Eastbourne has a poor, lost and overlooked refugee. Hidden behind a noticeboard in the churchyard of St Mary’s Church, Eastbourne is an unusual but brilliantly decorated ‘Cornish Cross’. The cross was kidnapped from its home and brought to Sussex exactly 200 years ago.
The culprit was Davies Giddy who lived at Tredrea, St Erth near Hayle in Cornwall and was the curate of St Erth Church. Born in 1767, he had an interest in astronomy, mathematics and engineering. He was friends with people like Humphrey Davy, Thomas Telford and Richard Trevithick and was interested in using steam power to run railway trains.
Giddy became the High Sheriff of Cornwall and served as the MP for Bodmin from 1806 until 1832. He fell in love with Mary Jane Gilbert, the only child of the family who owned the Manor House in Eastbourne and, after they married on 18th April 1808, he agreed to take her name. They lived at the Manor House in Eastbourne, in Cornwall and in London where he stayed to be close to Parliament.
Gilbert seemed to be an effective MP, he campaigned for the abolition of tax on salt in order to help the fishermen of Padstow. He also chose Isambard Kingdom Brunel as the designer of the famous Clifton Suspension Bridge.
Gilbert was a keen geologist and antiquarian, and was particularly interested in the long history of Cornwall. He wrote a four-volume history of the county and even wrote books in the Cornish language. He was the President of the prestigious Royal Society in London.
With this background, it is surprising that he chose to uproot a symbol of ancient Cornwall and move it to Sussex. Gilbert had noticed an old Cornish Cross just off the road between Truro and Redruth in the parish of Kenwyn. The large cross, about eight feet tall was being used as a gatepost. He thought that the ancient relic needed to be rescued and originally was going to take it to his home in Tredrea. His relative John Giddy arranged with the farmer for the removal of the cross and for a proper gate-post to be built in its place.
The cross was probably taken to Tredrea where Gilbert changed his mind and decided that it would be better to re-erect it 300 miles away at his home in Eastbourne. The cross was taken to London by road and then sent by sea to Hastings and it finished its trip by road again.
On 10th December 1817 Colonel Ellicomb of the Royal Engineers assisted Gilbert in erecting the cross in the grounds of the Manor House (now Manor Gardens) by using an ‘Artillery Triangle Fall Block’. Sadly, it is likely that this wonderful cross was seen by less people than when it was beside the road near Truro.
Giddy was once asked by a Cornish friend, the Reverend-Canon Hockin of Phillack, why he had taken the stone from Cornwall. He replied that the poor ignorant folk of Sussex needed to be shown that there was something bigger in the world than flint. The vicar replied “We are robbed!”
The stone stood behind the walls of the Manor House for many years and in 1890 the Cornish historian Arthur Langdon visited Eastbourne to inspect the stone. He was writing a book on Cornish crosses and although he had listed and illustrated dozens of examples, thought that the one at Eastbourne was particularly fine. He made a detailed report which included fine drawings. He wrote that there were only seven of a similar design, but the Eastbourne cross was the most ornate of all. He records that the cross measured 8 feet 2 inches tall and was made of elvan, a hard granite-like Cornish stone. As for a date, Langdon said the cross was ‘early’ but since then it has been dated to the 10th century.
In July 1895 the Sussex Archaeological Society visited Eastbourne as guests of the Duke of Devonshire. They visited the Town Hall, St Mary’s Church and the cellars under the Lamb Inn. They then went to inspect the Cornish Cross in the Manor Gardens.
It seems that a short time later, and certainly by 1902, the cross was removed to the eastern end of St Mary’s Churchyard, very close to the Lamb Inn.
The Eastbourne Pagan Circle report that the cross is “obviously phallic” which is clearly not the case (if it is, they must have seen some strange penises!) however I do agree with their statement that the disc face does not actually bear a conventional Christian cross. They report that some form of survey of the cross was completed by a Pagan historian called Colin Murray in 1975. He concluded that cross was a ‘megalithic measuring stone’. Whether it is a Christian cross or a Pagan megalith it is clear that centuries ago it served some important purpose. It was either revered itself, marked an important place or had some ritual use that we have now forgotten.
So, what of the cross today? It is still in a good condition although sadly it is hidden behind the church noticeboard so no longer really visible from the road. Have a look at it next time you are at the church or having a pint in the Lamb. Maybe it would be better if it was returned to its home in Cornwall where I believe it will be appreciated much more than in Eastbourne. What do you think?