Eastbourne is a large town and borough in East Sussex, on the south coast of England. It is situated immediately east of Beachy Head, the highest chalk sea cliff in Great Britain and an area of outstanding natural beauty. This sheltered position contributes to Eastbourne’s title of sunniest place in Great Britain.
Eastbourne is a relatively new town. Prior to 1800, the area existed as four separate hamlets and surrounding farmland. The town grew as a fashionable tourist resort largely thanks to prominent landowner, William Cavendish, later known as the Duke of Devonshire. Cavendish appointed architect Henry Currey to design a street plan for the town, but not before sending him off to Europe to draw inspiration. The resulting mix of architecture is typically Victorian and remains a key feature of Eastbourne. As a seaside resort, Eastbourne derives a large and increasing income from tourism. Conferences, public events, parks, traditional seaside attractions and cultural sightseeing are among the things on offer. The other main industries in Eastbourne include: trade and retail, healthcare, education, construction, manufacturing, professional scientific and the technical sector. The town has a growing population; it currently stands at 98,493. The 2011 census shows that the average age of residents has decreased as the town has attracted students, families and those commuting to London and Brighton.
Flint mines and other Stone Age artefacts have been found in the surrounding countryside, and there are Roman remains buried beneath the town, such as a Roman bath and section of pavement between the present pier and the redoubt fortress, and a Roman villa near the entrance to the pier and the present Queens Hotel. An Anglo-Saxon charter, circa 963 AD, describes a landing stage and stream at Bourne. Following the Norman Conquest, the Hundred of what is now Eastbourne, was held by Robert, Count of Mortain, William the Conqueror's half brother. The Domesday Book lists 28 ploughlands, a church, a watermill, fisheries and salt pans.
A charter for a weekly market was granted to Bartholomew de Badlesmere in 1315–16; this increased his status as Lord of the Manor and improved local industry. During the Middle Ages the town was visited by King Henry I and in 1324 by Edward II. Evidence of Eastbourne's medieval past can seen in the twelfth century Church of St Mary, and the manor house called Bourne Place. In the mid-sixteenth century the house was home to the Burton family, who acquired much of the land on which the present town stands. This manor house is owned by the Duke of Devonshire and was extensively remodelled in the early Georgian era when it was renamed Compton Place. It is one of the two Grade I listed buildings in the town.
Eastbourne's earliest claim as a seaside resort came about following a summer holiday visit by four of King George III's children in 1780 (Princes Edward and Octavius, and Princesses Elizabeth and Sophia). In 1793, following a survey of coastal defences in the southeast, approval was given for the positioning of infantry and artillery to defend the bay between Beachy Head and Hastings from attack by the French. 14 Martello Towers were constructed along the western shore of Pevensey Bay, continuing as far as Tower 73, the Wish Tower at Eastbourne. Several of these towers survive: the Wish Tower is an important feature of the town's seafront, and part of Tower 68 forms the basement of a house on St. Antony's Hill. Between 1805 and 1807, the construction took place of a fortress known as the Eastbourne Redoubt, which was built as a barracks and storage depot, and armed with 10 cannons.
Eastbourne remained an area of small rural settlements until the 19th century. Four villages or hamlets occupied the site of the modern town: Bourne (or, to distinguish it from others of the same name, East Bourne), is now known as Old Town, and this surrounded the bourne (stream) which rises in the present Motcombe Park; Meads, where the Downs meet the coast; South Bourne (near the town hall); and the fishing settlement known simply as Sea Houses, which was situated to the east of the present pier.
By the mid–19th century most of the area had fallen into the hands of two landowners: John Davies Gilbert (the Davies-Gilbert family still own much of the land in Eastbourne and East Dean) and William Cavendish, Earl of Burlington. The Gilbert family's holdings date to the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries when barrister Nicholas Gilbert married an Eversfield and Gildredge heiress. (The Gildredges owned much of Eastbourne by 1554. The Gilberts eventually made the Gildredge Manor House their own. Today the Gildredge name lives on in the eponymous park.)
In 1752, a dissertation by Doctor Richard Russell extolled the medicinal benefits of the seaside. His views were of considerable benefit to the south coast and, in due course, Eastbourne became known as “the Empress of Watering Places".
