Esplanade looking West, Seaford
Publisher: Arrow Series
Esplanade Hotel on the right.
In the Middle Ages, Seaford was one of the main ports serving Southern England, but the town’s fortunes declined due to coastal sedimentation silting up its harbour and persistent raids by French pirates. The coastal confederation of Cinque Ports in the mediaeval period consisted of forty-two towns and villages; Seaford was included under the “Limb” of Hastings. Between 1350 and 1550, the French burned down the town several times. In the 16th century, the people of Seaford were known as the “cormorants” or “shags” because of their enthusiasm for looting ships wrecked in the bay. Local legend has it that Seaford residents would, on occasion, cause ships to run aground by placing fake harbour lights on the cliffs. Seaford’s fortunes revived in the 19th century with the arrival of the railway connecting the town to Lewes and London. It became a small seaside resort town, and more recently a dormitory town for the nearby larger settlements of Eastbourne and Brighton, as well as for London.
Various companies were set up to try to develop the town as a resort. A better, but far from impregnable, sea wall was built, the elevated roadways from the Steyne to the sea front were constructed, and the promenade and the first terraced houses were built facing the sea including in 1891 the Esplanade Hotel, the flagship of theenterprise. In 1905 Edward VII honoured Seaford by staying in the Esplanade Hotel. The town was aiming to imitate Brighton, but the entrepreneurial Seaford Bay Estate Company had overlooked the rigours of Seaford’s winter gales and their few seaside homes and lodgings were never to prove commercially viable.
The Company’s proposed developments were very grandiose and the whole area from Splash Point to the present end of Dane Road was planned on the lines of Brighton with 12 parallel roads of terraced houses running back in serried rows from the Esplanade to College Road and Steine Road (sic) only relieved by a miniature ‘Royal Crescent’ on the centre line of the Martello Tower. Behind this, Cricket Field was to be flanked on the north and east by 22 seaside bungalows (of three storeys!), nine of which were actually built before the company went bankrupt and any further permanent development subsided under the threat and eventual demands of the Great War.
In an Edwardian guide to the town the Esplanade Hotel is extolled as being a very handsome and ornate building with over 50 rooms, and ‘furnished in recherche style’.There were also the less prestigious Bay Hotel in Pelham Road and the New Inn, which became the Wellington Hotel, and several other lesser hotels and boarding houses. There were bathing machines ‘of the most improved style’, boats for hire, and yacht trips in the bay. Later the old Martello Tower offered ‘teas and refreshments’and roller skating round its dry moat, so the town did a reasonable trade in the summer season. The grand development, however, was dead. There was not the demand for yet another resort in the 20 miles of coast between Brighton and Eastbourne, and Seaford, having lost its Duke of Newcastle, was in no position to vie with ‘Prinny’ or the Duke of Devonshire – the patrons of its more prosperous neighbours. The Esplanade Hotel survived for about 80 years and the rumbustious old town took on a more genteel aspect, but it somehow became more withdrawn. The sea front remained half developed and half derelict and, without the right atmosphere, the entrepreneurial spirit also died.
Seaford Museum & Heritage Society