Sussex by the Sea

The County Anthem: Sussex by the Sea

Sussex is one of the only counties in the U.K. to possess its own anthem. “Sussex by the Sea” is the county anthem of Sussex and was written by a Mr William Ward-Higgs in 1907. Many will be familiar with the tune and know the words to the chorus, refrain and first verse of our county song, however the subsequent four verses are lesser-known. Pictured are the original words accompanying the inaugural publication of the music to Sussex by the Sea from 1907.

You could easily presume that the man behind this gloriously patriotic marching song, Ward-Higgs, was a born and bred Sussaxon. You’d be wrong though. William Ward-Higgs was born in February 1866 in Southport; Ward-Higgs was a Lancastrian by birth and raised in Birkenhead, Cheshire! How did a man with such northern roots come to write the anthem of Sussex?

William Ward-Higgs did live in the County of Sussex, but for only six of his sixty-nine years. Hollywood House in South Bersted near Bognor Regis was his home between 1902 and 1908. It was in 1907 when he composed Sussex by the Sea as a result of taking an active interest in his adopted county and the Royal Sussex Regiment. It is thought that Ward-Higgs was heavily inspired by the final stanza of Rudyard Kipling’s 1902 Poem entitled “Sussex”, “In a fair ground – Yea, Sussex by the Sea!”. Ward-Higgs was already known to have set some of Kipling’s Barrack-room ballads to music.

One theory of the anthem’s origins goes that he grew to love his adopted county so much he produced such an awe-inspiring marching song in its praise. Another, that the piece was actually composed earlier in 1905 specifically to celebrate the wedding of his wife’s youngest sister, Gladys, to Captain Roland Waithman, of the 2nd Battalion, The Royal Sussex Regiment. Both reasons could easily be true.

Another claim is that as soon as it was published Ward-Higgs sent copies to Captain Roland Waithman, and the song was sung, in about September 1908, by that officer at concerts at Ballykinlar Camp in Ireland, where the 2nd Battalion was at that time.

Whatever its origins, the marching song was soon adopted as the Regimental Quick March of the Royal Sussex Regiment. A march adopted by the recruits of the county regiment as they walked towards the guns of the Western Front during the Great War. County loyalty was just as important, if not more important, than national loyalty to the people of Sussex at this time. The recruiting posters dating from the beginning of the First World War gives evidence to this. Each playing on the loyalties of the men of Sussex which they held so strong, their county! It’s often said that men joined up to defend King & Country, and that is true, but some recruitment posters only challenged loyalty to Sussex, not the nation or King. This is quite clear evidence that the County of Sussex was close to the hearts of many Sussex men and these posters were produced to pull on these heartstrings. Sussex by the Sea makes no reference to King or Country either, just to the County of Sussex.

One hundred years on, Sussex by the Sea is still played frequently at events by brass bands from Chichester across to Wadhurst and everywhere in between. The county song is of course a prominent sound during Sussex’s bonfire celebrations and is annually performed at the Lord Mayor’s Show by Christ’s Hospital school band from Horsham. You will also witness Sussex by the Sea in all its glory as the adopted anthem of Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club, 27K+ fans loudly and proudly sing the county’s anthem as the players walk out before each game onto the field of play. In recent years there has been a move towards the use of the original “Stand or Fall” words at Albion games.

Each chorus and refrain of this stirring anthem finishes, “You may tell them all that we stand or fall for Sussex by the Sea”. A powerful message that the men of Sussex will fight, or die in the struggle, to defend their beloved county! As we mark one hundred years since the First World War, it is more important than ever that we reconnect to and learn the poignant words to the county’s anthem.

Here the great harmonicist and folk singer Noel Dumbrell of Ashurst, Sussex, performs all five verses of the county song a cappella with his authentic Sussaxon tones in the Royal Oak, Lewes.