On the morning of Sunday 14th November 1875 the good people of Seaford braved stormy weather to attend church. The town was already on alert as high tide was expected at midday and, although seawalls had been built, the area of land between the sea and the town, (the Beamlands), regularly flooded during the winter months. Local fishermen, including the Templemans, Cheals and Greens, calculated that there was going to be trouble and were up early to struggle through the teaming rain to take as much of their equipment as they could carry off the beach to the safety of the town. Some householders took the precaution of boarding up their front doors. Bathing machines were bought inland for safety.
At 9am, three hours before high-tide, people who ventured onto the shore saw mountainous seas and although the salty sea-spray stung their eyes, they noted the first breaches of the sea walls.
That morning the people of Seaford were to witness the most devastating flooding in centuries. The rain fell in torrents and many of the houses closest to the beach literally rocked in the high winds. Although the newspapers later referred to the event as a ‘tidal wave’ it was to go down in history as Seaford’s ‘Great Flood’.
There were several buildings on the seafront, the stalwart thick defensive walls of the Martello Tower, the Battery House, which stood within the defensive walls of the old fort-like battery, the Assembly Rooms and Bathhouse. The only occupant of the battery was an artilleryman called Cox with Richard Simmons and his family living at the Baths. At 9.30am, realising the danger they abandoned their homes for the safety of the town. Shortly afterwards the walls of the battery fell, followed by the bathhouse which was flooded by the ever greater waves. A few weeks earlier a large Norwegian ship, The Soblonsen, full of timber had anchored in Seaford Bay. The ship had been abandoned but now broke up in the hurricane-force winds. The ships timbers became battering-rams and added even further danger to the increasing violent waves.
As the service at St Leonard’s Church continued, the crashing waves finally broke through into the town. The ground-floor of West House on the corner of Pelham Road and The Steyne was soon flooded. (ironically a steyne is a local name for a sea-wall) The proprietor Mrs Bull, a young German teacher, called Ebbinghaus, a lady visitor and five pupils took to the upper floors.
Mr Wood, the butcher, who had premises in South Street, realised his pony and pet dog were in the stables behind his shop. He waked chest deep through the advancing water but was unable to open the doors due to the pressure of the water. He entered the stable from a roof hatch, but as he did so, his retriever jumped onto his shoulders knocked him off his feet and nearly drowned him. He managed to open the stable doors and let his horse swim to safety but by this time much of the lower part of the town was under water with a mass of timber, carts, bathing machines and personal property which had been washed out of houses.
The Marine Terrace, the New Inn (now the Wellington) most of the houses in the Lower High Street and Steyne Road including Saxon Lodge were soon inundated and debris which included chairs, tables, sofas, sideboards and even pianos crashed against houses in the ever increasing tide.
A rescue party was soon formed which consisted of Mr Pettit (a bricklayer), Mr Hilder (a butcher) Mr Richardson (the stationmaster) and several other local men. Their first task was to rescue the occupants of West House which was made more difficult as the back of the house had started to crumble away. They managed to rescue some cows, tethered behind Parliament Row and several horses that were trapped in stables.
Meanwhile Seaford’s fishermen were busy rescuing people from houses in Church Street, this had to be done by boat. One 93-year-old man called Hubbard refused to be rescued and decided to stay in bed until the tide dropped. The whole of his ground floor rooms were destroyed.
When the Church service at St Leonards ended and the parishioners filed out they were amazed to see the sea had almost reached the churchyard wall.
At Tide Mills the sea breached the sea-walls and filled the massive mill-ponds with shingle. The sea-walls at Blatchington Battery were also breached and the sea crashed against the railway embankment. Amazingly no one was reported killed or badly injured.
Eventually the tide receded but people were unable to return to their homes. The tide was just as high at midnight and their homes flooded again but this time without the high winds.
On Monday morning the residents of Seaford surveyed the damage unfortunately hampered by sightseers from Lewes who had travelled on the early trains to witness the destruction at first hand. The family homes of the Percivals, the Simmons, the Chapmans, the Russells, the Gorringes and many more had been destroyed, simply washed away in the storm. West House was a sorry sight; the sea had torn off its front and internal doors, the plaster from the front of the house had been washed away as had the downstairs wallpaper. Internal walls were knocked down and even the floorboards and mantelpieces had been dislodged.
Next door, the small cottages of Parliament Row were badly damaged. These were the homes of farm labourer George Woolgar, fisherman Robert Simmons, laundress Annie Reed and her husband Alfred, described by the local paper as hard-working, respectable people, who had lost everything. Richard Ockenden a wheelwright and undertaker also lost his workshop which was completely destroyed. His coffin lids and wheels were discovered all over the town.
The roads around Seaford were blocked with debris, household items and the carcases of rabbits and chickens. A billiard table from the Assembly rooms was found nearly a mile away. (It was returned to the seafront and left on the beach to dry out but got carried away on the next tide and was later found at Cuckmere Haven!)
There was considerable damage at Brighton and at Hastings but in Eastbourne there were little effects apart for some damage to the pier. The Eastbourne Gazette reported that it was the duty of the people of Eastbourne to assist their neighbour in distress. A national assistance fund was started and was advertised across the country.
Several of the flood refugees stayed at Corsica Hall, the home of the local MP John Fitzgerald who pledged money to assist in their welfare. Doctor Thomas Sanger and his wife agreed to assist the homeless at their home in Alfriston. In Seaford, St Leonards Church became a temporary home for refugees and their property.
The Bailiff (Mayor) of Seaford, William Turner, called a meeting on Wednesday 17thNovember to discuss the relief effort. (It was held at a local school as the Town Hall had also been badly damaged) It was agreed that “A committee be appointed to collect and disburse subscriptions for the purpose of relieving the cottage and others who have had their furniture and clothing destroyed by the recent flood”
The vicar gave a rousing speech saying that he hoped that this sad disaster would be the means to resuscitating the town and making it what local people wished it ought to be. This was no time for hanging one’s head low and having a sad face – it was time to put shoulders to the wheel!. He said that the poor people of Seaford had borne the disaster with remarkable patience despite their losses. He had particular praise for Seaford’s women saying that whilst the men had taken to drinking, the women had been wringing out their clothes, gathering their furniture and other items together and looking forward to better times. They had been cheering the men up and he suggested that the first hand-outs should be handed out to the wives and not the men.
The Great Flood of Seaford made the national newspapers and money was donated from all over the country. Within a week over £700 had been donated. (About £50,000 today.) and by the end of the month the sum reached £1,000.
The German schoolteacher who was rescued from West House, returned and narrowly escaped injury when he fell through an open cellar door hidden by flood water. He complained that he lost his hat, a coat, a pair of boots, some music and 30 shillings in cash. His name was Hermann Ebbinghaus and he returned to Germany where he became a pioneer psychologist. His works, particularly a book on memory, are still studied. Earlier this year Seaford Museum installed a blue plaque on West House to remember his stay.
It took nearly a century to finally make Seaford safe from the sea. Over the years sea-walls were built and sea-walls were destroyed. In the 1980s a false beach was created and, although this requires constant attention, it withstood the Great Storm of 1987 and many other storms since.