St. Leonards in the 1860s

From Historical Hastings

Under the 'Flotsam and Jetsam' section of the Hastings & St Leonards Observer in early 1928 appeared the following correspondence:

In one of my notes a week or two back, Mr. Henry Cousins suggested that St. Leonards should celebrate its centenary.

Writing on this subject, a correspondent says:-

Sir,—The reminder recently by Mr. Henry Cousins that St. Leonards will attain its 100th birthday next month, induces me to send you a few personal notes ‘on the town as I knew it in my boyhood days. I must confess I cannot go back quite a hundred years, but I have spent) more than 60 years as a St. Leonards resident, and perhaps a few notes on the town as it was in those days may interest some of the ”old timers” who read the ”Observer,” and may incite some of them who are older than myself and still residing here to add their reminiscences to mine. I was born and lived for a number of years in the South Colonnade, and therefore my earliest recollections are connected with that district, and the Front line in general. The old archway of which you gave a picture recently was a very familiar object to me. I had many games as a boy with the other boys of the district round and about it. There was a house and small shop in the parade side of it, which in those days was occupied by a lapidary, Mr. Bissenden, and his family, and in the small shop window were displayed many specimens of polished pebbles, made up into brooches and other articles of adornment. The old archway was gaily decorated when the late King Edward and his Queen (then Prince and Princess of Wales) visited the town to open the Park, etc, and passed beneath it on their journey along the Front. It was a tremendous surprise to all of us when we awoke one morning to find that the archway had completely vanished, “leaving not a wrack behind,” although the previous night it was still standing in its pristine state. I believe some of Mr. Bissenden’s descendants are still living in the town.

A sight which used to interest us very much as small boys was when the vessels came ashore at intervals at the bottom of London-road, laden with coal. There were two capstans on the parade here, to which the vessel would be attached with long ropes when she grounded. They always came ashore, on the. high tide in the morning, and as the tide went down a busy scene ensued all day with the coal carts going up and down the beach, and taking away the coal from the vessel. Then after being unloaded, she was filled with beach ballast and sailed away on the evening tide. Once, when a vessel named the ”Fairy” was ashore, a very heavy gale came on during the day, and instead of getting safely off again, was battered to pieces and became a total wreck. Parts of the timbers lay for some little time on the beach and formed a fine playing ground for we boys. Names of the other vessels were the ”Mystery,” the “London,” and the “Ann.” One of the greatest changes, I think, which has taken place in St. Leonards proper. since those days is in the district between London-road and Maze-hill.

Part of this district, now occupied by Silchester, Kenilworth, Carisbrooke and Stockleigh roads, and bounded on the north by what is now Pevensey-road, was then a large field — ”Deudney’s Field,” and still higher up, where Dane-road, Charles-road, Brittany-road and Cumberland-gardens now are, was all open fields. Deudney’s Field extended, I believe, down to rather lower than where Silchester-road and the north end of Gensing-road now are. The Sunday School in Shepherd-street (Wesleyan) to which I was sent always held their annual treat there, and always on Whit-Monday. Tea was partaken of in the schoolroom, and the order in those days was ”Bring your own mugs.” In my mind’s eye I can see those mugs now, of all colours and patterns, piled up on the broad. window sill in the schoolroom, where we assembled before being marched up to the field. Whit-Monday was also the day for the annual “walk” of all the Friendly Societies, the Oddfellows, Foresters, etc. with their big banners and emblems, and preceded by bands. There was the procession around the town in the morning and in the after part of the day a dinner, at which usually the M. P.'s for the borough (two in those days) made speeches. I remember that the late Mr. T. B. Brett, the rhyming historian of the town, in his paper, “Brett's St. Leonards Gazette,” was moved on one of these occasions to write:-

Of all the fete days in the year,
Whit-Monday foremost stands,
When thousands go to see and hear,
The Hastings clubs and bands.

I am afraid, sir, I have trespassed too much on your space, but it's a long story, and, if acceptable to you and to "Observer" readers, I will give a further instalment next week

— H. W. B.

