The name Kilnsea apparently means ‘the pool near the kiln’, and is of Anglian derivation. Kilnsea was once a parish in its own right, but in 1935 it was united with Easington parish. The old village of Kilnsea stood on a hill, and was surrounded by fields.
By the early 19th century the village was on the cliff edge. The remnants of the village still included the church and an ancient stone cross said to have been erected to commemorate Henry IV’s landing at Spurn Head in 1399. As a result of a parliamentary enclosure in 1840, new farmhouses and cottages were built on the western side of the parish, and the open fields and pastures were replaced by rectangular holdings. At present there are about 30 dwellings in Kilnsea, a public house, the Crown and Anchor, a hotel, the Riverside (no longer open), and the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust Discovery Centre.
Various earth banks were the only defences that the early villagers of Kilnsea could put up to try to protect themselves from the ravages of the sea. One such bank, which shows on a map of 1818, was called Sherwood Bank, presumably after some farming family long gone. It ran from the old village of Kilnsea down towards Kilnsea Warren, but was washed away by the middle of the 19th century.
Long Bank itself is probably quite an ancient feature, and follows a winding water course. 19th-century maps show the eastern extension running northwards towards Easington. That bank was washed away, and over the years since, new banks have been constructed. Serious floods occurred in the early 20th century, notably in 1902 and 1906.
When the military came to Kilnsea and Spurn in World War I, they needed to protect the new camps that they had built. Godwin Battery, Kilnsea, was provided with a concrete wall about 300 yards long, and it is still possible to see what remains of it on the beach east of the gun emplacements, which also now lie on the beach. In the 1950s, during the Cold War, the decision was made to erect a concrete wall to run from directly opposite the end of the road from the Blue Bell, southwards towards the Warren. Unfortunately, this sea wall soon became unstable when the sea got behind it. Nevertheless, it was a prominent feature of Kilnsea until the 1960s, and was known as ‘The Promenade’ by some caravanners and visitors.
On the night of 31st January 1953, a major storm surge occurred in the North Sea and the waters of the sea and the River Humber merged, flooding a large area in Kilnsea and placing the people of the village in considerable danger. Thankfully, unlike in many other places on the East Coast, no-one died, though many animals were lost. At Fourways Cottage, opposite the Blue Bell, river and sea water contaminated with raw sewage deep washed in, filling the rooms up to 18 inches deep. At the Crown and Anchor the water soon washed over the road and was lapping against the pub walls. The Robinsons, who ran the pub at that time, managed to keep most of it out, but when they opened the door to a neighbour in distress, the water rushed in. The Crown provided its traditional hospitality nevertheless. For a day or two, no-one could get from Kilnsea to Easington because of the deep water that lay between the two villages. The results of the floods were long-lasting. The agricultural land was useless for months if not years, and the psychological effects were even more enduring. In 1954 the Humber bank from the Crown to Spurn gate was raised to provide better flood defences and the ‘Canal’ was created as a result.
Since then there have been several years when the sea has come over: notably 1967, when in March damage occurred on the Humber side near the entrance to Spurn; 1971, when high tides in February flooded fields south of the Blue Bell; and 1974, when Force 8 north westerly storms caused groynes to collapse. An embankment (remnants still just remained until a few years ago) was built between Kilnsea and Spurn that year using spoil from the making of Easington gas site. Other flood years have been 1978 (when the Blue Bell was badly flooded), 1983, 1988, 1991, 1993, 1996, 2000, and 2004/5, though some of these have done more damage to Spurn than to Kilnsea. The most recent event was in December 2013, when the so-called North Sea Surge had serious consequences to Spurn and Kilnsea. The road to Spurn was damaged beyond repair and in Kilnsea, especially on the Humber side of the village, many properties were flooded, whilst on the seaward side damage was done to caravans on Sandy Beaches Caravan Park, and the Blue Bell car park was flooded.
In March 1961 Fort Godwin, or Kilnsea Camp, which had been a military camp since World War I, was sold to Mr. and Mrs. Burgess for conversion to a caravan camp. Mr. Burgess, who was often seen sporting a Stetson, and driving a big American car, had visited the USA to study ‘modern trends in popular seaside holiday-making’, and was full of ideas for Sandy Beaches, as it was to be called. Holderness Rural District gave permission for the conversion to what Mr. and Mrs. Burgess hoped would be ‘the most up-to-date holiday camp in the country’. It was expected that there would be pitches for 250 caravans, and it would cater for well over 1,500 holidaymakers, and be a big boost to the economy. By 1961 there were already 140 caravans on Sandy Beaches.
A self-service shop, hot and cold showers and a launderette were provided, whilst a very large building that had been used as a NAAFI during the war was made into a licensed club. Since the ‘sixties Sandy Beaches Caravan site has been very popular, its only real problem being the erosion of land upon the cliff and the gradual crumbling of the military buildings.
