Local historian Chris Horlock reveals the story of Shoreham Fort and an amusing incident in Hastings

Great British Life: Swing bridge at Newhaven in 1974Swing bridge at Newhaven in 1974 (Image: Archant)

The derelict Shoreham Fort stands at the mouth of the River Adur, where an enthusiastic group of volunteers continues to excavate and renovate, hoping one day to restore the whole structure to how it looked back in 1857 when it first came ‘on station.’ It was built, like Littlehampton Fort and the one at Newhaven, to counter any invasion threat from the French. In the 1850s, France was ruled by Napoleon III (1852-73), a nephew of the famous Bonaparte, who had tried to subjugate Europe earlier in the century. When a major refitting and modernisation of the French fleet took place, Britain because suspicious that this was the start of another invasion plan.

Shoreham Fort was manned by men of the 1st Sussex Artillery Volunteers who had state-of-the-art guns to use. Before, a typical cannon could fire shot about 800 yards. The six guns installed at Shoreham could reach 4,000 yards, easily able to tear into ships way out at sea. A landing party would have to negotiate a 15ft ditch, then a 12ft high wall, as well as continual rifle fire, to take the fort. The building was well-appointed, with its barrack block, demolished in 1958, housing stores, officers’ quarters, a guard room, prison cell, kitchen, cook house and dormitories for 35 NCOs and Privates.

The fort was manned for about 50 years but never saw an attack. In World War II, a battery of modern guns was installed, but subsequently the fort was abandoned and dismantled and gradually became a ruin. The Friends of Shoreham Fort stage some lively open days, where guided tours take place, military vehicles are on show, children are taught some basic drilling by an extremely strict Sergeant Major, and it’s even been known for Queen Victoria herself to appear, inspecting the troops. The highlight of the day though is when the full firing of a period gun is demonstrated - an unforgettable experience.

Whistle while you work

An amusing incident, probably from the 1920s, occurred when the belfry of All Saints’ church at Hastings was being whitewashed. The painter was vigorously at work, whistling an up-tempo dance tune, his brushstrokes keeping time with the rhythm. The parson appeared with a stern look on his face and rebuked the man, asking if the tune was a suitable one to be heard in the house of God. The painter apologised and immediately changed his whistling to an extremely slow version of the hymn Old Hundredth, again marking time with his brush. After a few moments the parson told him to get back to the first tune, or the job would never get done!

Bridges through time

In 1974 the present swing bridge at Newhaven was installed over the River Ouse, replacing the old, manually-operated one dating from 1866. The old bridge was made of iron and took eight men to open, operating a capstan-like mechanism, turning it round on a central pivot, so as to let ships pass either side. But this in itself was a replacement for an even earlier bridge, built following an Act passed by George III in 1784. This first bridge was wooden, operating on a cantilever drawbridge system, and still features on the crest of Newhaven Town Council. The bridge’s periodic opening today causes long tailbacks on the A259 and a lot of frustrated drivers.

More tales of Sussex past

Chris Horlock’s book, Illustrated Tales of Sussex, published by Amberley, is full of quirky tales of the county, similar to those in his Eye on the Past column. Available from local bookshops or online at Amazon.