St. Leonards Caves

From Historical Hastings

J. Smith was the proprietor of St Leonards Caves. These caves were in Caves Road somewhere along the length of the road and believed to be close to the rear of the Sussex Hotel. No trace of the cave entrance survives to the present day due to rock-falls in the unstable cliff.


The cave was tunnelled by Mr. William Smith in the operation of sand getting for building purposes. It contained several neatly trimmed and furnished apartments including kitchen, parlour, bed rooms etc, occupied by Mr. Smiths family. The cave, together with baby's cot cut into the rock, used to be shown to visitors for a small fee. Mr. Smith died in 1855 at 56 years of age - his widow moving to Undercliffe. The cave was once the secret depository of smuggled goods and in about 1835 there was a privateer still at work in them. Brett describes them as not being as large as the St. Clements Caves[1].

Use by Smugglers

Brett relates that during 1835, the caves were used to store (and perhaps distill) contraband brandy and that on one occasion, Smith was alerted to a raid by the preventive men. The equipment and goods that had been concealed in the cave were quickly removed to a loft in one of the nearby mews (either Victoria or Harold) from where it was stolen and subsequently taken to Catsfield/Ninfield where the distillation was completed and the illicit goods sold in the neighbouring towns and villages[1].

Description from Ross' Guide

Ross in his guide to Hastings[2] describes them thus;
"THE CAVES, at the back of the Sussex Hotel, is well worth the inspection of the curious. The room to the right hand is the parlour, of good dimensions, with a groined ceiling. Progressing still further, in the same direction, the bed-room is attained; its form is similar to the parlour, with the addition of cribs cut in the rock, as dormitories for the juvenile portion of the subterranean inhabitants. Light is obtained from Gothic windows, inserted in apertures, which are situated some distance from the face of the cliff. To the left of the entrance a passage leads to the' kitchen, from whence the visitor is conducted along the principal excavation, about seven feet broad and eight feet high, extending to the distance of 300‘ feet under the cliff, where his progress will be arrested by the reservoir of water which supplies the town. The entire length of the excavation is 425 feet; side - passages to the right extend above a quarter of a mile."

Rock Falls and disappearance

On the 9th of February 1851, there was a rock-fall which demolished Mr. Smith's stable and kitchen, effectively sealing off the caves, Smith having previously removed his horse from the stable, however it killed 27 of Smith's chickens[3] although they were apparently re-opened for the public on the 24th of May 1863[4]

References & Notes

  1. a b Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 3 Chap 31 Pg. 273a
  2. A Guide to Hastings & St Leonards (Thomas Ross 1835) pg.43-44 Google Books
  3. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 4 Chap. 45
  4. Brett Manuscript Histories Vol. 10 Chap. 69