Chapter II

This apppeared in the 25 February 1928 edition[1]

I note that the site now occupied by the Elite Picture House and Royal-terrace was then an old disused brickfield, which extended down to Western-road covering the site where St. Columba’s Presbyterian Church and the whole block of buildings adjacent now stand. There was then no St. John’s road or Warrior-gardens, only a bank of grass up which one might climb into the lower end of Chapel Park-road. We boys used to hold race meetings and archery contests on the old brickfield, and the first building erected-on it (after Royal-terrace had been built) was an open-air roller skating rink, with an asphalt floor. This was at the time when the roller skating craze first came over from America, and was very popular for a time. Afterwards the Royal Concert Hall was erected on the site, and was opened by a grand public performance of the Messiah by Dr. Abram’s famous Choral Union, at which I was present. Dr. Abram was. lessee of the hall, I believe, for a number of years, and gave at different times many notable performances of other oratorios and musical works, including the colossal Israel in Egypt, which I also attended. The hall was also used for big political meetings and dramatic performances. Mr. J. L. Toole, the famous comedian of former days, I remember seeing there in "The Birth-Place of Podgers" and "Paul Pry" The late Mr. John Stuart, who was a bookseller in King’s-road, was later a lessee ‘of the hall; and in his time a large three-manual organ was purchased and erected in the hall, and thereafter many organ recitals and concerts were given.

These various events are not, of course, all connected with St. Leonards history of 60 years ago, but I have given them here in order to fill in large gaps in Mr. W. Slade’s history of the Concert Hall which he was asked to furnish last year in connection with the opening of the White Rock Pavilion. Harking back to the earlier history, I may say that there were but very few houses in Chapel Park-road, just the dozen or so at the bottom of the road on the east side; the rest of the road was unbuilt on both sides and was like a quagmire in wet weather. No houses in the lower part of Ellenslea-road, none in Southwater-road, except the few at the bottom (including the railway cottages), no De Cham, Cloudesly or St. Peter's roads, and, of course, no Woodland Vale-road - that is a comparatively new road. There was a rather high wooden fence, painted black, extending from London-road at No. 91, above the railway station, right down to the bottom of the slope at the Clifton Hotel, Stainsby-street, which marked the northern boundary of the Railway Company's land, and later, when Alexandra-street (now Alexandra-road) and the west side of Stainsby-street had been built, there was no exit from those streets to the station, unless you were agile enough to climb the fence. In later years, however, the fence was removed, but the Company used to assert their rights once a year by putting a chain across the end of those roads. I don't think they do it now.

There was no railway bridge in those days. London-road has altered a great deal from those times. From the King's road corner up to, I think, No. 73, on the east side}. was a blank, a rather steep bank extending from London-road down to the backs of the houses in King’s-road, which, I may say, was then Gensing Station-road, and, along that side consisted entirely of private houses. In my early days I attended a private school (mixed), which-was at No. 53 (now Mr. Harvey's, builder), kept by three maiden ladies, the Misses Wise. The station was then known as Gensing Station. Continuing up the London-road, there were eight or nine houses below the station on the east side, which were named Oriel-terrace (one of them is still called Oriel House). Above the station there were no more houses on either side of the road until Tower-road was reached. Here there was a toll-gate, and the toll-house stood at the corner of Tower-road West and London-road, where Gray's furniture shop now is. It was built of stone in the form of a round tower, and, I presume, gave the name to Tower-road, and the hotel at the bottom of that road. What are now the beautiful Gensing Gardens was in those days what the laundry ladies describe on their trade cards as "a good airy drying ground," and I have seen many a time the garments fluttering in the breeze there, Many of the fine old oaks are still growing in the Gardens. Coming down the road again, we seen that Christ Church was then the building now used as a Parish Room. It had a low steeple which was taken down when the new church was erected, and the schools above, in Alfred-street, were extended and built over the top of the old church. I remember very well the building of the new large church, the stone for which was mainly, if not entirely quarried on the spot. The slender and beautiful spire was not built until many years afterwards. Opposite Christ Church, at the junction of London and King’s roads, was built, later, on the St. Leonards British School (afterwards London-road Board School), and my own school life was finished there, under Mr. Henry King before he left to found his new Collegiate School in Ellenslea-road, which I think was the first building erected in the lower part of that road. The red brick outer walls of the upper part of the old school can still be seen above the line of shops which form Cheapside, and which took the place of the Infants’ Department, and are brought out beyond the original line of the school walls. There was a little railed enclosure at the extreme corner, where Messrs. Pickfords’ office now is, and a great effort was made at the time of the alteration into shops to leave this unbuilt upon, so that traffic coming down London-road and out from the end,of King’s-road could see each other before rounding the corners. The effort failed, but, in view of the big increase and greater speed of traffic in these days, I think it would have been a wise decision to have left the site open. I shall have to.ask your indulgence, sir, for a little more "Observer" space next week. to finish my story with Chapter III.

