The Downs Ranger

Lizzie Williams

Jumbo, Princess Pat, Mark and Tommy are all names that visitors to Eastbourne may have been familiar with over the years, especially if they visited Beachy Head. These were all names of horses that belonged to the Downs Ranger.

The Downs Ranger was a position within Eastbourne Police, whose job it was to patrol the Downland landscape. This role was needed after Eastbourne Corporation purchased the Downs in the 1920s – the area encompassed land to the west of Eastbourne, including the beauty spot of Beachy Head, and the inland Downland area that stretches behind Eastbourne towards Polegate, and the village of Folkington. Before the purchase, this land was in the hands of various private landowners. The council and people of Eastbourne were worried about developments that were damaging the character of the landscape, even in the 1920s the Downs were an important tourist spot for the town.

One of the principal landowners was the 9th Duke of Devonshire. The Devonshire family inherited land in Eastbourne through the marriage of George Cavendish and Elizabeth Compton in 1782. Their grandson, the 7th Duke, was an instrumental figure in Eastbourne’s history. He built much of Eastbourne’s promenade, including Duke’s Drive, the road that linked his land on the seafront to his estate at Beachy Head.

The purchase of the Downs was a big event for Eastbourne and was marked by the unveiling of a seat at Beachy Head by the then Duke and Duchess of York (the Duke was the future King George VI).

The position of Downs Ranger was held by various men over the years. Henry Poole served as Downs Ranger for 30 years from 1923 to his retirement in 1953. Before his appointment in Eastbourne, Henry served in the Life Guards regiment.

In 1945 Henry was involved in a heroic Boxing Day rescue of a dog from Beachy Head. The dog had fallen from the cliff and was stuck on a ledge. Henry and RSPCA Inspector Teddy Winn worked together with a young airman to rescue the dog. They lowered Teddy down the cliff face, with a dozen people helping by holding the safety rope that was attached to Teddy. However, the cliff-face was unstable due to bomb damage it’d received during World War II. At one point, when Teddy had the dog in his arms and was by a small cave in the cliff, rocks fell on him and knocked him unconscious. After ¾ hour he regained consciousness and was partially hauled up the cliff. Henry and the young airman scrambled down part of the cliff to pull him up the rest of the way. All three men got back to the top and the dog was returned, safe and well, to its owner.

The job of Downs Ranger was unique and Henry, and his successor Harry Ward, were featured in BBC shows and films produced by Pathé. In a 1949 video that featured Henry and his horse Tommy, the job of Downs Ranger was described as belonging more to the North-West of Canada than the Downs of Sussex. Their patrol covered 4,200 acres of pasture, beach, and cliff. The film goes on to show some of their typical duties. These involved assisting famers by rounding up wayward animals, warning visitors of the dangers of the cliffs, assisting tourists and hikers, and often helping with rescues at Beachy Head.

PC Harry Ward demonstrating some of the rescue the equipment.

Harry Ward took over from Henry in 1953 and became another well-known face to the people of Eastbourne and holiday makers. Harry had been a Horse Guardsman, Major in the Military Police, and served for many years as Captain in the Territorial Army (he was awarded the Emergency Reserve Decoration Medal for his service). Harry initially patrolled on Henry’s horse Princess Pat, and later with Jumbo.

He was awarded a certificate from the Royal Humane Society for the attempted rescue of a woman who had fallen over Beachy Head. One of the most dangerous and challenging parts of the Downs Ranger job was undoubtedly rescuing people and recovering bodies from Beachy Head. The Rangers were often called upon to give evidence at subsequent enquiries. The coroner, in the case mentioned above, commended Harry for being lowered nearly 600ft to recover the woman and remarked that people little realise the risks these officers have to undertake when descending these considerable heights, and here there was a gale on at the same time… this was a first class effort on the part of P.C. Harry Ward.

In 1964 Harry Ward was presented with his MBE by the Duke of Norfolk, at a special service held on Beachy Head, a testament to his bravery and hard work. Harry Ward retired in 1966 and Jack Williams took over the role. However, patrolling on horses was now becoming out dated and seen by some as an unnecessary expense. The role was gradually phased out. The duties of the Downs Ranger are now undertaken by a variety of services, including the National Trust Rangers, Sussex Police, and the Coastguard.

Presentation of MBE to Harry Ward

However, the people of Eastbourne were not always thankful for their Downs Ranger. In 1929 one resident complained to the local paper that the wage of £4 a week was extravagant and that even if the Ranger had used a Rolls-Royce to patrol the Downs their wage would still be enough! Another resident complained that:

The Downs have taken care of themselves in the past, and nobody is likely to run away with them in the future… I fail to see what [the Ranger] is wanted for, and will warrant the greater part of his day will be spent lying on his back in fine weather and counting the skylarks in the canopy o’erhead.

Despite these views, the Downs Ranger was an iconic figure on the Downs for many years who worked hard to maintain the beauty of the landscape and to assist tourists and locals wherever they could. Harry Ward and Jumbo have a plaque dedicated to them on Beachy Head, next to the seat that’s across the road from the Beachy Head pub, a fine place to lie back and try to spot the skylarks overhead.

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