The long and unfortunate saga of the Hastings Harbour

This week, in his continuing series, Ion Castro takes another look at early photos of Hastings Old town and the fishing beach and examines the mixed fortunes of Hastings as a harbour.

Friday, 16th March 2018, 6:32 am
Updated Friday, 8th June 2018, 12:15 am
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He writes. After the invention of photography in the mid 19th century the most popular medium for printing out photographs was the albumen process - the name ‘albumen’ deriving from the egg white that was used to bind the developing chemicals to the paper.

Unfortunately the images were prone to fading if exposed to the light over time and many have been lost by simply fading away but sufficient numbers have survived to open a window on Hastings in the later half of the nineteenth century.

The harbour at Hastings that led the town to its position as premier Cinque Port in pre-conquest days is best described by John M Baines in ‘Historic Hastings’, the bible of Hastings local history: “Perhaps the greatest misfortune that can befall a busy port is to lose its harbour facilities, and in this respect Hastings has long been unfortunate. The coast is exposed to the full force of the south-west winds and by the end of the 12th century the eastward drift along the shore was beginning to block the harbour to such an extent that much of the town’s trade passed to Rye and Winchelsea. During the 13th century Hastings was able to contribute its full quota of 21 ships to the fleet of the Cinque Ports, but 100 years later could only muster three. And by the end of the 15th century it was merely a small fishing village”.

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In the time of the first Elizabeth attempts were made to remedy the situation and some money was collected but seems to have been embezzled, or as the historian Camden put it, “ quickly converted into private purses and the public good neglected”.

An attempt at harbour construction commenced in 1595 and ended two years later in one of the most dramatic incidents in the history of the town. To quote again from Baines, himself quoting from the Court Books: “ memorand’m, that about the 1st of March, 1595, the peere of Hasting was begonne to be reedified by certein westerne men, sent for of purpose from the Cobb of Lyme. And by them was built a huge woorke without (i.e. outside) the old pere, full south, all of huge rock, artificially pyled edglong, one close by another of a great hight, but without any Tymber yet to man’s judgment unremovable, it grew to so huge a pile”, only to be swept away by a storm during the spring tide of 1597 and it wasn’t until an Assembly in 1611 ordered that “the Peere be presently (i.e. immediately) repayred in the great ruynes and breaches thereof....”

So, evidently some money had been raised and put aside during this period and this time the work was mostly repairs and seems to have been effective, but in 1613 the whole question of providing a real harbour was raised again.

Work started once again in 1621, but in the July it was decided that work of the pier should cease for that year as soon as the carpenters had fixed the framing.

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Stocks of timber were to be secured ready for the following spring, when it was hoped that the whole might be finished but still the money was not enough and vigorous attempts were again made in 1622 to obtain more to finish the work. The question of a harbour does not appear again until 1635/6 When it was noted that the pier was once more “ decaied “ and the King was petitioned with the confession that the town had become very poor for want of a harbour and saying that the present pier was expected to be carried away by every storm.

The King was unhelpful and, as predicted, the remains of the harbour were swept away by a severe storm in the winter of 1656 leaving just the timber stakes intended to retain the rock core. Early photographers clearly found the pier rocks an attractive subject until the shingle build-up against the 1896 harbour, itself unfinished, eventually buried the unfortunate harbour remains.

Before the coming of the railways in the 1840’s goods were brought into Hastings by pack animal or by boat. One of the reasons for the 1896 harbour was to encourage more freight but the railways had already captured that market; coal however continued to be brought in by small sailing coasters or colliers until the late 1880’s.

Colliers were flat-bottomed boats that were beached at high tide and had their cargos unloaded over the side into waiting horse-drawn carts and the boat then refloated on the incoming tide, the process often being captured by contemporary photographers and not restricted to the old town area of Hastings. Other bulky goods brought by sea included the ironwork for Hastings Pier which was delivered by boat from Laidlaw’s works in Glasgow to the beach at Warrior Square allowing the first pile to be screwed into the sea bed at the end of 1869. Sadly no photographs of the event appear to exist.

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Pictures of Hastings beach, particularly in the old town area frequently reveal the washing that fishermen’s wives took in from wealthy inhabitants and visitors to supplement the family income and it can be seen drying on lines strung up on the beach or flat on the shingle.

All illustrations throughout this series are from Ion Castro’s own collection and he can make available copies of many of the historic images used in this series. There’s more local history on Ion’s website, or contact him - [email protected]


Beach & Pier.

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An image from the 1870’s by an unknown photographer A boat, probably carrying coal, waits to be unloaded when the tide falls, washing can be seen on the beach and the newly-built Hastings Pier (opened 1872) with its uncluttered promenade deck can be seen in the distance while bathing machines can be seen in the water in the centre of the picture opposite Pelham Crescent which is hidden round the corner.

East Hill.

Late 1870’s and a string of horses and carts unload the collier beyond the pier rocks, the ‘new’ harbour has yet to be built and the top of the east hill has to be approached by he path that would later become steps. Washing adorns the beach beyond the reach of the tide

On the Beach.

An image from locally well-known photographer F S Mann of 13 Wellington Place not far from where the picture was taken, and dating from the 1880’s shows a boat unloading opposite Pelham Crescent in front of Caroline Place with the eastern end of Pelham Crescent obscured by Beach Terrace that will be demolished in 1931. This image seems to have been popular and examples are known of it used as an album page as well as part of a stereo view.

Pier Stakes.

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The construction of the Elizabethan pier can be appreciated from this image dating from the last quarter of the nineteenth century. Washing is drying further up the beach and in the distance fishing boats are drying their sails. The square imprints in the sky show why double-sided tape should not be used to stick photographs in albums.

Remains of Old Pier.

Local photographer F S Mann, of 13 Wellington Place has captured this image of a coal boat being unloaded beyond the remains of the Elizabethan harbour and against the backdrop of washing, fishing boats and net shops. “The Lookout” and the end of Tackleway can be seen on the left and steps appear to have replaced the path to the top of East Hill. The lift won’t be built until 1902.

Remains of old pier at Hastings.

A different view of a boat being unloaded beyond the remains of the old harbour. Carts waiting to be loaded can be seen by the stern of the boat while horses drag filled carts up the beach.

Skylark Hastings.

This album page by an unknown photographer is simply captioned “Skylark at Hastings Beach” and features the Skylark, one of several beach yachts that included the Albertine and New Albertine, operating off the beach at Harold Place by the Queens Hotel around the end of the nineteenth century taking passengers out on pleasure trips, the absence of health and safety regulations can clearly be seen but there is no record of any serious mishap and she was eventually broken up in 1907. Note the men in the water helping with the launch.


This image by an unnamed photographer of the seafront at St Leonards shows a collier being unloaded on the sand opposite the bottom of London Road in the 1880’s. The St Leonards Archway, on the centre left is still standing, the corporation will demolish it during the course of one night on 23rd January 1895. Two ‘pulling-off anchors’ , not visible in the image and used to assist the relaunch of the beached boats can still be seen today at very low tides in the rocks lining up with the slipway that used to exist opposite the bottom of London Road. Bathing machines can be seen at the water’s edge to the west of the pier.

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