Harry’s Ramblings Tragedy in Eastbourne’s First War
Eastbourne is on England’s south coast, with the town protected by the South Downs five miles inland, Hastings promontory ten miles to the east, and the 600ft cliffs of Beachy Head two miles to the west. This is a renowned beauty spot, with visitors frequently venturing too close to the sheer cliffs.
There is a lighthouse at the bottom of the cliffs, erected in 1905, and a restored one at the top which is now being used as an upmarket bed and breakfast. However, during WW1 despite it being derelict the lighthouse was still a place of interest as well as beauty to be visited.
By the time of this incident, the west of Eastbourne with long flat farmland was full of troop tents, men in transit training for their train to Folkestone, then French fighting. The officers had their own tents with the men, the hotels were mainly for civilians. Some of the training was up on the cliffs, men marching there easily in all weathers.
Lieutenant and Mrs. St. John Simpson had been married for a week when on 3rd November 1915 they decided to go for a drive. They had recently proudly jointly purchased an American two seater car, so as he was due to re-join his regiment quite soon they wanted to make as much as possible of their time together.
The marriage had occurred elsewhere, they were spending their honeymoon at the Queens Hotel, situated on Eastbourne’s main seafront opposite the pier. The Grand Hotel was considered to be the most prestigious, but the Queens was a very close second, with constant mollycoddling of guests, within reason every wish granted. The seven days had gone so fast, today was to be their first outing in their new car they had used to drive to the coast.
The road to Beachy Head was pretty basic, narrow, stone surface for quite some way, difficult when encountering oncoming traffic, but as it was such a pleasant day for a drive, they parked a little before the lighthouse, some 45 yards from the cliff edge. They left the car, hand in hand walking to the lighthouse, but were disappointed to find it locked. They shouldn’t have been too surprised, because it had been superseded by the one at the bottom of the cliff because of mists obscuring the light from out at sea, being no aid at all to shipping.
The weather was sunny, ideal for a stroll, but the new bride decided her shoes were unsuitable for the grassy terrain so returned to the car. He had consumed two pots of tea at breakfast, so nature called. There was no-one around to witness, so he disappeared behind a convenient bush. These days there are not so many for some inconceivable reason. Business completed he returned, but no car. No bride. No-one to answer his panicked questions.
However, there was a nearby unit of the 5th Scottish Rifles, and Private Gibson was ordered down to the beach. He was silly enough to admit that he had heard the crash, so despatched down the 600ft cliff went the observant private.
The path is not an easy one, taking over an hour to negotiate. He discovered Mrs. Simpson lying outside the wreck, still clutching her handbag.
Two hours later, he had managed to crawl back up the cliff. This hazardous climb was undertaken at considerable risk, with questions shouted as soon as he was within earshot. Very difficult to impart such sensitive news while precariously hand over hand climbing back to the top. No wonder he was distressed, as well as those he had to share the news with.
Lieutenant Simpson was taken in a state of shock to the adjacent Hodcombe Farm cottages. The car was subsequently recovered by Messrs Lovely’s Cavendish Place Garage, by dismantling it, and then hauling it up the cliff at nearby Birling Gap. This operation would have been very tricky, undertaken at low tide with the men manhandling the unyielding vehicle remains against strong winds then rope and tackle to haul to the top.
At the inquest held by His Majesty’s Coroner for East Sussex Mr. Vere Benson it was revealed that the car was in gear, and had an electric starter. Those 45 yards must have been the longest travelled by Mrs. Simpson.