Bexhill-on-Sea (often simply Bexhill) is a town and seaside resort in the county of East Sussex, in the south of England, within the District of Rother. It has a population of approximately 40,000. Before it became a seaside resort it was simply known as Bexhill Village. The earliest evidence of occupation of the site came from the discovery of primitive boats at Egerton Park. The town came into official existence with the Charter of 772 AD. In this charter, King Offa II, King of Mercia, granted land to Bishop Oswald to build a church. Three hundred years later, around 1066, William the Conqueror gave the Rape of Hastings, including the captured town of Bexhill (also referred to as the “Badman Town”), to Robert, Count of Eu, as the spoils of victory.
Smuggling was rife in the area in the early nineteenth century. In 1828, the local Little Common Gang were involved in what was known as the Battle of Sidley Green, Sidley being an area in the north of Bexhill. Many Bexhill families were involved in the smuggling to a greater or lesser degree. The Pocock family, who used to run the butcher shop at the far end of the High Street, are known to have been involved in smuggling in the late 18th century. Many residents defended the smugglers against the men of the Coast Blockade.
Late at night on January 3rd 1828, a running battle between smugglers and blockademen shattered the peace of this sleepy but secretive community. Smugglers from the Little Common Gang had landed an illicit cargo on the shore and were racing to bring it inland, with men of the Coast Blockade on hot pursuit. An eyewitness staying at the Bell Inn saw smugglers taking a wounded man and a cartload of goods into the yard of the Inn. He also reported villagers shouting from their windows to the smugglers below, warning them that the blockademen were close behind.
The Old Town once had a military presence; barracks had been built for the militia at the bottom of Belle Hill in 1798 and these were extended all up to the Old Town in 1804, to accommodate soldiers of the King’s German Legion. This was a regiment of soldiers from Hanover who became part of the British army during the Napoleonic wars. The soldiers left Bexhill in 1814 and the barracks were dismantled in 1822. One local man said of those days, “When the barracks was here, Bexhill was a perky little place sure enough, but awful bad, ‘publics’ the were open day and night. ” There is a local legend that Napoleon received English newspapers, which had been taken out of the country illegally by a Bexhill smuggler.
This is the Manor Barn, a beautifully restored 15th century building, now used as function and banqueting rooms.
The manor of Gotham in Bexhill was held by the de Lyvet (Levett) family from an early date. (The Levetts held land at Firle, Catsfield, Ninfield, South Heighton and West Dean and elsewhere, some of which was lost due to an heir’s bankruptcy.) Thomas de Lyvet, son of Richard, granted Gotham manor to James Fiennes, 1st Baron Saye and Sele. Thomas’s daughter Elizabeth, who married William Gildredge of Withyham, unsuccessful disputed Gotham manor in 1445. The Gildredge family later lived at nearby Eastbourne, where by 1554 they owned much of the land. Today’s Gildredge Park in Eastbourne is named for the family. Most of the Gildredge lands were carried by marriage into the Gilbert (now Davies-Gilbert) family of Eastbourne, who made the Gildredge manor house their own.
The church owned Bexhill Manor until Queen Elizabeth I acquired it in 1590 and granted it to Thomas Sackville, then Baron Buckhurst. Thomas became the first Earl of Dorset in 1603. In 1813, when the male line of the earldom had died out, Elizabeth Sackville married the fifth Earl De La Warr, and she and her husband inherited Bexhill. In 1965 the Manor House and the remaining gardens were bought by Bexhill Corporation and laid out as a public garden.
This early history can still be seen in street names, with Sackville Road, Buckhurst Road, De La Warr Parade, and King Offa Way being some of the most significant roads in the town. The sign tells us that it’s only 3 1/2 miles to St Leonards. It’s time to go home.