In the 12th century the rich and thriving town of Hastings was built around a harbour, used by the Norman kings to journey to Normandy.
But the port, on which the importance of Hastings depended, was destroyed in a series of great storms in the 13th century. The eastward drift of the shingle cut the harbour off from the sea, reducing Hastings to the status of a fishing village.
Centuries of attempts to replace the harbour failed. The town did not regain its prosperity until it became a fashionable resort in the early 19th century. By this time the harbour had become a marsh, through which ran the Priory Stream. The area between the marsh and the shore, once sea, became firm ground, behind a shingle bank.
The White Rock jutted out further than it does today, protecting the new land. In the early 1800s the future America Ground was empty. A group of leading Hastings merchants, most notably members of the Breeds family, decided to make use of the land. They set up rope walks, long straight paths on which rope was manufactured, as well as warehouses.
Houses were also constructed, some made from old boats and by the end of the Napoleonic Wars in 1815 there was a substantial population living and working there. Many trades were carried out, while a room over one of the warehouses was forerunner to the William Parker School.
After the war the population expanded further and contemporary views of Hastings from the White Rock show what was in fact the America Ground. At some point Hastings Corporation sent in bailiffs, it is said to apprehend suspected felons. The inhabitants of the ground rioted in protest and chased the officials back over the Priory Bridge. They hoisted the American flag, the Stars and Stripes, as a symbol of their independence, which they maintained to the end of their occupation of the land.
To fly this flag within living memory of the American Revolution would have been regarded as a most defiant gesture. An 1828 enquiry resulted in the land, which had once been sea, being seized as Crown Property. Those who lived and worked on the America Ground were allowed a further seven years of occupancy. Some of the inhabitants dismantled their homes and re-erected them in St Leonards, where they are still standing, mainly in Shepherd and North Streets.
The ‘Americans’ had remained independent until the end. In 1832 they marched on a civic banquet held on Priory Meadow, carrying their flag, which now also bore the Union Flag and the Arms of Hastings. It was presented to the borough as a gesture of reconciliation. Patrick Robertson built the present Victorian town centre on the America Ground between 1850 and 1855.
Thanks to Dennis Collins for research. An exhibition on the subject of America Ground will be mounted at the History House, Courthouse Street, Old Town; it will run from June 29 to July 20. Further details: www.visit1066country.com/attractions/hastings-history-house.