A fiendish plot is revealed.

By Andy Gilbert

We've all heard of Guy Fawkes, but did you know that Newhaven had its very own Gunpowder Plot?

In the late 1960's, Newhaven was in a state of limbo. (No change there then!) We had a busy harbour and a by then well-established cross-channel car ferry service that was booming. The number of motorists carried had almost trebled from 85,000 in 1964 to over 224,000 in 1967. However, the local MP, Sir Tufton Beamish, was on record as saying that motorists arriving from France must have thought they were driving into a museum, such was the antiquity of the town. Perhaps the embodiment of this was our delightful looking, but rather creaky old swing bridge, with its low weight and speed limits, and its man-operated mechanisms taking an age to open and close.

At that time, there were many plans being bandied about for the much-needed improvements. Perhaps the best was the idea for the A259 to leave the Brighton road at Rushey Hill by the golf course, sweeping down into the then empty valley, crossing the river well north of the harbour and then curving back to Denton Corner. Alas it wasn't to be, and we were to be given a new bridge, flyover and ring road.

Even then, things weren't settled and there were many stormy meetings thrashing out the details of the bridge, for example. The 'Powers That Be' wanted the bridge to have a 45' opening, just 5' more than the old bridge. One expert who was called in read out a list of the central spans of all London's bridges, only to be 'shot down' by my Dad, Frank Gilbert, who pointed out that none of them actually opened above the Pool of London! A 60' opening was demanded by local councillors, led by my Dad, and the Harbour Pilot Aubrey Durham, and they were eventually to get their way.

However, one group was getting impatient with all the interminable wrangling and delays, and a dark plan was hatched, spoken of only in hushed tones at closed meetings. The old bridge would have to go! A large cannon was constructed and suitable ammunition procured. Dark clothing and disguises were also prepared to help protect the men's identities if stopped by the local constabulary. (Wheeling a large cannon around in the early hours would presumably constitute good grounds for a 'stop and search' by the boys in blue!)

Anyway, our intrepid band of plotters finally managed to manhandle their cannon down to the River Wall and there, in the full glare of publicity, defiantly fired off a couple of rounds at the bridge!

Of course, this was all very much tongue in cheek and it proved to be one of the highlights of Newhaven's 'Gala Week' in July 1968. The cannon was actually made of wood and cardboard and the 'gunpowder' was only coloured sand. However, there was an important point to be put across and they actually got hold of some proper ammunition to make sure that things really went with a 'bang'. After the publicity photos had been taken, a 'thunderflash' charge was placed in the cannon's barrel and set off. I can tell you that the resulting bang was *??!!*? loud, as I was standing about ten feet behind the cannon at the time! Half the barrel disappeared but, undeterred by this minor mishap, the gallant gunners let off a second round. This finished off the job and there was no barrel left for a third shot! I made the final score Bridge, One - Cannon, Nil.

The picture is from a Sussex Express press cutting from the archives of the Newhaven Museum, and my grateful thanks go once again to them for allowing me to share it with you, but I know I have an original print of this somewhere at home. The picture shows the cannon being aimed at the bridge, ready to shoot. My Dad is crouching at the rear, with two fellow councillors standing on either side. Does anyone know who the other plotters are?

Incidentally, the white Mini immediately to the left was my Dad's pride and joy. I'm glad to say that it survived unscathed. Demolishing the bridge is one thing, blowing up your own car is another!

Photo:Load, Aim, FIRE!!

Load, Aim, FIRE!!

Sussex Express photo from Newhaven Museum Archive.

This page was added by Andy Gilbert on 25/07/2008.

If you're already a registered user of this site, please login using the form on the left-hand side of this page.