Chapter III

This part appeared in the 3 March 1928 edition[2]

Continuing my reminiscences, it will have been gathered, I think, from what I have said before, that, as far as any line of houses is concerned, the district of Bohemia 60 years ago was quite isolated from St. Leonards, there being no connection either by London-road or Chapel Park-road]. Church-road had advanced upwards only as far as the Blomfield-road turning, and Magdalen-terrace (as it still ought to be called, though now officially numbered in Bohemia-road) was in course of construction. Since those days the. whole block of streets formed by St. Paul's, Horntye, Salisbury and Cranbrook roads, and the row in, Bohemia-road from St. Paul’s-road to Salisbury-road have been added to the Bohemia district. The latter, I believe, were all constructed by that sturdy old Radical giant and most kind-hearted of men, the late Mr. Toby King[a], who named them Bright’s-terrace, in memory of the famous statesman of former days, John Bright. They were all private houses then, except one at Salisbury-road corner (now a police station), which was St. Paul’s Working Men's Club House. Going across to London-road again, there were a fair number of houses in Springfield-road on the north side, but none on south side, and Sedlescombe-road South (except, I think, for one or two houses), St. Matthew’s-road, gardens and drive had no existence. Tower-road West, Combermere-road and Clinton-crescent are all of recent erection, comparatively speaking, and the same is true of Gilbert-road, Filsham Park and Branksome roads.

There was another tollgate across the road at the Green, the toll-house being at the corner at the top of Filsham Park-road. The Green was then a large open space, used as a cricket and sports field, and was known as “Gingerbread Green.” Why, I know not, unless it was because of a sort of fair, which was held up there, with donkey rides along the road, every year, on Good Friday of all days! The Forge Cottages and the old blacksmith's forge (in a different form) still exist at the top of Springfield-road surrounded by the top of Springfield-road, surrounded by all the big houses of much more recent erection. Markwick-terrace was in course of erection when was a boy, and a good many of the mansions in Upper Maze-hill were built then or since. I remember the first St. Johns Church and saw the ruins after it had been destroyed by fire. It was a rather smaller building than the present church and had no spire. Passing down further south and west, Pevensey-road West, Albany-road, Highlands-gardens and Boscobel-road now occupy ground which was all open space at that date and long rows of houses have been added to the western end of the West Hill, including, of course, all the various “Homes” on the south side of the road.

St Saviour's-road was unbuilt and from the Bopeep railway arch past the Railway-cottages extended a flat, marshy plain called ”The Salts,” as far as the Bull Inn, Bulverhythe, with no houses at all on it, except the little row of whitewashed Coastguard cottages running north to south towards the railway line, about in the middle of the plain. The stream which flows along here was always known to us as the Haven or Avon (there was no “H” with us, anyhow), though it is really, I believe, the little river Asten. We used sometimes to bathe in it, as a change from sea bathing.

All this district is now, of course, covered with houses, which were mainly built by the late Mr. P. Jenkins, and locally the place was known to many of the residents as “Jenkinstown.” On the beach at this part were three of the old Martello towers, one being nearly opposite where Messrs. Gaze and Sons’ building now stands, one on the cliff at Bulverhythe, and one about midway between these two. There was a free bathing station for men and boys extending westward along here from where Grosvenor-gardens now stands, which we boys always spoke of as going down towers,” and I can assure you we fully availed ourselves of the bathing facilities all through the summer months. Of couse, there were. no houses along there at that time, nothing beyond the “Fountain Inn” at the end of Caves-road, except the “Railway Inn” and the Bopeep Railway Station. Two of the towers were eventually blown up with what was then a new explosive - gun cotton - and the third, at Bulverhythe was partly pulled down and partly washed down by the sea. The parade did not extend so far westwards as it does now, and from a point nearly opposite the old Parish Church to the end of Marina was very much narrower than the rest of the parade. Later on, however, the sea wall was built out where it is today, the enclosed stretch of beach filled in, and the new extension was formally opened by a procession of the Mayor and Corporation along the whole length, passing under a triumphal arch at the eastern end, and some speeches being delivered from a platform about midway.

