St. Leonards-on-Sea — The Beginning and James Burton

James Burton, Founder of St. Leonards-on-Sea

The genius of the enchanted lamp, I’ve heard,
A noble palace for Aladdin rear’d;
More liberal gifts in modern times are known,
And BURTON’S genius builds for him a town.

Lines written in the album of St. Leonards Hotel, 1831

1. The Beginning
The story of St. Leonards has yet to be written and this little blog has no other pretensions than to act as the forerunner of some future and more detailed account. It is not every day that towns are founded de novo in this island, though a few miles to the eastward of Hastings lies the new town of Winchelsea, laid out by Edward I after the old town had been swept away by the sea in the winter of 1287. So when James Burton set out to found a new town of his own near Hastings in the early part of the last century, it was an adventure. He already had a successful career behind him and lived only to see the first nine years of St. Leonards. By then it seemed firmly established but within sixty years it had disappeared, merged into its older neighbour. Nevertheless his achievement was a remarkable one.

St. Leonards, 1846, the Burton property still to be developed is darkened

In 1836 Theodore Hook wrote of the town: “Under the superintendence of Mr. Burton, a desert has become a thickly peopled town. Buildings of an extensive nature and most elegant character rear their heads, where but a few years since the barren cliffs presented their chalky points to the storm and rippling streams, and hanging groves adorn the valley, which twenty years since was a sterile and shrubless ravine.”

This is scarcely accurate, since there is no chalk in the district and the “ravine” was a very charming little tree-clad valley, but it pays a pretty tribute to James Burton’s efforts.

He set out to found a high-dass watering-place by the sea on the best lines for the best people, with the more utilitarian side of life kept well in the background. The author of Watering Places of Great Britain wrote in 1831:

“Indeed the peculiar advantage of this place as a residence is that its visitors are not exposed to any of those disagreeable associations which occur in most places, even at the ‘West End’ [London] where the most sudden transitions from grandeur to wretchedness and profligacy may be observed”.

This however gives the clue to the weak point in Burton’s plans. There was insufficient economic background. The new town could not hope to be self-supporting and was bound to lean heavily upon Hastings, which was at that date well established and well organised. Ultimately it lost its identity altogether.

The St. Leonards Hotel with the Baths in front

Today however much of Burton’s charming town still remains though the ravages of war and “progress” have made their mark. Many houses have vanished, others have been denuded of their little window balconies and canopies or faced with cement. The Baths and the South Colonnade lying between the road and the sea have been demolished, and Nos. 22-35 Marina have been replaced by an enormous skyscraper, which rears its head to upset the balance of the whole front line. The Archway, which marked the eastern boundary of St. Leonards, is no more, though the actual site is marked by a monument on the front.

It is almost impossible today to visualise the beauty of the deserted shore a century and a half ago.

In 1838 a man was prosecuted for poaching at the oyster beds off St. Leonards. There are no such beds today.

In 1838 too the inhabitants of St. Leonards were complaining of the annoyance “arising from the Guards of the Mail Coaches blowing their Horns unnecessarily at so early an hour of the morn­ing”. In 1955 they were complaining of the noise caused by the sea gulls. Times have indeed changed.

The Public Rooms (now the Masonic Hall)

The remarkable growth in popularity of Hastings towards the end of the eighteenth century, and possibly the pictures painted by the many artists who flocked there, drew the public’s attention to this almost unknown part of the coast. In 1815 appeared a new edition of “A Guide to al! the Watering and Seabathing Places”, which described the natural beauty of the surrounding district. It especially mentioned Bo-Peep, which it called “a wretched public-house by the road-side”, but added that there was a very fine prospect of the sea and Beachy Head from the hill behind the house. “No one” it said, “will pay too dear, who comes to Hastings, for taking a peep at this place”.

It is not known what first attracted the attention of James Burton the great London builder to Hastings, but there can be little doubt that he too was charmed with the district. Perhaps the above para­graph may have caught his eye. Bo-peep itself on the edge of Bulver­hythe marshes was not a suitable building site, but between it and Hastings lay the ancient Manor of Gensing, where a little wooded valley ran down to the sea and there was ample flat land by the beach below the low cliffs. It held obvious possibilities for the idea Burton had in mind.

The West Villa (now Crown House, 57 Marina) and other houses

The land had belonged to Charles Eversfield, Esq., late of Denne Park, Horsham, who died in 1818, and whose trustees had obtained powers to sell the property for the purposes of development. So on February 27th, 1828, James Burton acquired part of Gensing Farm, near Hastings for £7800. This formed part of six pieces of land known as “Under the Cliff”, “Chapel Field”, “Old Woman’s Tap Shaw”, etc., and had a frontage of 1151 yards to the sea and included the greater part of the little valley. It lay athwart two parishes, that of St. Leonard and St. Mary Magdalen, the boundary line ascending the valley.

