The History of St. Leonards-on-Sea


St. Leonards (left) and Hastings (right) in 1890

 Early history

Hastings was a  Roman port, but in 410 the Roman Emperor Honorius recalled his troops back to Rome, because they were needed to defend Rome. He told the inhabitants of Britain that they had to look after themselves, but the Jutes and the Saxons invaded the coast and settled in Kent and Sussex.

One Danish clan, the Hastingas (sons of Haesta), managed to reign over “Kent, Sussex and Hastings” until the 11th century. 

The Cinque Ports

Hastings became an important port and was a significant member of the Confederacy of The Cinque Ports, (Hastings, Romney, Hythe, Dover, and Sandwich), which provided the ships for the King’s navy. In 1066 Duke William (the Conqueror) of Normandy controlled the English Channel for some time, while the fishermen, acting as the King’s navy and coast guard, were out fishing. King Henry II however ordered the Cinque Ports to attack the enemy ships at every opportunity. In return for providing the medieval kings with men and ships to form a navy, they had won important rights of self government and immunity from the earliest forms of Customs duty, a concession which the citizens of the Cinque Ports intended to retain long after their contribution to the navy had ceased.

Fishermen, Pirates, Privateers, and Smugglers

Before the Battle of Hastings, the Fishermen patrolled the coast for the King, but the fishing season had arrived, food supply was short, and the fishermen of the Cinque Ports did what they had to do for their livelihood: fish.

The seafaring men of Hastings had a hard time telling the difference between privateers and pirates, between plundering and seizing, between war and peace. From the 13th to the 18th century the passage of a ship through the English Channel near Hastings, was therefore a hazardous enterprise. In times of peace it was very hard for these pirates, who harried and plundered the French coast, to forgo their huge profits and simply go back to fishing. The King needed his “privateers” to control the South Coast, so he allowed the slaying and plundering, but when in August 1768 the Drie Gezusters, a Dutch ship, was attacked and sinked, and the cargo was stolen, at a time when Holland was not at war with the English, a detachment of Inniskillen Dragoons was sent to Hastings to end piracy. However, between 1778 and 1793, during the war between England, Holland, France, Spain and America, the King needed his pirates from Hastings, and under the name of privateering piracy was now legitimised.

In wartime the seafarers of Hastings were quite busy pirating, but in peace time smuggling proved to be far more profitable than fishing, due to the very high English import duties and the huge price differences between England and the Continent. The smugglers, who called themselves privateers when they were pirates, now called themselves free traders, who supplied tea, tobacco, wines, brandy, silk, linen, etc. Smuggling was getting ever more bold. It was viewed with glamour and received considerable support from the population of Hastings. The whole town of Hastings was involved in smuggling. In a court case in the 1800s, Charles Picknell, pier warden at Hastings, declared, “You were not thought respectable then if you were not a smuggler.” Asked if this applied to the whole town, Picknell replied, “Oh yes; they were all smugglers – parsons and all.” One John Campbell became Police Inspector in 1836, and he later admitted that it had been the profit on smuggling ventures that enabled him to get married.

However, the population of neighboring St. Leonards thought quite differently about these illegal activities.    

The New Town

St. Leonards was founded by James Burton (1761-1837), a builder and developer, who was largely responsible for the development of Bloomsbury and Regent’s Park in London. The Levett family, an ancient Sussex gentry family of Norman origin, and their descendants, the Eversfields, owned the manor of Hollington, and James Burton purchased land from the Eversfield Estate, part of Gensing Farm, west of Hastings, to build a Victorian seaside resort. In 1815, when he visited the area for the first time, Burton loved the beauty of the valley to the west of Hastings, with its wooded glens and cliffs shaded from the north winds.    

He started to build in 1826, at the age of 65, and before he died in 1837 he completed St. Leonards Hotel (now Royal Victoria Hotel), as well as the South Colonnade, and several tall seafront houses, while other areas were well advanced in construction. St. Leonards was named after the old parish, which church had ceased to be used after 1428. The Eversfield Estate Act from 1827 opened the way to speculative building beyond James Burton’s boundaries.

The people from old Hastings, who had lived there for many generations, didn’t like the people from St. Leonards at all. The enmity was caused by the fact that St. Leonards was full of aristocratic visitors and wealthy patrons, which threatened the reputation of Hastings as a desired seaside resort.

