1875-95 THE SEA AGAINST THE TOWN
Three gales in the mid-1870s highlighted how vulnerable the rapidly expanding resort of Hastings was to the sea. The gales led to sea defences in the west of the town being strengthened, but the Old Town was left unprotected – deliberately, many believed – until the fishing industry was literally almost washed away in 1883.
The gale of Sunday, November 14, 1875, caused some of the most serious damage ever seen at Hastings. ‘A great public disaster has fallen upon Hastings’ said the Hastings Chronicle!. ‘Such a scene. . . is unequalled within the memory of man, or within received tradition. . . .
Many industries and hard working lodging house keepers have been ruined; substantial tradesmen have received loss which will interfere with their prospects for a long time; and the fishery have become sufferers to a degree rarely known even in that risky life, Sunday’s south-westerly gale was preceded by several days of strong winds that forced a large volume of water into the English Channel. The gale drove the water onto the land, and for three hours on Sunday morning ‘waves such as are never seen off the Hastings shore poured over the parade walls in a continuous raging torrent. West of Robertson Street, the substantial sea defences that had been built led to only minimal damage being caused, but to the east widespread destruction occurred. All the streets round the town centre, plus George Street and West Street, were flooded, while right along the front east of the Queens Hotel hardly a house escaped flood and damage. At least 30 buildings were completely wrecked. The fishermen, anticipating the danger, hauled their boats and gear up to the roadways and comparative safety, but could not prevent 14 net shops being knocked down and washed out to sea.
Four months later, on March 13-14, 1876, the eastern end of the borough was again ravaged by a gale, while on New Year’s Day, 1877, a storm almost comparable with that of November, 1875, caused havoc once more. Net shops were undermined, although not apparently lost, while all the Old Town front west of Bourne Street was inundated.
The effects of the November, 1875 gale on valuable seafront property forced Hastings Council to urgently review all its sea defences. Sir John Coode, one of the country’s leading civil engineers, was employed to prepare recommendations. In order to understand Coode’s important report, however, we need to look first at the stage of development Hastings and St Leonards had reached in 1875.
The two towns were then one, administratively and geographically, although the social divisions between the two still persisted, with Old Towners continuing to express hostility to St Leonards. The Priory Valley was rapidly filling up with industrial, commercial and residential building, while extensive housing developments were taking place around central St Leonards, north from there to Silverhill, on Hastings’ West Hill, in Clive Vale and at Ore. The seafront was a continuous line of buildings from West Marina to the Old Town, while the Memorial area had become the heart of the town.
Before work began on the much-criticised wooden groyne, a moderate August gale gave a foretaste of the destruction that was to come. The old Custom House, opposite the Cutter in East Parade, was washed away and the sea severely damaged the road between there and Bourne Street. The sea was then only a few feet away from the frontline buildings, and it was clear that they would fall victim to it unless something was done. Yet still the Council refused to build the Rock-a-Nore groyne. Instead they opted for an eastward extension of the parade wall past the High Street. The Council had already given the site of the Custom House to the local branch of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution for a new lifeboat house, and were extending the western parade to join up to it. This provoked another clash with the fishermen, angry at seeing their stade being cut down even further. The Pierwarden moved one of their large capstans to the east, but the fishermen immediately hauled it back again ‘amid considerable excitement. This happened early in September, 1881, and a month later the Council, undeterred, decided as a result of the August gale to extend the wall even further to the east, past the bottom of High Street.
This wall, parallel to the road, would simply have protected the roadway and open-air fishmarket, but would not have accumulated any beach, and would have stopped the fishermen pulling up their boats there. As the Hastings News said later: ‘A good carriage way would, no doubt, be obtained, and another step be taken in opening up the locality around the fishmarket to the enterprising builder, but the so-called improvement would be the destruction of the fishery interest. No boats could approach a wall of the description projected.