Eastbourne: Victoriana and Ethnogenetic Surprises

A view of Eastbourne from the pier, a stretch of mainly Victorian hotels and former town-houses now serving as B&Bs (Credit: Me)

If you’ve been following my Twitter you’ll know I’m on break! A break for me, though, likely means something different to a break for other people. Even when I’m ‘off’, I’m never ‘off’ – you know? It comes with the Curious Idiot™ territory. I want to know everything about everywhere and there are stories to be found.

My recent break took me for a quick stop in Eastbourne. I’ll be honest and tell you what I was expecting. I was expecting a funeral-parlour-on-sea. The reputation of Eastbourne is of a town where old people go to die somewhere vaguely sunny and saline. It’s also famous for being near Beachy Head, the highest chalk cliff in the UK and a notorious suicide hotspot. I was genuinely expecting to find shite.

A view of Eastbourne from Beachy Head area. (Credit: Me)

One aspect of Curious Idiocy is admitting your own ignorance. I was wrong about Eastbourne.

It’s a town that has embraced elements of tacky seaside nostalgia whilst adapting them, it has become a much hipper town than I had been led to believe, drawing a younger population and fostering a community of artists, artisans, creativity and curiosity.

I was shocked. It’s not often I’m pleasantly surprised by a place, but I was by Eastbourne and keep in mind this was a Bank Holiday Monday! It was busy. I hate people, drunk people, leather-skinned, lobster-faced, vest wearing ever-sweaters, puffing their ciggies, vaping clouds so dense it looks like rain and shouting, so much needless noise and shouting. I hate all that. But I had a great time! There was a fantastic little market along the promenade, the pier was shabby, mid-refurb, but a pleasant walk regardless, the avenue leading to the town centre reminded me of various days in Milan, Rome or Paris – it was positively continental. I loved it.

What!? Have you never seen a gold hippo on a pier before? Because I know I hadn’t, so I wouldnt be surprised if you hadn’t either. I never did find out about the gold hippos. (Credit: Me)

But We Lack Discipline is not a travel blog. It’s just, well barring one specific thing we’ll get to, there’s not much history to Eastbourne. I mean, there is, obviously, everywhere has history.

There is evidence of stone-age settlements in the nearby downs, by 500 BC the area was likely home to Celts. Then Romans turned up and while there is evidence of Roman baths, pavements etc. very little seems to have been explored about Eastbourne’s Roman past.

We will get to a specific mystery in the Roman era of Britain, be patient on that.

A coin showing Ӕthelbehrt II. This is not the ‘offending’ penny, that can be found by clicking the link to the BBC News article above. (Credit: PHGCOM, Public Domain)

Being where it is, a very natural bay right on the coast, it was bound to be settled. By the Early English and Saxon era a place turned up named ‘Burne’ (roughly the area of Eastbourne old town today) and the relatively recent discovery in a nearby field shows that the area may have been of significance around the 8th century CE. A silver penny minted by Ӕthelbehrt II of East Anglia was found in the region. It is believed Ӕthelbehrt had the coins minted with permission of King Offa of Mercia – Pretty much the big-boss of English Kingdoms of the time, but that his independent placing of his own name and ‘Rex’ (Latin for King) on the same side of the coin may have caused Offa to go out…OFFAS…mind! (Woo, bad history pun) and so he had ‘Bert’s head lopped off. As you do.

Medieval era Eastbourne was much of a muchness, all churches and the only stuff of note being done by rich people – I don’t have much love for that sort of stuff.

In the Georgian period, the late 18th century specifically, the area, like much of the South Coast, was home to ‘Martello Towers’, round, defensive watchtowers built to spot and counter a potential Napoleonic attack. I could see the top of one of these from the hotel window!

