This picture dates from 1955 when I was six, and we still had our black and white dog Flossie. Our rented cottage was Toll Gate, just round the corner at the Southwold end of Ferry Road, which must at one time have been a toll road. The 18 pounder cannons on Gun Hill rested on four stone kerbstones apiece. They had been in use since the guns were replaced, having been buried during the war; the original wooden gun carriages had been lost. The wood could easily be replaced, but the iron wheels provided more of a challenge.
The dog I have told you about; the little boy in the shorts of course is me! Apart from the guns having been returned to wooden gun carriages – a change which happened not long after the photograph was taken – not much has changed. The white house in the background seems much as it did, and only a beacon to the seaward side of the guns has appeared, erected to join in with the millennium celebrations in the year 2000.
One thing that has changed from the days when I first remember Gun Hill has been the disappearance of the Coastguard. Every settlement round the coast used to have a Coastguard station. The one at Trimingaham shown on my 1880 OS map fell into the sea many years before I was born. The neat little Coastguard’s tower at Mundesley was much more modern but that too has been closed and is now a small maritime museum. There is now no Coastguard building in East Anglia, the last station to go being that at Yarmouth, closed in May 2013. The use of the helicopter for Search and Rescue has appeared since I was a boy and has made a great difference. Even the telephone did not exist outside London in 1880 when Trimingham had a coastguard. With all these improvements in communication is was inevitable that the Coastguard Service would change. Coastguards, when they first appeared, had nothing to do with saving the lives of distressed sailors. They were to guard the Revenue and their function was to apprehend smugglers. The more humanitarian aspect came later.
In the summer of 2013 the volunteer coastguards did sterling work in rescuing dozens of swimmers who got into difficulty off Southwold beach. Nonetheless we miss the reassuring sight of the official coastguard, scanning the horizon with his binoculars. It is true that he did not see anything for most of the day, and when a ship did pass by on the horizon nothing untoward occurred 99.9% of the time. The Coastguard look-out post (called the Casino) on Gun Hill has been turned into the studio for the local broadcasts of Radio Blyth. Previously it had been a reading room run by the Museum; people appear to have forgotten its use as a coastguard station. The three sliding windows were for an unimpeded view out to sea. The Casino was built in the early 19th century, when it had steeper roof and Georgian windows. Clearly it must have had some purpose, but the date seems rather early to me for it to have been either a reading room or a coastguard station.
In a similar way to the development of today’s Coastguard Service the Beach Companies of 1800 evolved from only being interested in salvage for profit to become the lifeboatmen of 1900s, risking their own lives to save those of others. The process that turned these men from villains to heroes was interesting. Even in the late 19th century the whiff of wrecking by displaying misleading lights hung round the Beach Companies. One lifeboatman who risked his life in saving the crews of wrecked boats also picked up his living by salvage. When accused by a coroner of profiting from the misfortunes of others he replied: “No Sir, we profit from the mistakes of others.”
Southwold was first supplied with canons in the reign of Charles I to protect the town from raids by privateers from Dunkirk. Some 120 years later the corporation petitioned the crown (by then George II) for larger ordnance. This the government granted, but the six 18 pounders were to be paid for by the townspeople. The guns were by no means new and were probably cast in the reign of Elizabeth I.
The guns used to be fired on special occasions until an unfortunate incident occurred on the 9th of November 1842. The occasion was the first birthday of the Prince Albert, Queen Victoria’s eldest son. The town was anxious to demonstrate its loyalty by firing a salute. When the 2nd charge was being loaded into No 1 gun it exploded in the barrel, instantly killing James Martin who left a widow and three young children destitute. The guns were never fired again. Now the only things to fill the barrel are ice cream wrappers and sweet papers. The observant amongst you, and those who are also familiar with Gun Hill today will notice than the elevation of the gun barrels is no longer nearly 45˚as they were when the these photos were taken, but horizontal. They are obviously now aimed much closer to the shore!
During the First World War the guns were buried so as not to attract the attention of the Germans, although they were already 200 years old and not really a threat in the age of high explosive shells. The cannons were obviously too important to go to the collection of scrap metal during the Second World War, though the amount of metal in these guns would have equalled many elegant railings.
Gun Hill represents the southern end of the hill on which the town of Southwold stands. From there down to the harbour mouth only low-lying sand hills stand between the sea and the salt marshes of Southwold common. This area is mostly deserted except by sunbathing tourists in the summer. Up until the early twentieth century this was a hive of activity for fishermen with their boats pulled up on the beach. This pattern was repeated along the whole foreshore down to where the pier has stood since 1900. The sheds that lined the beach then were not the brightly painted beach huts of today but tarred fishermen’s huts interspersed with the horse-drawn bathing machines.