Town Centre once resounded to leather on willow
This week, in his continuing series, Ion Castro takes a look at the time when a cricket ground dominated the heart of the town centre in Hastings.
He writes. The Priory Meadow Shopping Centre covers what had been for over 120 years the Central Cricket Ground, (renamed in 1964 back to its original name of hundred years previously, ‘Priory Meadow’).
Priory Meadow in turn occupied the area that was believed to have been a natural harbour before silting up and leaving a wide stream meandering across it before flowing under the Priory Bridge to the sea until 1839 when the stream was culverted. The Priory Meadow and the nearby Priory Farm on the site of the former Augustinian Priory were part of extensive lands belonging to the Cornwallis estate.
Cricket had been played on the East Hill until the early 1860s when the Hastings United Club decided that ground was no longer adequate and looked for somewhere more accessible; Priory Meadow was considered as a possible site and at the same time, with Hastings expanding westward, there was a rumour that the meadow might be sold for building.
A public meeting was held, a committee quickly formed and within a fortnight it was reported that the meadow could be available at an annual rent of £25 and noted that it would cost £300 to level, drain and re-turf the two acres in the middle. In a few months a total of £610 had been raised and work on the ground started immediately with play taking place by the end of the summer of 1864.
The new ground was such a success that at the AGM five years later it was resolved that the committee ask the Cornwallis Estate if it might sell the ground to the club. A figure of £5,000 was agreed and a scheme for management was included in the Cornwallis Estates Act of 1870. The subscription list reached £3,180 and the Cornwallis estate accepted a down payment of £3,000, the balance of £2,000 to be left on mortgage at an interest rate of 4%. This mortgage remained outstanding until it was finally paid off in the 1950s with money released by commercially developing the Queen’s Road frontage.
On 7 August 1872 the Trust Deed came into being as a private concern and, contrary to popular belief, the ground is not owned by the town and therefore independent of the Town Council who had never contributed towards it except for the loan of deck chairs and a small grant to cover extra labour costs when a first-class match was on. Amongst conditions contained in the Trust was the requirement that the trustees ‘shall allow the ground to be used by the inhabitants and visitors of the Borough of Hastings and neighbourhood as a pleasure ground and a place of recreation.’
The ground, but not the buildings on it, was to be open to the public one day in every week (not Sunday) and it could be requisitioned by the Mayor of Hastings to be used ‘as a place of public meeting for any lawful purpose for two days, and two days only, in the course of any six consecutive months.’ In 1951 the ground was requisitioned when the Queen (as Princess Elizabeth) came to Hastings to symbolically receive the Deeds of the Castle and Glens and to hand them over to the Corporation of Hastings.
Funding the ground had always been a problem so various means of raising money were considered; in the early days there are reports of Evening Fetes, a Health Exhibition in 1889, an Archery Club, circuses, athletic meetings and a race by errand boys riding their delivery bicycles.
In the early 1890s disagreements surfaced about letting part of the ground for football which ‘seemed now to be displacing cricket as a popular pursuit’. Those in favour of football pointed out that it was a recreation as well as a cricket ground whilst others thought it could damage the turf so a compromise was reached where the footballers stopped play by the end of February.
On occasions the ground was officially called into use for hustings during elections and was hired as a drilling ground for the Cinque Port Volunteers with the Countess Waldegrave paying the fee; it was the scene of drumhead services and of the recruiting campaigns for the Boer War and the First World War. In later years, lawn tennis courts were laid out for the public with a huge tournament in the late summer.
There were push ball contests, youth rallies and a bowling green was created in the south-west corner, which for a time became the headquarters of the Hastings Bowls Club and the space next to the Town Hall (which later became the Coach Park) was let to the Wallis Arthur Concert Party who staged their entertainment in a large tent.
By 1983 long-running proposals by the local establishment to building a shopping centre on the Central Cricket Ground culminated in a month-long public inquiry at the Queens Hotel but the government later refused planning permission because of unsatisfactory roads, parking and drainage.
In 1986 the Central Cricket Ground Committee voted in favour of selling up and moving out to Summerfields, on the casting vote of Chairman Lord Cornwallis. This resulted in a planning application for the cricket ground scheme being published in December 1986 and the following year Hastings Council voted in favour of building the shopping centre with consent being finally granted on Nov 18 1988 despite opposition to the loss of what many regarded (incorrectly) as publicly-owned open land. A year later, in 1989, Hastings Council and speculators Speyhawk Ltd signed the highly controversial re-development agreement. Speyhawk flew Hastings Council officers to Jersey to save the company £400,000 in stamp duty and sparked accusations of Council incompetence, deceit, corruption and dodgy-dealing.
The symbolic ‘last match’, the final chapter in the 125-year history of the town’s most controversial open space, was held on Sunday October 1 1989 and Sussex beat Kent in front of 1,000 people.
Despite the fact that funds for the ground had still not changed hands work started the following day on demolishing buildings in Queens Road, Middle Street and Russell Street in preparation for the altered traffic system needed as part of the new shopping centre and more than a year after that there was still uncertainty over the future of the Cricket Ground as developers Speyhawk failed to raise the £43 million needed for the scheme citing the poor economic climate. By the middle of 1991 the Council had withdrawn from the deal. The end of 1994 saw the cafe at the Cricket Ground closed for the last time and some weeks later building the new shopping centre had started. March 1995 saw a new deal sealed on new shopping centre and six months after that the buildings on cricket ground site were levelled. On June 6th 1997 The Queen visited the town and officially opened the new shopping centre.
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, www.historichastings.co.uk
A postcard from the first war period, handwritten on the back “How our squad finished up after the Blindfold Squad Drill” Notice the chimney of the Electric Light Works and the houses of Devonshire Road that overlooked the ground.
Devonshire Road Garden.
Photo by well known local photographer, A M Breach posted to Stoke Newington 27th August 1914. The tennis courts on the Queens Road frontage can be seen. Householders in Devonshire Road would have been able to watch events for free.
400. Hastings Cricket Ground, Sussex in the Field.
A classic view from Judge’s of a Cricket Match in the 1920’s. On Queens Road a magnifying glass reveals the Bedford Hotel, and next to it Hocking & Savage, General Drapers. Less obvious is the large crowd assembled in Portland Place watching the match for free.
1873 OS Map,
This version of the map is endorsed “Rezincographed and printed in 1885” Notice the houses in Devonshire Road have not yet been built and neither has the Town Hall.
Football in 1908.
English Cup-tie: Hastings v Portsmouth 1908. Notice the crowd outside the ground, in Portland Place, watching for free.
Wallis Arthur 1913
An advertisement dating from 1913 for Wallis Arthur’s Al Fresco Concert, these concerts would continue on to the 1920’s.
Dating from around 1910, was this photograph taken from a balloon? The Cricketers Hotel immortalised in Robert Tressell’s ‘Ragged Trousered Philanthropists’ and almost contemporary with the picture, occupies the centre of the picture. Above the hotel the imposing bulk of Hastings Grammar School can be seen and behind it, the chimney of the Hastings Tramways power station The gas works can be seen on the left and notice the tram tracks splitting to double track just below the Bedford Hotel that was to perish in the last war.
Post-war aerial postcard with Priory Meadow in the centre, notice the extensive railway goods yard above it and the site of the Albany Hotel in Robertson terrace still vacant. On the right the gas holders in Queens Road can be seen and above them, on the other side of the railway, Hollingsworths motor car workshops in Braybrooke Road.
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