1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Beachy Head

BEACHY HEAD, a promontory on the coast of Sussex, England, S.W. of Eastbourne, about 3 m. from the centre of the town. It consists of a perpendicular chalk cliff 532 ft. high, and forms the eastern termination of the hill-range known as the South Downs. The old Bell Tout lighthouse, 285 ft. above high-water mark, erected in 1831 on the second cliff to the westward, in 0° 10′ 18″ E., 50° 43′ 30″ N., has been superseded by a new lighthouse built in the sea at the foot of the head itself.

Battle of Beachy Head.—This naval battle, known to the French as Bévisier (a corruption of Pevensey), was fought on the 30th of June 1690. An allied force of 37 British sail of the line, under command of the earl of Torrington (Arthur Herbert), and of 22 Dutch under C. Evertsen, was at anchor under the headland, while a French fleet of over 70 sail, commanded by the comte de Tourville, was anchored some miles off to the south-west. The French fleet had orders to co-operate with an expected Jacobite rising in England. Torrington, to whom the general direction of the allied fleet belonged, was much disturbed by the enemy’s superiority in number, and on the 26th had written to the Council of Regency suggesting that he ought to retire to the Gunfleet at the mouth of the Thames, and observe the enemy from a distance till he could be reinforced. The council, which had the support of Admiral Russell, afterwards earl of Orford, considered that a retreat to the Gunfleet would have fatal consequences, by which they no doubt meant that it would leave the French free to land troops for the support of the Jacobites. They therefore ordered Herbert not to lose sight of the enemy, but rather to fight if he could secure an advantage of position. The admiral, who was on very bad terms with the council, elected to treat this as a peremptory order to fight. At daybreak on the 30th he got under way and bore down on the enemy. The wind was at north-east and gave him the weather-gage. As his fleet was only 57 sail in all he was not able to engage the enemy from end to end, but as the French were arranged in a line from east to west he could have fallen on the end nearest him, and could have guarded himself by telling off a part of his ships to watch the remainder. Torrington preferred to bring his fleet down in such a way that his van, consisting of the Dutch ships, should be opposite the enemy’s van, his centre opposite their centre, and his rear should engage their rear. The inferiority of the allies in numbers made it therefore inevitable that there should be gaps between the different divisions. As the fleets actually did come to action, the Dutch with a few English ships pressed on the French van, their leading ship being abreast of the ninth or tenth Frenchman. Torrington took his station opposite the rear of the French centre, leaving a great gap between himself and the ships in the van. Being apprehensive that the French centre would tack and pass this gap so as to put him between two fires, he kept a long way off so as to be free to manœuvre against them if they made the attempt. The English rear division, consisting of the English blue squadron under Sir Ralph Delaval, fought a close action with the French opposite to them. In the meantime the French ships, ahead of the leading Dutchman, succeeded in turning to windward and putting part of Evertsen’s squadron between two fires. The Dutch ships suffered heavily, and one of them which was dismasted drifted among the French and was taken. More severe loss would have followed if the better average seamanship of the English and Dutch had not stood them in good stead. The tide turned from flood to ebb during the action, and the surface current which in the Channel sets to the west with the ebb began to carry the fleets with it. The Dutch and English dropped anchor. The French, who were not equally alert, did not and were carried westward. When the tide turned the allies retreated to the Thames, abandoning several of the most damaged ships in Pevensey Bay. The pursuit of the French was ineffective, for Tourville persisted in keeping his ships in line of battle, which forced them to regulate their speed by the slowest among them. Torrington was tried for his conduct but acquitted.

A full account of the battle of Beachy Head, written with ample quotation of documents, and for the purpose of vindicating Herbert, will be found in Admiral Colomb’s Naval Warfare (London, 1899). (D. H.)