But the end of the smuggling boom in the 1830s marked a significant change in Hastings. The seaside had become fashionable and people from outside Hastings decided to cater for that fashion. They invested in building projects westward, to fill the Priory Valley and then to stretch further along the coast, to join with the elegant, custom-built resort of St. Leonards. Hastings wanted to become as fashionable as St. Leonards and embraced respectability. This meant that the fishermen and their rather messily area of the sea front, became to be seen as uncomfortable neighbors, too wont to show an uninhibited enjoyment of life and to demonstrate an obstinate independence. Their dwellings and yards cried out for sanitized improvement. 

Princess Victoria stayed in St. Leonards in 1834, during the Autumn, and in 1837 Queen Adelaide of Saxe Meiningen (1792-1849), the widow of King William IV, moved to St. Leonards, as her permanent place of residence. William IV and Adelaide lost two young children and didn’t produce a successor to the throne, so when William died in 1837, his niece Victoria became the Queen.   

Thirteen years after his death, in 1850, James Burton’s son Decimus (1800-1881) purchased more land to continue his father’s project.

The railway arrived in 1845, and in 1852 St. Leonards’ Gensing Road Station (now Warrior Square Station) was opened. The Eversfield Estate saw a great business opportunity and started to sell land to other investors. In 1875 St. Leonards and Hastings amalgamated to become the County Borough of Hastings.

The 1851 census found that Hastings and St. Leonards had a total population of just over 17,000, compared with just under 3,100 in 1801, 6,200 in 1821 and about 10,150 in 1831.

The gardens and parks of St. Leonards are the oldest in the Borough, having been laid out between 1828 and 1830, when James Burton was building St. Leonards. They were originally subscription gardens for immediate residents and visitors staying at the St. Leonards, now Royal Victoria Hotel. In 1880 they were bought by the Council.

Mixed bathing was finally allowed in 1903, which suddenly caused an increase in the numbers of bathers that wanted to use the continental type beach cabins on wheels, so they had to be produced on a large scale. Before 1903, male and female bathers had to keep 100 yards apart.

St. Leonards Pier and Royal Victoria Hotel

The straightness of the Hastings and St. Leonards seafront is a comparatively recent development, as originally the coast was more intented, with headlands providing shelter from the prevailing south-west winds for bays to the east of them. The changes in the local coastline since the early 1800s, who have been brought about by human interference, have greatly influenced the fortunes of the fishing industry. As stories like this are passed on from generation to generation, we’re able to see where the descendants of the old fishing population come from if they blame the “new” residents for their misfortune, which started 200 years ago. However…

St. Leonards is a ‘New’ town, built some 190 years ago from almost nothing. This means that it has always welcomed, and depended on, incomers. The flow of new residents continues and most of them become part of the community and participate in what St Leonards has to offer – the sea, the parks, the architecture, but also the artistic freedom, the quirkiness, the tolerance, that characterise the ethos of this place.


Royal Victoria Hotel, St. Leonards

The Royal Victoria Hotel

This hotel, built as St. Leonards Hotel by James Burton in 1828, was enlarged in 1890, but before that, the entrance was at the back, so that visitors could arrive well-sheltered from the sea front weather. Over 500 distinguished guests have stayed at this hotel include King George V, Prince Albert, Edward VII, Gladstone, Palmerston and Tennyson.

St. Leonards Boundary Arch

 St. Leonards Arch

This arch, built in 1828, marked the eastern boundary of Burton’s St. Leonards. It became a much love feature and there was an uproar in 1895, when the Council had it secretly demolished overnight as a hindrance to traffic. Already in1867 Decimus Burton, James Burton’s son had suggested its removal, and when St. Leonards and Hastings were merged in 1875, the Council was keen on removing this very visible boundary between the two towns. 

St. Leonards Pier

The Palace Pier in St. Leonards, also called the American Pier, was considered to be superior to the Hastings Pier, and was completed in 1891. Construction of the pier began in March 1888, and it was opened by Lord and Lady Brassey on 28 October 1891. Positioned almost opposite the Royal Victoria Hotel, the shore end had a pavilion constructed of intricate ironwork at the entrance so that visitors could drive straight to the door and avoid the seafront weather. When France fell during WWII, the authorities decided to breach the Pier, and the remains were destroyed by fire in 1945. In 1951 the Council decided to remove the mass of rusty metal. (The Hastings Pier was closed in 2006 for safety reasons; on 5 October 2010 it was destroyed by fire, a day after redevelopment plans were invited.)

St. Leonards Pier became the first home of the Municipal Orchestra. A town councillor, obviously from St. Leonards, declared that St. Leonards’ people were “more receptive” to music than the people of Hastings.


