By Haydon Luke
Two distinctive features of the Fairlight landscape are the names Firehills and Battery Hill. Over time there has been speculation as to their etymology. It has been suggested, for example, that the Firehills were so called because of the proliferation of gorse which, when in yellow/gold bloom in the spring, gave the cliffs the appearance of being on fire. It is a nice idea but the truth is probably more prosaic.
The origin of the names is almost certainly military and can be found in the history of Fairlight, more specifically in the activities in the mid-19th century of local rifle and artillery volunteers. These men were the precursors of the Territorial Army of modern times – local part-time soldiers who gave some of their leisure time to learn the skills that might be needed to defend their homeland should French invasion again threaten as it had in Napoleonic times.
In 1859 the First Company of the Cinque Ports Rifle Volunteers was set up, drawing men from Hastings and the villages such as Pett, Guestling and Fairlight. Initially they met at Rock-a-Nore, firing at targets at the base of the cliffs. A little later, Lady Waldegrave, of Fairlight Place, then the local landowner, gave permission for the volunteers to train on her land which included the cliffs and glens. The remains of the rifle butts set up for training and practice at that time can still just about be seen in Ecclesbourne Glen.
Not long after the rifle volunteers, a Volunteer Artillery Corps (the Second Sussex Artillery Volunteer Corps) was set up on 13 March 1860, with a battery near the cliff edge at the foot of Warren Glen.
A local newspaper, The News of 23rd May 1862, gives a detailed account of how it was set up under the headline “New Battery at Fairlight”.
“Very few inhabitants of Hastings are probably aware of the steps taken by the zealous captain of the 2nd Sussex Volunteer Artillery for the defence of the shores of this neighbourhood. Those who have traversed the coast between East Well and Pett Levels are aware that, while the levels are protected by the martello towers, there are several small valleys at which an enemy could land unmolested. In one of these, at the bottom of the eminence on which Fairlight Coastguard Station is situated, Captain Shadwell has recently erected a very effective 2-gun masked battery. This little fortification is built of earth, 10ft. to 15ft. in thickness. A quantity of underwood is used to strengthen and retain the “walls,” and the whole is covered with turf. On the fourth side of the quadrangle is built a gun shed and store house.
The War Office having granted two 18-pounder pieces as an armament for the new battery, they arrived by the Brighton railway last week. On Friday morning a fatigue party, consisting of members of the corps from Ore, Fairlight and Pett, under the command of Lieut. Hunt (of Ore House), marched to the Hastings terminus, to escort the guns to the battery. Captain Shadwell and Mr. Cook both sent their teams to draw the guns. Adjutant Paisley, from Brighton, was present during the day. The non-commissioned officers in attendance were – Sergeant-Major A. Thorpe, Sergeant C. Thorpe, Corporals Phillips, Abbot, and Skinner; and the gunnery instructors, Sergeants Ledgerwood and Samways, RA. The difficulty of getting the cannon from the roadway near Fairlight Church, over the rough waggon track to their station at the foot of the hill, was something formidable. It was, however, accomplished without accident. The guns having been placed in position, the party partook of some welcome refreshment, provided by Captain Shadwell and Lieut. Hunt. The day was terminated with a course of gun drill. – Before the adjutant left the ground, a site was selected as a carbine range, running up the valley from 350 to 400 yards. As permission has been given for carbine-firing, arrangements will, it is expected, shortly be made for this purpose.”
The site of Captain Shadwell’s battery is clearly marked on the 1st edition Ordnance Survey map but it now no longer exists having collapsed in one of the many landslides to affect the bottom part of Warren Glen over the years. The remains of rifle butts can still be found close to the present cliff edge part way up the west side of the glen but these date from WW2. Firing was from inland towards the sea. There are also traces in Warren Glen of the butts for carbine firing referred to in the newspaper account above, the first constructed later in 1862, others in 1901. Firing at these was towards inland, up and across the valley. Local historian Steve Peak recalls as a child finding spent bullets in profusion at the sites.
An account in the Sussex Advertiser of 28 July 1866 tells of the Artillery Corps’ annual prize meeting firing “with their great guns at the Battery near Fairlight Coastguard Station”. Each detachment consisted of ten men and the competition evidently began at 3.00 p.m., taking all afternoon and lasting well into the evening. “The target was anchored off at sea, at a distance of about 1,500 yards from the battery.”
Although these militia activities had a serious purpose, their main attraction was undoubtedly social, with their competitions and recreational activities reported in the local newspapers and attended by interested spectators.
Considerable importance was attached to the activities of these volunteers, their practices and competitions were widely reported in the local press, and leading positions were taken up by prominent local men in support of the companies. Material in the East Sussex Records office includes papers such as the Annual Statements of Accounts of the 2nd Sussex Volunteer Artillery Corps.
That for 1872 (see right) shows that the Chairman is William Lucas-Shadwell of Fairlight Hall and the committee is comprised mainly of local men of influence and standing in the civilian community. For example, the Honorary Chaplain to the Corps is the Rev Henry Stent, long-serving Vicar of Fairlight and related by marriage to the Lucas-Shadwell family.
Although most of the men provided their own rifles, their uniforms (in smart red and grey) were supplied by the company itself which organised fund raising events to cover the costs. In the case of the artillery, the War Office provided the ordnance but the transport, siting and accommodation for the guns was for the company to arrange. Something of a challenge, as the extract above revealed.
But we still have a difficulty with the names. The base of Warren Glen and the rifle range in Ecclesbourne Glen are not where the area we call the Firehills is today; that lies further east. Battery Hill itself is a little way away and would it be called Battery Hill unless it had a close connection with gunnery? Was there, then, another battery?
John Taylor, Pett historian, is in no doubt that there was also a Pett company of the Artillery Volunteers as well as the one at Fairlight and identifies the remains of the building that housed their gun as being “in the scrub land opposite Fairlight End, and in front of the Village Hall.” Taylor says that the volunteers at Pett served under Colonel Dennet and were successful participants in several National Artillery Association competitions held on the firing ranges at Shoeburyness, even on one occasion winning a shield and billiard table for their proficiency. Sadly “they had to sell the billiard table as they couldn’t get it back home”.
Since it seems unlikely that the Pett gun would be taken all the way to the bottom of Warren Glen for firing practice, where was it fired? An intriguing picture found on the internet by village archivist Paul Draper may provide a clue.
The picture evidently shows a training session with a heavy gun which has been identified by the Royal Artillery Museum as an Armstrong 40 pounder, a type which first came into service in the 1860s. The picture shows 10 men plus an instructor and a patch of open ground with what appear to be gorse bushes beyond the fence with the land beyond falling away. The period of the photo, based on the evidence of the uniforms, is later – maybe around 1900. Unfortunately there is not enough detail in the picture positively to identify the location but the picture caption says Battery Hill and the general orientation suggests that the area by the modern beacon or slightly nearer the sea are possible. We know that practice firing was at targets out at sea.
So if the location is as I believe, it would be readily accessible from the shed in Pett where we know the gun was kept, probably via Rosemary Lane. Farm horses would no doubt have been used to drag the gun up the length of Battery Hill to the firing location whether that was to the left or right of the road.
The names Firehills and Battery Hill therefore are, almost certainly, reminders of the part-time soldiers of the 19th century and the training exercises they conducted in and around the glens and cliff tops of Fairlight.
By Haydon Luke