Hastings in the 1500’s

While the Anglo Saxon Chronicles describe the men of Hastings as providing ships to the King there are no records from the time that indicate where the harbour might have been situated. The ports at Arundel and Lewes were located up river on the Arun and the Ouse respectively, however that at Hastings is believed to have been situated in an inlet (Leslie and Short, 1999) which may have been protected by a shingle spit (Martin et al. 2009). The development of shingle spits is thought to have had a significant influence on the location and subsequent growth of ports in the region many of which were situated where a river or tidal embayment met the sea and were afforded protection from south westerly storms by a developing shingle spit. This is thought to be the case for Shoreham and Winchelsea and according to Martin et al., (2009) long shore drift may have resulted in the creation of such a feature against White Rock which may have extended further south than is the case today. This barrier will have acted as a natural harbour arm behind which a sheltered bay or lagoon may have formed at the mouth of the Old Roar Stream that passed through Priory Valley. Martin et al (2009) suggest that this may have initially drawn the Saxons to the area. However the subsequent build up of silts from the stream behind the barrier will have resulted in the formation of a marsh-like environment and have rendered any harbour all but useless. This area of reclaimed land later became known as the America Ground and now forms part of the present New Town.

Remains of the old 16th Century harbour wall are buried under the present day stade, and are the oldest known remains of port structures inSussex (Marsden, 2003). Many attempts have been made to fund and build a harbour.

In 1546 a wooden pier is believed to have existed and the construction of a stone wall for the stade was commissioned five years later in 1561 (Salzman, 1921). However there are no records that would indicate if this work was undertaken and if so, whether it was successful. Interestingly at around the same time Yarmouth was also struggling with its harbour and the corporation felt it necessary to employ a pilot for:

‘bryngyng in of shyppys in to the haven, by the grace of God.’[1]

In 1562, when Rye was considered to be the region’s principal port, initial steps were made to construct a harbour in the form of a protective pier or breakwater atHastingsby enlisting the aid of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports William Brooke, who wrote to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, requesting the provision of:

“…such stuffe laborers and artificers as shall be merit to these works.”

For whatever reason no immediate steps appear to have been taken and it was not until October 1578 that the Queen issued a proclamation acknowledging the importance to the country of the town in the past with regard to both military matters and the provision of fish to not just the Royal Household but the City of London and the country as a whole. The statement goes on to say that since the loss of the pier, the town is:

“…much decayed, the traffique of marchants thither forsaken, the fishing, by virtue of dangerous landing but little used…”

As a result Hastings was granted the sum of £4000, around £600,000 today, for the construction of a suitable harbour. Sadly it would appear that much of the funds made their way into the pockets of individuals rather than the project itself and no further work was carried out until March 1595 when men from Lyme Regis were called in to help repair the pier. By this time its construction had taken on such importance that all able men in the town were ordered to work on it or forfeit 6d every time they were required but failed to show up. By the end of the summer it was decided that all the funds obtained from that year’s forthcoming trip to the Herring Fishery in Yarmouth and half of that from theScarboroughvoyage would be appropriated to finish its construction and if these were insufficient, the balance would be borne by a tax on the town.

The pier was constructed solely of stone and situated outside the foundations of the earlier pier. However, the first winter storm is reported to have resulted in its break-up, the lack of a timber brace considered to be a contributory factor. Further work continued the following year and this time, without the men of Lyme Regis, it was thought prudent to construct the pier within the timber work of an earlier structure. By early November 1597 a pier of around 100ft long and 30ft high had been constructed as is described in the Court Books of the time:

“And this woorke was with singular industry and arte brought above the full and by All Holloutyde 1597 well nere finished, viz.:—xxx foote high and C foot long at least, bowtyfull to behold, huge, invincible, and unremoveable in the judgment of all the beholders …”[2]

However not long after, a large storm is reported as rapidly destroying the pier:

“But behold when men were most secure and thought the woorke to be perpetuall, on All Saints’ daie 1597 appeared the mighty force of God, who with the finger of his hand at one great and exceding high spring tyde with a south east wynd overthrew this huge woorke in lesse then an hower to the great terrour and abashment of all beholders…”[3]

[1] Williams, N.J. (1988) Maritime Trade of the East Anglian Ports. Clarendon Press Oxford 321pp.

[2] From: ‘The corporation of Hastings’, The Manuscripts of Rye and Hereford Corporations, etc.: Thirteenth report, Appendix Part IV (1892), pp. 354-364.

www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=67163&strquery=hastings lyme  Date accessed:20 April 2010.

[3] From: ‘The corporation ofHastings’, The Manuscripts of Rye and Hereford Corporations, etc.: Thirteenth report, Appendix Part IV (1892), pp. 354-364. www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=67163&strquery=hastings lyme  Date accessed:20 April 2010.