The Blue Bell is a former public house. It was built to replace an earlier pub with the same name, which stood in the old village of Kilnsea, and which was taken by the sea in the early 19th century. When the Blue Bell was built in 1847, it was 534 yards from the sea. Built partly with cobble (see the wall still visible on the eastern side) the pub was extended and much changed about 1880 when Blue Bell cottage was built next door — note how similar the two buildings look. Many of the licensees of the pub have been members of the Clubley family. The Blue Bell flourished particularly well during two wars, being most conveniently placed just alongside Godwin Battery (later Sandy Beaches) and with a railway platform at the rear where soldiers coming from Spurn Fort could alight and get refreshments. From 1925 the pub ceased to be a free house when it was bought by Hull Brewery. It continued to do good business until the late ‘fifties, when the army began to leave Kilnsea and Spurn. In 1957 Hull Brewery sold the Blue Bell and it was turned into a café.
A shop was later combined with the café business. When the café closed, the shop continued until 1991, when it was put up for sale. It was then bought by the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust and renovated to become an information centre and café on the ground floor, and accommodation for staff above. When the YWT built a new Visitor Centre in 2018 the Blue Bell reverted to accommodation.
In 2016 the Yorkshire Wildlife Trust received a grant of almost one million pounds from E.ON, as part of the Community Grant they gave to communities affected by the building of the Humber Gateway wind turbines. After considerable opposition the YWT obtained planning permission to build a visitor centre in Kilnsea on a small meadow near the Spurn gate. The visitor centre, named Spurn Discovery Centre, opened in 2018 with a car park for 70 cars on the opposite side of Spurn Road.
‘The Obs’ was originally established in 1946 on Spurn, at Warren Cottage (see Spurn article). Extra accommodation was provided for visiting naturalists in the military buildings nearby. However as the sea took more land and the buildings became decrepit the Spurn Bird Observatory Committee began to look for other accommodation. In November 2015 a large house, Tharlesthorpe, with 1.5 acres of land, came onto the market, and it was bought for renovation into a modern-day hostel for visiting birders and naturalists.
The Crown and Anchor was built about 1850, when the old village of Kilnsea was falling into the sea, and the people of Kilnsea were building themselves new houses and farms on the western side of the parish. The first landlord of the Crown and Anchor was Medforth Tennison, whose father Edward had been the landlord of an earlier beer-house in the old village. Medforth Tennison (a relative of a former landlord of the Blue Bell, John Medforth) remained as landlord of the Crown until his death forty years later. He was succeeded by his daughter, Keziah Hodgson, a widow, who remained until World War I, she being succeeded by her son, another Medforth.
A later landlord was Bill Whiskers. In 1953 Mr and Mrs Robinson (Ma) came to the pub, and Ma, with her daughter Pat Stevenson, ran the Crown until 1986, when she was well into her nineties. The Wilkin family came next, and they had the pub for 15 years. Continuity of ownership has been characteristic of the Crown, and from 1999 until 2018 it was in the capable hands of Mrs Jean Bunker. It is now owned and run by Adrian Bennett and David Whittaker.
This is the successor of a mediaeval church, which stood in the centre of the old village of Kilnsea. However by the early 19th-century, owing to the action of the sea on the soft boulder-clay cliffs, St. Helen’s found itself, in company with many other buildings in Kilnsea, teetering on the cliff edge. In 1824 the chancel fell over the cliff, and a year or so later another large landslide took the north wall, pillars, pointed arches, pulpit, reading desk and books, down the cliff “with a tremendous crash”. The south wall, a solitary window, and the ruins on the western side, continued to stand “in a threatening state”, but soon they too succumbed. The tower remained for only a year or two, before finally falling over the cliff in 1831. As the cliff crumbled, the bodies in the graveyard became shockingly exposed, and they too gradually fell over onto the beach.
For years the villagers of Kilnsea had to manage without a church, until in 1864 the decision was made to build a new one. William Burges, a famous Victorian architect, who worked in the neo-Gothic style, designed a building of red and yellow brick, which was erected about three quarters of a mile west of the former site. Superficially the new church, which cost £500, bore no resemblance to the old, but Burges, with a proper respect for tradition, used stones from that church for the foundations, the buttresses, and the coping stones.
By the early 1990s, the congregations for the once-monthly services had dwindled into single figures, and it was obvious that the church must close. On 20 June 1993 the last regular service took place. It is now in the process of being converted to a private residence, but the external appearance remains unchanged. The graveyard is still an attractive feature of Kilnsea, especially in the spring, when it becomes successively carpeted in snowdrops, daffodils, primroses and bluebells. In the north-west corner stand two graves inscribed — A Sailor of the Great War, 21st February 1916. In 2018 it became a listed building.
After the enclosure in 1840 several large farmhouses were built in Kilnsea. The first one south of Long Bank is Grange Farm, also known as Kilnsea Grange — a substantial house standing four-square and facing south-west, with its outbuildings partly made of cobble, a traditional building material in South Holderness.
This farm was the largest in Kilnsea, having at one time about 200 acres, held by an absentee owner, Henry Burgh. From the early 20th century and for many years the farm belonged to the Tennison family.
