Feature: Famous residents of Hastings

Dr Elizabeth Blackwell plaque
Dr Elizabeth Blackwell plaque

Hastings has attracted its fair share of famous characters, ranging from scientists, poets to military figures. Reporter RICHARD GLADSTONE shines a light on those who have lived and stayed here in 1066 Country.

IMAGINE living in a house that was once home to a notable figure in history.

John Smeath and his wife Toni Myers know exactly what it is like, for they live at such a place - and regularly offer impromptu tours.

The couple live in High Street in the Old Town, where the Pre-Raphaelite poets and artists Dante Gabriel Rossetti and Elizabeth Eleanor Siddal stayed in 1854.

What attracts visitors is the blue plaque outside their house commemorating their stay.

Mr Smeath said: “We have a couple who have been visiting every year for the last several years interested in Dante and Elizabeth. In fact they have written to us saying they will be coming over again.

“A lot of tourists come knocking on the door, especially those from the USA. We even had a party of Japanese visitors last week asking about the house and plaque. One of our visitors from the States is currently writing a book about Dante and Siddel.”

Mr Smeath said many people stop to look at the plaque and inside the house from the windows when they walk past.

“They do not knock because they feel they may be intruding,” Mr Smeath added.

The couple have lived in the house in High Street for eight years.

Dante also stayed at what is now The Cutter pub in nearby East Parade in 1860 prior to his wedding to Elizabeth in May of that year.

He tied the knot with her at St Clement’s Church.

There is also a blue plaque outside The Cutter commemorating this.

Dante first brought Elizabeth to Hastings in April 1854 in the hope that his bride-to-be’s health would improve, as she was dogged by poor health.

The pair stayed in Hastings for two months that year.

The plaque outside Mr Smeath’s house is just one of around 120 commemorative plaques and tablets dotted around town where notable figures in history once resided here in 1066 Country.

Author David Renno has compiled three books on the subject after spending the best part of two years researching all of the material.

One covers plaques in the Old Town, one is about them in Hastings and the third is devoted to commemorative plaques and tablets in St Leonards.

But the history buff, who has penned two other publications on shipwrecks off the East Sussex coast, believes there may be more plaques out there just waiting to be rediscovered.

Mr Renno said: “The town has attracted all types of people throughout history. It certainly has attracted a lot of well-known military figures who have stayed here like Wellington, as well as writers like Beatrix Potter and painters like Prout.”

There are, of course, plaques dedicated to well-known figures such as John Logie Baird, the pioneer of television.

There is a blue round plaque in Linton Crescent at the house where he displayed the first television images in 1923, as well as one in Queens Arcade where Baird experimented with television in 1924.

And another famous one is in London Road, St Leonards, on the house where author Robert Tressell, real name Robert Noonan, lived in from 1906 to 1910 when he penned The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists.

And children’s author Beatrix Potter once lived in Robertson Terrace. She spent the winters between 1898 and 1907 at her Hastings address while living in London the rest of the time.

She penned two of her stories in Hastings, namely The Tale of Two Bad Mice and The Pie and The Patty Pan.

The plaque marking her stay in Hastings is outside the Robertson Terrace entrance to Debenhams.

Mr Renno’s idea to write his books first came about after he heard a talk on fisherman Joseph Swaine, who was shot by a coastguard in March 1821.

“Before I knew it I was looking for all of the plaques around town, not just at his,” he told the Observer.

Mr Renno, of Canute Road, Ore, added: “We walk by many of these plaques daily when we are going about our business and most of the time we don’t even know they are there.

“I must have walked into Debenhams lots of times without realising there is a plaque at the Robertson Terrace entrance saying Beatrix Potter once lived there.

“There was a pamphlet written for the council which highlighted 80 plaques around town and I did use this as a basis to write the books.

“The leaflet just named the individuals and where they lived but did not give much history. The rest of the plaques I have written about were discovered by walking around Hastings and St Leonards and asking friends to keep their eyes out for them.

“In many cases I’ve just stumbled across them.”

Mr Renno’s books, entitled History on the walls of Old Town Hastings, History on the walls of St Leonards and History on the walls of Hastings Town, are each priced at £5 and available from Hastings Information Centre in the town hall, The History House, Courthouse Street and Martello Books, High Street, Rye.