railway from Kingston to Fairlight had been revived as a heritage railway but unfortunately it no longer operated. However, we also found an intriguing signpost pointing to a Fairlight Homestead and indicating that it was on a heritage trail. A few hundred metres further on and there it was – Fairlight Homestead, complete with sheep.
Sadly, a sign warned us that the property was private and not open to the public. Our disappointment at that was tempered by our excitement at what we read. The heritage trail plaque told us that the homestead was the centre of a vast 30,000 acre sheep ‘run’ and, although originally called Bucurochi, the run had been purchased in 1860 “and renamed Fairlight by the famous Captain John Howell after his birthplace on England’s Sussex coast, from where he had set out to sea on whaling ships. Howell commissioned the construction of a Georgian style homestead which stands today.” We felt as though we had hit the jackpot. Not only did we have proof that Fairlight, NZ, was indeed named after ‘our’ Fairlight but there was clearly more of a story to be uncovered about ‘famous’ Captain John Howell himself.
At the museum in Arrowtown we found more leads and much fascinating material about the lives of the early settlers and the challenges they faced developing their lives in a new country. After we returned to the UK we made further enquiries to the New Zealand Government Department of Conservation and had another bit of luck. The officer who responded to our query, Rachael Egerton, had a personal research interest in Captain Howell who, she said, “is somewhat of a legend in Southland, being one of the earliest European settlers, and very important in many other ways as a pioneer pastoralist and businessman. Many trace their ancestry to him”. This latter point is given impetus by the fact that he had 19 children by two wives!
Rachael gave us some further leads to follow up from which it was clear that John Howell had indeed
been born in Fairlight in 1809. Local Records, now in the East Sussex Records Office at The Keep, confirm this. The entry in the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography takes up his story.
“John Howell was baptised at Eastbourne, Sussex, England, probably on 8 July 1810, the son of William Howell and his wife, Mary Collings. At the age of about 12 he stowed away on a smuggling vessel; apprehended on the vessel’s return from France, he was released when found to have no connection with the smugglers. He promptly stowed away on a ship bound for Australia, became first mate on a whaling ship, and arrived at Kapiti Island, New Zealand, in 1827 or 1828. Here he engaged in whaling and the export of greenstone to Australia.”
In the late 1820s and 1830s, then, he was active in the whaling business which in those days thrived in the southern oceans and, whilst fraught with great danger, was also capable of delivering to successful ships’ captains great wealth. Later, as whaling declined, Howell turned to agriculture making good use of the land he had acquired at Fairlight. Howell was also involved in developing political and personal relations with the indigenous Maori population across the racial boundaries. Indeed, both his wives were Maori.
Over time, the Howell family came to be seen as social and economic leaders amongst the developing colonial settlements and pastoral economy in that part of New Zealand, at a time when many mixed race families found themselves increasingly marginalized. Such was the significance of the experience of Howell.
Fairlight Station Homestead © NZ Historic Places Trust. Photo taken 1996.
and his descendants in managing to live and thrive ‘in between worlds’ that they have become the focus of serious academic study which explores the way they made the transition from leading members of a mixed community to, in effect, colonial gentry.
It is interesting to reflect on the fact that a son of Fairlight should make such an eventful life on the other side of the world, playing a significant part in shaping his adopted country. On his death in 1874 his newspaper obituary stated that “Captain Howell has left a very wide circle of friends. He was universally respected by all, both rich and poor; his purse was always ready for any charitable object, as was his home for many years free and open to any who pleased to call. In Captain Howell, Southland has lost a treasure.” (Bruce Herald, Vol VII, Issue 623, 14th August, 1874, p.7) His second wife survived him by 25 years, dying in 1899.
140 years after his death, it is clear that ‘our’ Captain Howell was a remarkable man indeed and I am keen to find out even more of his life and times.
Fairlight, Saskatchewan, Canada
So now, finally, on to Canada, another railway connection, and yet another son of Fairlight who left home shores in the 19th century to find a new life thousands of miles away from the Sussex coast.
This story is still work in progress. I am very much indebted to Julia Adamson for her energy is responding to my enquiries and for her willingness to help an unknown stranger unravel the story because until she responded to my enquiry I really had uncovered very little about the Canadian Fairlight.
In fact, all I knew was that it is now a tiny village in the Canadian province of Saskatchewan lying just south of Provincial Highway 48 and the Canadian National Railway about a kilometre west of Highway 8 and with a population of some 40 people.
But then a lucky hit with good old Google took me to the Saskatchewan One Room School Project for which Julia was webmaster. From that site I learned that there had been a Fairlight School and in response to my enquiry Julia was able to confirm that yes “we have a village of that name which was named by Henry Hyde who came from your Fairlight.” Census and other records positively link Henry to both locations.
Thus, armed with the name Henry Hyde, I was able to search our local Sussex records and uncovered some details from which I knew that he was born in Fairlight, East Sussex, and baptised Henry Mathew George in our local St Andrew’s Church on September 21st 1856. His parents were Henry and Elizabeth Hyde and his father was a coastguard. The coastguard cottages still stand on the cliff top and I can see them from my study window as I write this.
But what thread could lead from seaside Sussex to rural Saskatchewan, thousands of miles from the sea? It turns out almost certainly to be a thread of iron in the shape of the railway that came to span the entire breadth of Canada – the Canadian Pacific Railway.
Page from the Baptism register of St Andrew’s Church, Fairlight, East Sussex, England.
Henry Hyde’s baptism is the bottom record on the page. A younger brother, Joseph James Hyde, was born on 10th February 1860.
When Henry arrived in Canada, how he travelled and how exactly he came in later life to be the first postmaster at Fairlight is not yet clear to me. It is to complete that narrative that I am working hard, with the help of Julia and her associates, and my colleagues here in Fairlight UK.
By Haydon Luke