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24 September 2014

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You are in: Suffolk > Nature > Coast > > Point 5 - Gun Hill

The guns were last fired in 1842

The guns were last fired in 1842

Point 5 - Gun Hill

Once known as Eye Hill, its name was changed to Gun Hill with the arrival of the six guns in the 18th century.

Legend has it that they were presented by the Duke of Cumberland because of the wonderful reception he received at Southwold following the Battle of Culloden….but as he didn’t come within 90 miles of Southwold that would seem to be rather a tall story!

It’s more likely that the guns were sent by the Royal Ordnance for the protection of Southwold against the Dunkirk pirates.

The ghost of Gun Hill

The guns were last fired in 1842, to celebrate the birthday of the Prince of Wales, with tragic results. Whilst reloading No 1 gun for the second round there was a misfire. A soldier, James Martin, looked down the muzzle and the delayed explosion blew his head off. He left a widow and three young children, without any means of support.

Gun Hill, Southwold

Gun Hill, Southwold

There are many stories of the ghost walking on Gun Hill but no one is now sure which is No 1 gun as during WW 1 the guns were dismounted and buried.

The great fire

It is thought that Gun Hill used to go out much further at one time - maybe by as much as two miles, when it sloped down to the sea.  Many events have taken place on, or within sight of Gun Hill over the centuries.  It is still a good place to stand and watch the sea, in all its various moods.

In 1659 a raging fire destroyed much of Southwold and it’s likely that before the fire there were buildings on Gun Hill. In total some 459 buildings were lost in the fire and many families faced poverty. It's thought the distinctive ‘Greens’ in the town were designed to act as firebreaks should another similar disaster ever occur.

The only building on Gun Hill now is the Casino - originally a reading room. There is currently a proposal to turn it into a camera obscura, to replicate the one that was on Gun Hill in the late 19th/early 20th century.


The Casino on Gun Hill

The Casino on Gun Hill


Fishing has been an industry in Southwold for at least 900 years. In 1839 there were 192 boats operating from the beach, catching herring, sprats and smelts. The boats were hauled ashore with primitive windlasses.

These fishermen wore a Guernsey type sweater in home knitted unscoured wool with trousers made of a navy duffle. Their outer garment was a ‘slop’ usually made of sail cloth, or if bad weather was expected, oilskin.

In the days of sail, a bowler hat sometimes topped off the outfit, along with sea boots and heavy white stockings.

New white ‘slops’ were worn on Sundays, but as they became grubby through wear they were put in the copper when the nets were tanned and worn for everyday use.

Guns from the Royal Ordnance

Guns from the Royal Ordnance

The Kipperdrome

In 1907 a new harbour was completed and the Scottish fish girls arrived to gut and cure the catches. In 1909 a total of 761 drifters entered Southwold Harbour. But it wasn’t to last.  A series of bad winters, the start of the Russian Revolution, and the First World War all played their part in the killing off of the herring industry. Surprisingly as much as 99% of the catch was exported - a lot of it going to Russia and Germany.

The ‘Kipperdrome’, as it was known, was roughly where the toilets are now situated in the Harbour car park. Across the road, at the caravan park, is where the fish market and the fish processing factory once stood, but this blew down in the early 1920's.

Life saving

In the 18th and 19th centuries, before the advent of the RNLI, beach companies were formed, principally for the salvage of wrecks but also to save lives. The companies operated from huge open boats measuring about 60 ft long. 

They were propelled by up to ten pairs of oars and the boats took some very skilful manoeuvring, but salvaging could prove a profitable proposition. Each company 'owned' a section of the beach and some of the names remain even now on the beaches below Gun Hill  e.g. California and Long Island. 

Commemoration to mark 50th anniversary VE/VJ Day

VE/VJ Day commemorations on Gun Hill

When a 'wreck' was spotted it was a dash by the companies as to who would get their boat to the foundering ship first to claim the salvage rights.

Eventually, in 1840,  the Southwold Lifeboat Society was formed and it became the Southwold branch of the RNLI 14 years later.

The Battle of Sole Bay

Imagine the scene….the English and French fleets clashing with the Dutch just off the shore at Southwold, 50,000 men fighting for their lives. There was a total of 71 English and French ships and 61 Dutch vessels. The battle was heard for miles inland. 

The result was inconclusive, with the Dutch describing the engagement as an ‘honourable draw’ but the casualty list was vast. The English lost 2,500 men, the Dutch 1,800 men and the French 450.

Eight hundred wounded men were brought ashore at Southwold and for many weeks bodies and limbs were washed up on the Suffolk beaches.

Time to move on….go past the cannon and head towards the town centre, Gun Hill Place is on your left and White Lodge on your right. You will see The Red Lion ahead of you…

Meander through the Market Square and along the main High Street. Take your time to savour the sights and sounds.

When you are ready turn right into Victoria Street. You will see Southwold Museum on the right…pay them a visit if they are open and then continue along to St Edmund’s Church..

last updated: 22/04/2008 at 10:52
created: 05/07/2005

Have Your Say

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Sarah Gwinnell
What caused the fire in Southwold in 1659? I heard that it was caused by the bakery which is now where the restaurant is in the Swan hotel. Is this true?

nick cladd
what a wonderful town! My Grandfather was born in the town and our family go back generations,,,mainly fishermen. I love the town and the beer!!!

Wow! I live there! Southwold's a wonderful place to visit and is beautiful however its not too great if you're planning on living there. Its too busy and half the houses in southwold are owned as second homes. Worth a visit though.

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