Gensing Gardens, St. Leonards

 Gensing Gardens

Gensing Gardens, named after the original farm, was purchased by St. Leonards’ Council in 1872 and landscaped by the then Borough Surveyor, William Andrews. The garden has been subject to numerous improvements during the last 10 years, and consists of shrub and flower beds, trees, grass areas, and an equipped playground for children. It is located within a priority ward and is a rare and valuable open space within its neighbourhood. This sheltered and warm spot for subtropical plants and shrubs needs vigilant protection.


Marine Court, St. Leonards

Marine Court

This art-deco project on the seafront, locally known as “the Skyscraper”, was built to resemble the superstructure of the Queen Mary, a passenger line. In 1937, when it was completed, it housed 153 flats and 3 restaurants. It was the tallest block of flats in the United Kingdom.

In the 1960s it was home to The Cobweb, also known as the Witch Doctor – a nightclub that saw Jimi Hendrix, David Bowie and other luminaries play.

Though a listed building, it is in a poor state of repair and awaiting the outcome of planning enquiries. The general condition of the exterior has suffered from the sea air and general neglect; the shop fronts on the ground floor have had their external finishing altered and changed. It has a number of inappropriate modern double glazed, plastic framed windows out of keeping with the original “Crittall” style frames. Although it may look good from Hastings and the A259, it’s just a shabby block of flats if you look at it from St. Leonards.

The skeleton of the Amsterdam

The skeleton of the Amsterdam

 The Amsterdam

The Amsterdam was a 18th century cargo ship of the Dutch East India Company. The ship started her maiden voyage from Texel to Batavia (now Jakarta) on 8 January 1749, but was wrecked in a storm on the English Channel on 26 January 1749. Conditions aboard such a craft were grim and the Dutch had great difficulty in persuading their own nationality to crew their ships. The crew on the Amsterdam (203 sailors, 127 soldiers and 5 passengers) were Germans, Norwegians, Italians, Danes, and Ceylonese. 18 days after starting her maiden voyage the ship hit a south westerly gale. Unable to run for cover, all the gun ports and ship’s hatches were closed. The crew struggled for days to keep the ship on course. Cold, wet and exhausted, the lack of air and sanitation made illness rampant. Captain Willem Klump, 33, tried to steer a course for Pevensey Bay. While doing so, the ship settled in a trough in the waves, hit the sea bed and lost her rudder. The Amsterdam, out of control, with fifty of her crew succumbing to illness and another fifty being taken the same way, was in danger of a mutiny. The crew had broken into the liquor store and were in an advanced state of intoxication.

Two days later the Amsterdam had sunk into the sand where she had beached, without part of her cargo being unloaded. Captain Klump and most of the surviving crew were saved and managed to save most of the silver coins and bars (28 crates, worth 300.104,00 guilders). Professional smuggler Anthony Watson stole the most interesting part of what was left on the Amsterdam. Together with his mates he broke into the captain’s cabin and took the rest of the silver, worth 1200 pounds. English soldiers were needed to stop the plundering. The Dutch East India Company later tried in vain to remove the rest of the cargo, but all that was salvaged were silver treasure chests, three chests of merchandise and one ornate chest with silver facings.

The shipwreck was discovered by civil engineers William Press & Sons in 1969 in the bay of Bulverhythe, near St. Leonards, and the skeleton of this 150 foot, fifty-four gun ship is sometimes visible during low tides. The wreck site is protected under the Protection of Wrecks Act since 1974. Some of the findings from the site are in the Shipwreck and Coastal Heritage Centre in Hastings.

Replica of the Amsterdam

A replica of the ship is on display in Amsterdam, next to the Amsterdam Maritime Museum.

About Jack Vanderwyk

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5 Responses to The History of St. Leonards-on-Sea

  1. Preena says:

    Hi, i am really intrigued by your map of St Leonards and Hastings in 1890.
    Would you be able to direct me to the book (i assume its a book?) that it is from?
    many thanks

    • Jack Vanderwyk says:

      Hello Preena,

      The map is from the Commercial and Library Atlas of the British Isles, edited by G W Bacon and Co, London. Dated 1895.

      Kind regards,

      Jack Vanderwyk

  2. Alan Pepper says:

    hello thanks for a very interesting read
    any ideas where i could find posters of cobweb / witch doctor from the 60s ?

  3. judith oliver says:

    4 Generations ago my family “Flegg” came from St.Leonards I did not realize that it was such an interesting place until I read your article The pictures are great. They came to Australia in 1860 as tailors and your article gives some insight into the lives they may have lead. Thanks Judith Oliver.

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