Capture from my hotel window. Through the crowds and the throng, beneath the watchful eyes of the gulls and in the shadow of that ferris wheel, just to the left, is a round tower. A Martello Tower, built along the South Coast for keeping watch and defending in the result of a Napoleonic invasion. (Credit: Me)

Eastbourne, then, didn’t really come into its own until the 19th century. At this point a bloke named Cavendish wanted a getaway by the sea but was pissed off his holdings were all land and there was piss-all to do in the few hamlets his land had on, in or near it. So he set about getting people to design a town.

Much like how Roman generals, popularists or Aediles would have gladly donated their funds to public works in their own names, Victorian Imperial England was chock-full of wealthy poshos just happy to throw their money at building infrastructure and slapping their own name on it.

I don’t know if there’s some behavioural pattern to this. In an era where the Emperor, or Empire’s name will always be bigger than yours, just having your stamp on ‘something’ could, presumably, be seen as a power move. I don’t know but I do find this parallel between the Roman and Victorian-British empires interesting though.

The statue of William Cavendish, 7th Duke of Devonshire, and patron of Eastbourne at the top of a beautiful, tree lined and very continental feeling avenue. (Credit: © Copyright Malc McDonald CC-BY-SA 2.0)

So, yeah William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington, later Duke of Devonshire, basically paid for Eastbourne as we know it. The arrival of the railway in 1849 only signalled further growth, and people were also coming to ‘leisure’ at this time. It was fashionable to get away, to promenade, to stroll in a big skirt with a parasol, or in your Sunday Best and with the World’s Biggest Waxiest Moustache. If you haven’t seen what Victorians wore at the seaside I’ll try and include an image because I’m a conservative dresser and even I’ve been known to throw on…

…Shh…

(three-quarter length trousers and a t-shirt)

Edwardian bathers in Hastings (not far from Eastbourne) in 1903. Just outside of Victoria’s reign but still proper decorum must be maintained! “Come little Penelope, let us go paddling, you in your gown, so full and heavy, and father shall merely roll the legs up on his suit trousers!” (Credit: Hastings Pier Archive, presumed public domain, used without permission)

The town was designed and built to be a Gentlemen’s Haven – It has touches of continental class mixed with Victorian grandeur and just a little hint of 1920s-1930s art deco splendour for a revival signalled by the visit of King George V and Queen Mary in 1935.

Yes, it has the same hallmark touches of a South Coast seaside town. There’s decay, homelessness in abundance, filthy streets, locals with grating voices shouting profanities in the small hours, wankered to the point of serpentining their way down the promenade because they can’t walk straight. But it was not the sad, run-down Death’s waiting room I was expecting.

But, you were promised an ethnogenetic mystery and I don’t aim to disappoint. You see, bones appear. We build stuff, dig stuff, change stuff, erosion, roads, farming – whatever, bones happen. And someone around Beachy Head, the large cliff to the West of Eastbourne, happened to have their bones dug up. At least that’s what was thought.

The Beachy Head woman’s skull (Credit: Copyright Graham Huntley – used without permission)

There was little information, although it became clear the skeleton was of a female, around 1.5m (5’ or 5’1”).

The skeleton was taken to a facial reconstruction expert, Professor Caroline Wilkinson. She, allegedly, immediately said “You realise you’ve got a sub-Saharan African here?”

So, what’s the big deal? African people exist in Britain and they have done for some time. Well, when the skeleton was Radiocarbon dated, a means of estimating the age of something by looking at changes in the carbon atoms – She was found to have been buried around 200-250 CE.

Roman Era.

There would have been many Africans, or people of African origin in Britain. At one point Emperor Septimius Severus, an Emperor of North African origin, would visit Britain, indeed he died in York.

A reconstruction of the Beachy Head Woman’s face (Credit: Source unknown, used without permission)

But sub-Saharan? That’s unusual.

Not even the Romans, who controlled various territories in North Africa from modern-day Morocco to Egypt, had much contact with sub-Saharan Africans. Clearly, then, sub-Saharan Africa was rich with pioneers. People willing to move from their own lands, barely brushed by the Romans, and move to the Roman Empire’s most northwest fringe.

