Our research recently took us to the seaside town of Selsey in West Sussex on the south coast of England, at the tip of the low-lying Manhood Peninsula, some 8 miles due south of the cathedral city of Chichester. Bounded by the sea on two sides, with fertile farmland to the north, Selsey was once virtually an island. Even now, there is only one main route into the town – the road from Chichester. It was on Selsey island that Christianity was introduced to Sussex around AD 680 when St Wilfrid was driven ashore during a storm and subsequently founded a monastery and cathedral there. Both have long disappeared beneath the sea due to coastal erosion.
Today, Selsey is part-seaside resort and part-dormitory town for Chichester. For centuries the main occupations were farming, fishing and smuggling, but in the 19th century Selsey began to thrive as a seaside resort. During the 1930s, when holiday camps were becoming popular, Broadreeds Holiday Camp was built, designed on a Spanish theme. In World War Two, the camp was used as accommodation for handicapped children evacuated from London, though its location right on the south coast made it a target for attack. In the summer of 1940, after concerns were raised about the position of guns and searchlights, a decision was made to move the children from the camp on 27th August. Before that happened, a German bomber attacked the searchlights on the night of the 19th, and a soldier and three civilians were killed. As a result, steps were taken to move everyone immediately.
After the war, Broadreeds became a Pontin’s holiday camp, in an era before foreign holidays were commonplace. In October 1987, severe damage occurred in the hurricane that hit a large part of southern England. The holiday camp shut down, and it has since been demolished and the site redeveloped with housing.
The main war memorial in Selsey stands outside the church of St Peter in the High Street, but in 2012 a memorial to the four people who lost their lives at Broadreeds in 1940 was erected by the seashore, on land that was once part of the holiday camp.
The memorial comprises a concrete slab supporting a plaque on which the inscription reads:
BROADREEDS HOLIDAY CAMP WAS SITED HERE
DURING WORLD WAR II
IT WAS A REFUGE FOR LONDON EVACUEES
ON 19 AUGUST 1940
AN ENEMY BOMB FELL ON THE CAMP
KILLING 4 PERSONS
GNR WILLIAM A HARDING RA AGED 21
THOMAS H MARTIN AGED 13
WINIFRED E TWIST AGED 41
JEAN L WHYTELAW AGED 40
The soldier was Gunner William Harding of the Royal Artillery. Thomas Martin was an evacuee from London. Winifred Twist and Jean Whytelaw were a teacher and a helper at the camp, though it is unclear who held what role. If anyone knows, please get in touch.
Just a few yards away from the Broadreeds memorial is another plaque, this one relating to an earlier era. The inscription reads:
SELSEY HERITAGE TRAIL/ GIBBET FIELD/ AS A WARNING TO OTHERS/ THE BODIES OF TWO SMUGGLERS/ EXECUTED IN 1749/ WERE HUNG IN CHAINS/ FROM THE GIBBET/ THAT STOOD IN THIS FIELD/ MUCH OF WHICH IS NOW/ UNDER THE SEA/ WEST SUSSEX COUNTY COUNCIL
In the 18th century, almost constant warfare led to high taxation in Britain on many imported goods such as brandy, wine, gin, lace, tea and tobacco. No moral or social stigma was attached to tax evasion, and all levels of society were happy to buy cheap smuggled goods. Smuggling in the Georgian era was an immense business, and virtually the entire coastline of Britain was a landing place for smuggled goods. Being so close to the Continent, the Sussex coast was especially busy.
Although viewed today as exciting and romantic, some of the smugglers were career criminals, involved in all kinds of crime, including highway robbery and housebreaking. Dick Turpin, for instance, was a smuggler and a highwayman. In October 1747, members of one ruthless gang from Kent carried out a daring raid on the custom house at Poole in Dorset so as to retrieve contraband tea that had been confiscated. While returning home through the New Forest, one smuggler was recognised by Daniel Chater, a shoemaker. For a reward, Chater agreed to give evidence before a Justice of the Peace at Chichester, and he was being escorted there by William Galley, a customs officer, when the pair became lost in the lonely countryside. Fearing for their own livelihoods, several local smugglers brutally murdered the two men.
Seven men were eventually captured and tried at Chichester in January 1749 – for murder, not smuggling. Five of them were sentenced to be hanged and then suspended in iron chains from a gibbet as a warning to others. One man died before he could be hanged, but the remaining four were executed just outside Chichester. One was hanged in chains near the scene of the crime and another just north of Chichester. The other two, John Cobby and John Hammond, both came from near Selsey, and they were hung in chains close to what was then a remote coastline, where they could be seen for miles at sea.