An early plan, for a town named Burlington, was abandoned, but on 14 May 1849 the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway arrived to scenes of great jubilation. With the arrival of the railway, the town's growth accelerated. Cavendish, now the 7th Duke of Devonshire, hired Henry Currey in 1859 to lay out a plan for what was essentially an entire new town – a resort built "for gentlemen by gentlemen". The town grew rapidly from a population of less than 4,000 in 1851 to nearly 35,000 by 1891. In 1883, it was incorporated as a municipal borough; a purpose-built town hall was opened in 1886. This period of growth and elegant development continued for several decades. A royal visit by George V and Queen Mary in March 1935 is commemorated by a plaque on chalet number 2 at Holywell.
The Second World War saw a change in fortunes. Initially, children were evacuated to Eastbourne on the assumption that they would be safe from German bombs, but soon they had to be evacuated again because after the fall of France in June 1940 it was anticipated that the town would lie in an invasion zone. Part of Operation Sea Lion, the German invasion plan, envisaged landings at Eastbourne. Many people sought safety away from the coast and shut up their houses. Restrictions on visitors forced the closure of most hotels, and private boarding schools moved away. Many of these empty buildings were later taken over by the services. The Royal Navy set up an underwater weapons school, and the Royal Air Force operated radar stations at Beachy Head and on the marshes near Pevensey. Thousands of Canadian soldiers were billeted in and around Eastbourne from July 1941 to the run-up to D-Day. The town suffered badly during the war, with many Victorian and Edwardian buildings damaged or destroyed by air raids. Indeed, by the end of the conflict it was designated by the Home Office to have been ‘the most raided town in the South East region’. The situation was especially bad between May 1942 and June 1943 with hit–and–run raids from fighter–bombers based in northern France.
In the summer of 1956 the town came to national and worldwide attention, when Dr John Bodkin Adams, a general practitioner serving the town's wealthier patients, was arrested for the murder of an elderly widow. Rumours had been circulating since 1935 regarding the frequency of his being named in patients' wills (132 times between 1946 and 1956) and the gifts he was given (including two Rolls Royces). Figures of up to 400 murders were reported in British and foreign newspapers, but after a controversial trial at the Old Bailey which gripped the nation for 17 days in March 1957, Adams was found not guilty. He was struck off for 4 years but resumed his practice in Eastbourne in 1961. According to Scotland Yard's archives, he is thought to have killed up to 163 patients in the Eastbourne area.
After the war, development continued, including the growth of Old Town up the hillside (Green Street Farm Estate) and the housing estates of Hampden Park, Willingdon Trees and Langney. During the latter half of the 20th century, there were controversies over the demolition of Pococks, a 15th-century manor house on what is now the Rodmill housing estate, and the granting of planning permission for a 19-storey block at the western end of the seafront. The latter project (South Cliff Tower) was realised in 1965 despite a storm of protest led by the newly formed Eastbourne and District Preservation Committee, which later became Eastbourne Civic Society, and was renamed The Eastbourne Society in 1999. Local conservationists also failed to prevent the construction of the glass-plated TGWU conference and holiday centre, but were successful in purchasing Polegate Windmill, thus saving it from demolition and redevelopment. Most of the expansion took place on the northern and eastern margins of the town, gradually swallowing surrounding villages. However, the richer western part was constrained by the Downs and has remained largely unchanged.
In 1981, a large section of the town centre was replaced by the indoor shops of the Arndale Centre.
In the 1990s, both growth and controversy accelerated rapidly as a new plan was launched to develop the area known as the Crumbles, a shingle bank on the coast to the east of the town centre. This area, now known as Sovereign Harbour, containing a marina, shops, and several thousand houses, along with luxury flats and apartments, was formerly home to many rare plants. Continued growth in other parts of the town, and the taming of the central marshland into farmland and nature reserves, has turned Eastbourne into the centre of a conurbation, with the appearance from above of a hollow ring. Currently under review is the demolition of some of the town centre, to extend the existing Arndale shopping centre, and the adaptation of several existing roads to form an inner ring road. In 2009 the new Towner Arts centre was opened abutting the listed Congress Theatre built in 1963.