What’s more, further study indicated this woman was not necessarily a migrant. She was South-East English. She would have been a sub-Saharan African woman, either come to Britain at a very early age or else likely born here, raised in the South of England.

The skeleton, the woman’s teeth, they were in good condition. There is a belief that this woman was potentially important, a wealthy woman to some extent. Archaeological works are on-going as far as I know. This remarkable story is only just beginning and I hope more of it can be revealed, but it’s an incredible highlight of something very important. You can read more here. Or via a BBC News article here.

I live on the South Coast. It’s…needlessly racist, unbearably xenophobic, anti-immigration as a matter of course. Being raised in one of our towns with a liberal view of immigration is the rarity. It is remarkable that the current home of so much disdain for international exchange of the various members of the human population is home to what is currently believed to be the oldest known sub-Saharan African person, a woman, possibly of some status, who was simultaneously, possibly, African, Roman and English.

The Beachy Head Woman’s skeleton (and her facial reconstruction behind) as it was laid out in the Eastbourne Redoubt Fortress Pavillion in 2014. It is only remarkable to consider the multicultural, multiethnicism of England’s past through the eyes of a near-historic, myopic, whitewashed lens. The world’s history, the history of global population migrations, are ones of pioneers of colour wandering anywhere and everywhere seeking opportunity and a place to call home. (Credit: Copyright Graham Huntley – used without permission)

Multiculturalism is the rule, not the exception. Moving and mixing is our success, and history is built upon foundations of cultural mixing and exchange, not segregation and withholding.

The Beachy Head Woman is another nail in the coffin of a historic ‘white’ identity for ‘Britishness’ or ‘Englishness’. She and her family were here before many of those who today espouse the view that ‘England is for the English’ – where ‘English’ merely means white.

It is a huge thing to know, to think about, to consider, possessing artefacts and evidence of.

It was all made possible by archaeology.

Sadly, this academic discipline is in trouble. Various archaeology departments are at risk, not least the departments of the University of Chester and the University of Sheffield.

The world’s most famous (fictional) archaeologist, Dr. Indiana Jones, thoroughly disapproves of the current course of academic archaeology in the United Kingdom (Credit: Eva Rinaldi, CC-BY-SA 2.0)

As I understand it the problem is mainly financial. An archaeology degree is an expensive qualification for a job that brings little financial reward, and there are few grants available as it is not considered a ‘vital’ subject, or a ‘STEM’ subject or a priority for government funding. Despite the fact we have a government obsessed with history (so much so some, not saying me, would argue their policies are rooted in medieval feudalism) and its preservation. It’s clear what they want to preserve is ‘their’ history, not history itself, ‘our’ history, ‘the’ history.

The thing is historians can’t do shit without archaeologists. Historiographers maybe can, be even then they’re not getting any old documents to read, they’re not getting the Vindolanda tablets or the Nemesis inscription at Chester’s Amphitheatre.

You can sign a petition and spread the word to save Chester’s archaeology department here.

You can sign a petition to save Sheffield’s archaeology department here.

We certainly wouldn’t have evidence of what is a black woman in the South of England in the 3rd century CE! A vital pivot in ensuring we can, evidentially, shift the narrative of the UK and England’s history away from white dominance and make people understand the movements of all different peoples of all different skin tones over all of time.

I don’t want to live in a world where nobody can afford to be an archaeologist and living in a whitewashed hellhole of a country where what is historically accurate is not decided by artefact and open, academic interpretation, but by myth, politic and ideology. I’ve already warned about that in my Bad History: Boudica article.

So cheers, Eastbourne. I had a great time, you’re an interesting place and I wouldn’t have had these thoughts without you.

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Published by Karl Anthony Mercer

Like a dark-chocolate fountain at a weight loss party, Karl Anthony Mercer is an under-utilised river of bittersweetness. When not busy researching or writing about any and all non-fiction topics for 'We Lack Discipline' Karl can often be found walking, staring at wildlife or writing poetry.

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