THE FISHING PORT OF HASTINGS BEFORE 1814
The origins of modern Hastings lie in the 18th century, when the early stages of the industrial revolution first produced a large number of people with high incomes (from the profits of industry) but with no necessity to work. It became fashionable for these people to spend their time and money, first, at inland spas, and then in seaside resorts, in pursuit of pleasure and health. In the 18th century sea water was both bathed in and drunk for its medicinal value.
The vogue for visiting the seaside was initiated by the Londonbased aristocracy and court, with the easily-accessible Brighton and Margate their most popular towns by the 1730s. Hastings began to emerge as an alternative to Brighton and Margate for the new middle class from the 1760s, growing and changing gradually until it suddenly became very popular for about a decade after 1814, when change and development accelerated dramatically.
The post-1814 transformation of the town was to bring serious antagonism between the old and new Hastings. This conflict has continued into the late 20th century, for it is a clash between a working community occupying a large section of valuable land – the Old Town beach – and the landowners, developers, shopkeepers, entrepreneurs and council officials controlling the affairs of Hastings in the last 200 years who have coveted that land.
Visitors were initially drawn to Hastings by the _ health-giving sea, the beautiful local scenery and the fishing village charm of the town. Until more sophisticated attractions were built after 1814 the fishermen found themselves the focus of much attention. This did very little to improve the economic position of the fishing families, however, and they remained poor while the town’s rulers – and in particular the most powerful landowning family, the Milwards – benefited greatly from the rising property values and opportunities for increased trade that the rich pleasure seekers brought with them. The problems of the poor were added to by other factors such as the wars with France which caused food and commodity prices to rise, and the latter part of the 18th century saw at least one bread riot in the town, along with disturbances such as the burning of wheat ricks owned by Edward Milward in protest at the profits being made in the face of the widespread poverty.
Hastings itself in the late 1700s was confined almost entirely to what is now known as the Old Town Valley, then called the Bourne Valley, with the rest of today’s built-up area being just farms, hamlets and scattered houses (the present town centre and St Leonards did not appear until the second quarter of the 19th century).
Hastings had two important streets: High Street on the west side of the valley and All Saints Street on the east, with the Bourne Stream running down to the sea between them. All Saints Street at that time was also known as Fisher or Fish Street, reflecting the fact that it was the area where most of the fishing community lived. The town’s bigger shops, commercial premises and better-off residents tended to be found in or near High Street, called Market Street until 1814, and when Hastings grew as a resort the visitors and their facilities tended to concentrate on this west side of the valley. As the town expanded it went west as an extension of High Street, through what was first called the suburbs and then, from 1811, George Street, the town’s ‘shopping centre’ until the mid-1800s. The poor gravitated towards the All Saints Street district, where small houses and tenements were crammed into the gardens of the existing dwellings.
This social splitting of the town into east and west of the Bourne Stream coincided with the administrative division of the borough into the two old parishes of All Saints and St Clements. The poorer fishing people mainly lived in All Saints parish, while the wealth and power of the town lay in St Clements. As the built-up area extended westward rather than eastward in the 19th century the divide between the two widened, with St Clements becoming disproportionately richer and more dominant in the town’s affairs. All Saints parish was actually left out of most of the provisions of the first Hastings Improvement Acts of 1789 and 1820 that tried to make the town (or the St Clements part of it) a better place to live in or to visit.
The fishing fleet occupied the beach at the foot of the Old Town Valley. The beach was not like it is today, however, as the shape of the coast was considerably different. The fortunes of the fishing industry have been greatly influenced by changes in the local coastline, most of those since the early 1800s having been brought about by human interference.