The East Devon village of Beer, with its magnificent white cliffs (the last in England going west), is a classic example of where geology has impacted on the life, culture and history of its inhabitants.
Beer Head, formed from Late Cretaceous chalk, is harder than the surrounding red Triassic cliffs of East Devon. This resistance to erosion has left a headland protecting Beer Roads from the prevailing So’ westerly winds and seas, making it a safe haven for boats. This bright white chalk headland also served as an outstanding navigational aid.
Along with the spirit of the inhabitants, its geology contributed to Beer being a successful fishing port; one of the most important on the south coast where the boats are beached every night.
The success of the fishing industry meant Beer was a ready source of highly skilled seamen; which drew them towards privateering and smuggling in the late 1700s to early 1800s, and at times being pressed into taking the King’s shilling.
John, known as Jack, Rattenbury, “The Rob Roy of the West” was born into this community in 1778. He was the son of a fishwife and a father who was shipped aboard a man o’ war before his birth and never seen again.
Jack went to sea at the age of 9 as an apprentice fisherman and turned out to be an outstanding rogue of high intelligence and industry. His life became the epitome of the word swashbuckling.
On his first foray as a privateer (still as a boy) he ended up in jail in France, but managed to escape to America. On his many adventures he subsequently sailed to Norway, Spain, France and the Channel Islands.
He made many of his smuggling forays to Cherburg (Cherbourg) most of which were highly successful, though some were not and cost him dearly. Sometimes he would lose his boat or cargo, and occasionally his liberty.
However, his resourcefulness always enabled him to either get discharged for lack of evidence by the magistrates or to escape. More than once he was pressed into service in his Majesty’s navy, but escaped. On one occasion he was given a pardon from the King after a petition from the MP for Lyme Regis.
The heyday of these smuggling escapades was during the Napoleonic wars when all manner of cargo was carried besides the usual spirits; lace, tobacco and escapees and, in all likelihood, spies.
In later life Jack was twice called as a witness to Parliament to give evidence for an Act of Parliament for construction of a canal to Beer; the Act was passed, but the project was never taken up.
Although at times a ruthless rogue he was certainly also a humane man. As a pilot he saved many a ship from foundering , often without hope of reward. This was obviously recognised by Lord Rolle who eventually allowed him a pension of one shilling per week for life. One presumes this was partly out of generosity and humanity, coupled with a thank-you for services rendered.
– Mike Green, Jurassic Coast Ambassador from Beer