By Gill Metcalfe

Fairlight Glen has been known as ‘the most lovely spot within the immediate neighbourhood of Hastings.’ From nearby Dripping Well, the ‘Lovers’ Seat’ is situated on a ledge of rock just below the edge of the cliff, 339 feet above the sea.

There are a number of versions of this story, some very far-fetched, but this one seems to be most likely to be true. In 1786, the Lovers’ Seat became the centre of a romance between two young people. He, Charles Lamb of Rye, was an officer in the ‘Preventative Service,’ * whilst she, Elizabeth, was the only child of Mr Boys, a wealthy gentleman of Elford, Hawkhurst in Kent. Mr Boys lived in the family seat, occupied for generations by his ancestors. Young Charles Lamb’s position in life was considered to make him totally unacceptable as a suitor for Miss Boys, and any such pretensions were dealt with accordingly. Seeking to separate the young lovers, Elizabeth was dispatched to Fairlight Place which was then the farm of a Mr Hilder. It was hoped that a change of air would make her see sense: a plan doomed to failure.

Defiant lovers
Charles Lamb was in charge of the revenue cutter The Stag, and the cliffs at Fairlight became the favoured area for vigilance against smugglers. The lovers managed to arrange to meet on the ledge above the cliffs, where the Lovers’ Seat now stands. Landing on the beach below, Charles would scramble up the cliff to where Elizabeth would wait for him, and here they made plans to flee to London, defying the wishes of the Boys family. On the 16th of January, 1786, they presented themselves at the church of St Clement Danes in the Strand, and were married.

A happy ending?
Elizabeth’s father never forgave her, and disinherited her though she was his only child. He left his estates and fortune to his nephew, whose father was a Member of Parliament, a poor decision as the nephew lost the entire inheritance. Charles Lamb left the revenue service and built a fine house at Higham, Salehurst. He and Elizabeth had only one daughter, Elizabeth Dorothy, and she grew up and married the Revd Thomas Ferris, son of the Dean of Battle and for many years Fellow and Tutor of St John’s College, Cambridge.

Tragedy strikes
Charles Lamb lived to see his daughter married and with three children. Then, in 1814, whilst cruising on his yacht on Southampton Water, he was drowned. Two friends who were with him came up on deck and were horrified to find only his hat. It was supposed that a sudden gust of wind had caused the boom to jib, knocking their friend overboard. No trace of him could be found. His body was recovered three weeks later washed up on the shore at Bognor. He was buried at Thakeham in Sussex. But that is not quite the end of the story: Elizabeth Lamb survived her husband by many years, and lived to see the family mansion at Elford repurchased by her son-in-law, Mr Ferris. Finally, having a large family including several sons, the property, which Elizabeth Dorothy Ferris had hoped for her eldest son, Boys Ferris, to inherit, was distributed to other family members and all hope of the Boys family keeping it were lost. It was finally sold again and the proceeds distributed amongst many relations.

Lovers beware!
Following many cliff falls and slips, the slope down to the beach, once a gentle slope covered in gorse and bracken, has become dangerous and steep. William Holman Hunt, the Pre-Raphaelite artist, gives a good idea of how the landscape looked in 1852 when he painted Our English Coast (Strayed Sheep). It was said to have been painted at the Lovers’ Seat, but in fact Holman Hunt used several viewpoints. It has been held by the Tate Gallery since 1946 and can be seen at Tate Britain. The Lovers’ Seat has been replaced many times, and the area fenced. The view is grand, but the cliffs are notoriously unstable. Lovers beware!

*A ‘Preventative Officer’ would have been a Customs Officer/Border Patrol, particularly in relation to the prevention of smuggling along the coast. Fairlight Glen was a favourite landing place for smugglers.

This version of the story of Charles Lamb and Elizabeth Boys was given by a descendent of the Boys family to the author of Hastings: Of Bygone Days – and the Present, Henry Cousins. Written in 1911, this book is long since out of print. The entire content appears to have been carefully researched.

We are grateful for permission given by Hastings Borough Council, and by Hastings Museum and Art Gallery for illustration used in this article.      

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