The coast guards of the Seven Sisters

South Downs, Managing our downland landscape South Downs Managing our downland landscape
A view of the coast guard station and cottages in 2017

Throughout history the coastline of south-east England has been threatened with invasion from abroad. This coast was also part of a highly profitable smuggling trade illegally bring in goods to avoid paying duty. So profitable was it that some of the houses in East Dean were built with the proceeds. This activity could only have happened with the support of the local population.

The Birling Gap Preventative Station

Over the centuries the various threats facing the coastline where managed by four separate organisations. Their duties included the defence of the realm, preventing smuggling, manning the Royal Navy during emergencies and rescuing ships. The1856 Coast Guard Act combined these under the direction of the Admiralty. 

The Seven Sisters was of strategic import, three coast guard stations where situated within 5 miles. The three were Cuckmere Haven near Seaford, Crowlink Gap and at Birling Gap. The coast guard station at Crowlink has been extensively researched in recent years as part of the Seven Sisters Archaeological Project.

In 1587 Birling Gap was seen as a weak point on a coast threatened by Spanish invasion. Smuggling and the risk of ship wrecks meant that there was a presence here for many years. The earliest evidence for buildings on the site is in 1819 and by 1875 there were lots here. This phase of buildings included a watch house, testing house and a terrace of cottages.

 Map evidence from 1909 shows the buildings were radically altered and the present day line of terraced cottages, a rocket house and the watch house are all still present at that time. By 1926 the Watch House had disappeared and rocket house was perched on edge of the cliffs.  In 1974 the end cottage, possibly the officer’s house, was demolished. since then the last cottage to have come down was in 2014.

The coast guard complex of buildings at Birling Gap
A view of the coast guard complex at Birling Gap
The coast guard complex of buildings at Birling Gap