I wonder if Greta  realises that her demands for action on climate change is not being called for the first time. It was a conversation started more than one hundred years ago. At the time urgent recommendations were made to save our coastline from further erosion. Greta will be asking, who listened then? What action was taken then?

At that time, in 1911, these glorious distinctive stripey Hunstanton Cliffs (pictured) in Norfolk, close to the royal Sandringham estate, were losing about nine inches a year on average.

A Royal Commission was appointed in 1906 to look into the “encroachment of the sea on the coasts of this country, and as to what means are desirable for the prevention of such damage.” The findings of the Commission, chaired by Mr Ivor C Guest, and later reported in 1911 in Nature, were practically unanimous, and can be summarised as follows:

  1. “There is a considerable amount of erosion and consequent loss of land taking place on certain parts of the coast; on the other hand, land is being reclaimed from the sea. Taking the last thirty-five years, it was shown by the evidence of the Ordnance Department at 6,640 acres have been lost, while 48,000 acres have been gained by reclaiming tidal lands.”
  2. “Much damage to the coast has been incurred by the removal of beach material (such as sand and shingle) and in some places for road making and construction purposes. The evidence shows that if works of protection are carried out with due regard to the local peculiarities of the district to be dealt with, and on sound engineering lines, erosion of the coast may be prevented.”
  3. “The Commissioners advise that the whole care of the coast should be placed under the administration of the Board of Trade, who should be constituted the central authority of the United Kingdom for the purpose of sea defence. That the Board should be invested with power to enable it to control the removal of materials from the shore, making it illegal to remove any sand, shingle or stone without their previous consent being obtained; the approving of works of construction on the shore; the supervision of existing local authorities concerned with sea defences, and, where required, the creation of new authorities for the purpose of supervision of the coast to employ a staff of scientific experts to secure systematic observation of the movement of beach material and for watching the coast in order to prevent removal of such material where doing this would be injurious; also to sanction the borrowing of money by local authorities for defence works, and to determine the period over which repayment should be made.”

We know that parts of our coastline can be severely affected by climate change. The words climate change may not have been common language more than one hundred years ago, but the writing was on the wall then. We must hope we will not still be having these same conversations in the next century, that action and responsibility must taken to save our coastline from further erosion.

It was interesting to read in another extract from the Commission’s inquiry that “Mr Hamon Le Strange, owner of 12 miles of foreshore along the Hunstanton shore, stated that he claimed rights in respect of that foreshore from the time of King John, such rights including fishing all Royal rights, wreck of sea and Royal fish.The rights extended as far seaward as a man could ride into the sea at low water and hurl a javelin.His estate abutted on that of the King at Wolferton Creek. Any  boats beached on his foreshore paid royalties, and also fishing nets, bathing machines, huts and tents.

“A certain amount of revenue was derived by him from selling shingle. Owing to the large accumulation no harm could possibly be done by taking it. In other places where the shingle bank was narrow he prohibited the taking of shingle.”

The Commission concluded:

“With regard to the alleged obligation of the Crown to defend the coasts from the inroad of the sea, the Commissioners, with one exception, consider that the evidence laid before them does not warrant this conclusion, and that there is not any settled principle of the Crown, or statute law, to support the contention that there is a responsibility for sea defence resting primarily upon the nation at large the fact that there is erosion in some places does not affect the nation generally, and there is not any ground for the contention that sea defence is a national service.”

I love the image of a javelin being hurled into the sea to decide on a person’s fishing rights.  At the very least, that will have changed.

*A Royal Commission is an investigation, independent of government, into a matter of great importance. Royal Commissions have broad powers to hold public hearings, call witnesses under oath and compel evidence. Royal Commissions make recommendations to government about what should change.