The final portion appeared in the 17 March 1928 edition[3]

The buildings on the parade opposite the Royal Victoria Hotel did not consist of shops in those days, except for "Dorman's Library" and printing office at the eastern end and a public reading room at the other end. The intervening space was occupied by "Lock's Royal Baths." I have now got back almost to the point from which I started my desultory notes, viz., the South Colonnade. There are still two shops in the Colonnade of the same character and in the same family's hands as when I was a boy, Messrs. Parks, butchers, and the Misses Whittaker, stationers; the others have all passed into other hands. There is still a chemist's at the end, known by the old name of Thomas and Co., but Mr. Thomas who lived there when I was a boy, sold it to strangers and retired, I believe, to Brighton, and has been dead a good number of years now. In my boyhood days, the sea used to run in a good deal more at St. Leonards, at the time of very high tides, than it does now, and dwellers in the Colonnade had to keep strong shutters handy to protect the lower windows when the south-west gales were blowing, otherwise the rooms partly below the parade level would soon have been filled with beach stones and water.

One terrific storm I well remember, though I cannot quite fix the date of it now. It was on a Sunday morning and a spring tide. The wind was almost due south, blowing "great guns," and drove the water in with such force that the tide was up fully an hour before its time. As it still continued to flow, it may be imagined what the scene was like when the tide was fully up. The waves simply rolled over on to the parade and at the west end of Marina especially, they flowed right across the road and washed the slabs of pavement down into the areas of the houses, doing a great deal of damage. The whole front line suffered severely from one end to the other, and a relief fund of four or five thousand pounds was afterwards subscribed towards repairing the damage.

A great event I remember well was the opening of the Hastings Pier in 1872 by Earl Granville, Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports. It took place on the first August Bank Holiday, which had shortly before been established by law, mainly through the efforts of Sir John Lubbock. I was one of a crowd of boys who waited in the pouring rain outside Hastings Station to join in the welcome to the distinguished visitor. The first Parliamentary Election I have any recollection of was when Messrs. North and Brassey were elected in 1860. I was a small boy of 7 and was taken by my father to see the election crowds round the Memorial. I remember seeing Mr. Brassey's (afterwards Lord Brassy) carriage, in which his children were seated, holding aloft their mauve and white banners on which was inscribed, "Vote for my Papa." I think it was the next year when, through the death of Mr. North, a bye-election took place and Mr. U. J. Kay-Shuttleworth (afterwards Lord Shuttleworth) was returned. At that time the state of the poll was posted up every hour outside the polling stations. I remember Mr. Shuttleworth riding on horseback up Norman-road in the afternoon of polling day, and, in response to cheering from the bystanders, raising his hat and announcing the figures as they then stood, showing that he was leading.

Now I think I have finished my survey of St. Leonards of 60 years ago; I have covered pretty well all the ground, and I conclude that the town today must be more than twice the size it was in those days. By the time this appears in print, I suppose its 100th birthday will have been passed, and if it is not to be celebrated in any official or public demonstration, let me (metaphorically) raise my glass to the toast of "Good old St. Leonards, good luck and prosperity, and may its shadow never grow less!" As a concluding reminiscence, I should like to say that an old friend of mine, a St. Leonards newsagent for more years than I can remember, has told me that he received and distributed the first copies of the "Hastings Observer" under that name, which was I don't know how any years ago; they were, I believe pulled off on an old hand press! And I think St. Leonards can claim the present Editor of the "Observer" as one of her sons. Thank you sir, for all the space you have given up to me for my, I am afraid, rather rambling notes. I am glad to see some of the old-timers have been interested in them, and with regard to "C. R. G.," I should be pleased to have a chat with him (though I am not a great talker) on old times. It is improbable that we ever met if he left the town when he was 12, as I was only between 4 and 5 at that time, but all the same, I should be glad to see him.

— H. W. B.

References & Notes

  1. An alternate source gives the fore-name of the builder as being Antony or Tony