This farm also dates from the middle of the 19th century. It was built by John Ombler, a builder from Welwick, who was responsible for raising money for the building of St. Helen’s Church. He was for many years a churchwarden, and was Superintendent of the Beach Defences on Spurn.
Westmere was owned by George Edwin Clubley from 1902 until his death in 1938. His son, John, enlisted in the army, but he did not go far, as he went on to manage the Blue Bell pub, whilst in uniform. Westmere was apparently used by the army for officers’ quarters. For many years after the war Westmere Farm remained as a dairy farm, one of the few left in Holderness. It is now a Bed and Breakfast establishment with extra self-catering accommodation.
This attractive farmhouse was built at the end of the 1840s by the Constables of Burton Constable. A branch of the Clubley family farmed here from about 1860 right through until the 1930s. The cobble barns belonging to this farm are particularly attractive.
This farmhouse was built in the later 18th century, so is the oldest building in Kilnsea. It was owned for much of the 19th century by the Thompson family of Sheriff Hutton, which since 1693 had a quarter share of Spurn lighthouse. From 1880 until 1953 the farm was owned by the Sharp family. In that year Arthur and Nellie Clubley bought it.
In 1996, after Arthur and Nellie died, the farmhouse was sold, and a few years later the large attached barn to the north was converted by the new owner into a residence (The Old Barn) and part of the one-storey range at the rear was similarly converted into residential accommodation (The Dovecote). Southfield Farm itself now has a large two-storey conservatory on its western side.
In 1885 Henry Hodge, a Hull industrialist who had been born in Kilnsea, paid for a so-called “iron chapel” made of corrugated iron to be built for the Primitive Methodists. It remained in use as a chapel until about 1919 when it was converted to a cottage called Hodge Villa. Since then the cottage has been considerably extended, and it is now known as Chapel Cottage.
In the 1860s a small farmhouse called Blackmoor or Blackmere House was built near the Humber. It had about nine acres with it and the first family to run this small-holding was the Hodgsons. They stayed for about 40 years, to be followed by the Sellars, who were there until the late 1940s. Various owners and tenants followed. In the 1960s George Collinson had a scrap yard there, and in the early 1970s Constance and Tom Holley ran a restaurant. Later it became The World of Wings, with birds of prey kept in cages at the rear. Its last role was as a bed and breakfast run by Ben Metcalfe and his wife.
After a serious fire it was rebuilt as the Riverside Hotel. However, it has not operated as a hotel since the early years of the present century.
This little cottage was actually built as two semi-detached cottages for the coastguards about 1855.
The coastguards, who worked on Spurn, lived in Kilnsea until the turn of the century. Thereafter they lived in Easington. The two cottages were converted into one in the early years of the 20th century when Craggs Clubley and his family moved in. The Clubley family remained there until the 1960s.
This little bungalow, built in the 1930s for the former owner of the Crown and Anchor, Medforth Hodgson (Meddy), was originally called Sweetbriar Cottage. It was later lived in by Ernie Norwood and his wife. Ernie wrote his reminiscences of his life as a boy in Kilnsea (see Articles page).
Kew Villa is now owned by Spurn Bird Observatory.
Built in the 1920s, this wooden bungalow was originally a café and shop run by Carrie Leonard and her mother Lucy until 1954. It was then called Gwendene. Not occupied since the 2013 floods, but Salty Dogs is now adjacent.
This farm, which stood at the north end of the caravan site, near the little pond on the east side of North Marsh Lane (Beacon Lane to some), was the home of the Tennison family from when it was built in the mid-1850s until they left in the 1970s. It was demolished in the early 1980s, having lost much of its land to the sea.
In the photo above Northfield Farm is in the background, with Warrenby Cottage on the right.
This wooden bungalow probably dates from the 1930s, but in World War II the field alongside was an army camp, converted in 1942/3 to house Italian prisoners of war both during and after the war. The Nissen huts were all around the perimeter of the field alongside the bungalow.
In 1985 the field was cleared of bushes and the ex-War Department walls and a dug-out were removed or filled in. A caravan site called Blue Bell Pond was established on the western side of the site for several years. This land is now owned by Spurn Bird Observatory Trust, and has been named Sykes Field after a 19th century owner.
This is the only other listed ‘building’ in Kilnsea. In World War I the Germans used Zeppelins to make bombing raids on eastern England. In order to have some warning of their approach, acoustic sound mirrors made of concrete were erected at various points along the coast. The Kilnsea sound mirror, which stands in a field just north of Grange Farm, was probably erected in 1916/17. It is in the shape of a half-hexagon, with an inner concave circular disc to amplify sound. It is 16 feet high and 17 feet wide. In front of the concrete disc is a plinth, with a pipe on which would have been mounted a trumpet-shaped microphone known as a “Collector Head”. Wires passed down through the pipe to the “Listener”, who was stationed in a nearby trench.
Jan Crowther (2020)