The earliest reference we have to the little parish of St. Leonard occurs in a return of the parish churches in the liberty of Hastings made by the Bailiff (who se office later became that of Mayor in 1588) in 1372. The church itself seems to have disappeared some time between 1404 and 1428, though presentations were still made to the living for over a century afterwards. The site was in the present Norman Road and when the Wesleyan Chapel was built there, the old graveyard was disturbed. There was no church dedicated to St. Mary Magdalen, but the parish took its name from the old alms­houses or Hospital of St. Mary Magdalen, now long since dis­appeared but the revenues of which form the oldest charity in Hastings.

To quote “Hastings Guide”, 1794, “a place called the ‘Old Woman’s Tap’ is the rock on which it is supposed William the Conqueror dined after his landing; it hangs over a pool of water, and still retains the name of the ‘Conqueror’s Table'”. Be this as it may, the place was a deserted one and this made it a convenient landing place for smugglers.

Gensing Farm itself was farmed by Robert Deudney, the third generation of his family to act as agent for the Eversfields, and in 1827 when he and James Burton were busy measuring and staking the boundaries for the future of St. Leonards, they witnessed the unusual sight of a brig being burned to the water’s edge off the coast. Deudney was a staunch supporter of St. Leonards as well as later becoming an Alderman of Hastings, and both he and his father Charles were regarded as the best farmers in the district.

James Burton himself was a man of initiative and as a builder was responsible for covering 250 acres of north London, but has been overshadowed by his more illustrious son, Decimus, the architect. Little has been published about him so that a brief outline of his career may be of interest here.

2. James Burton — The Founder

It is not generally remembered that the original surname of James Burton was Haliburton and that he was a member of the Roxburghshire family of that name. He was descended from John Haliburton (1573-1627), from whom Sir Walter Scott could trace his descent on the maternal side. His grandfather, the Rev. James Haliburton (1681-1756), married Margaret, daughter of Sir Gilbert Elliot of Sowden bridge, Tweedale, and aunt of the fust Lord Heathfield, defender of Gibraltar. They had seven daughters and two sons, William (1731-1785) and Andrew who died in Philadelphia and was the father of Judge Haliburton, known to American readers as the author “Sam Slick”. William was a builder and left the family home at Haddon near Kelso for London. There in 1760 he married a widow, Mary Johnson, the daughter of Nicholas Foster of Kirkby Fleetham, Yorkshire. Of this marriage there were two children, James, born July 29th, 1761 and baptised in the Presbyterian Chapel, Soho, and one other child, who died in infancy.

James was interested in his genealogy and left a small leather­covered notebook giving details of his family. He added some personal notes and continued the account spasmodically year by year from his marriage in 1783 up to 1811. He wrote “As to myself:

“Partly educated at a day school in Hart Street, Covent Garden, in the first common branches of education to the age of eleven and afterwards in the Mathematics to the age of Fourteen by Mr. H. G. Steel, an excellent but rather violent man.

In June 1776 was placed with Mr. Dalton, Surveyor, and articled the 29th of July following for six years. In 1778 was at Upton upon Severn, and in 1781 at Bury St. Edmunds met with a severe fall from a Horse. In 1782 at Sudbury and at the Expira­tion of my articles, entered into partnership with Mr. Dalton.

At the Michs. of 1782 became first acquainted with Miss Westley and was married to her on the first of March 1783 at St. Clement Danes by the Revd. Mr. Popham (Saturday).”

Elizabeth Westley, the daughter of John and Mary Westley of Loughton, Essex, was born on Dec. 12th, 1761, thus being only a few months younger than her husband. She died on Jan. 14th, 1837, two months before he did. The first four were baptised with the surname Haliburton, but for some reason-the details of which are rather obscure, and involved a family disagreement-he changed his name to the shortened form, Burton.

Later in 1783 he removed to Wardrobe Place, Doctors Commons, and dissolved partnership with James Dalton. His father died in the following January and his mother came to live with them till she died of a dropsy in September, 1785.

The only account he gives of his work during these two years was that he “made several Journeys to Reading, Winchester, Bury (St. Edmunds) and Ipswich on the business of Penetentiary BrideweIls etc. and from the 31st of Octr. to the 8 Novr. on a Journey to Tickell in Yorkshire for Mr. Sylvanus Hall. Built four houses in Bennett Street, Surrey, on Mr. Hodgkinsons ground third rate ­first adventure”.


In 1794 he sold his cottage on Wandsworth Common for a little under £1000 and his house in Chatham place for 500 guineas, and moved to the south-west corner of Lansdowne Place, where his son Septimus was christened on Sep. 1st and “Mrs. B. wore powder”. He a1so bought a pipe of “excellent Port” for £45.3.6, having paid under £38 about five years previously.

In the following year he was admitted a member of the Whig Club on April 14 and later “purchased of Mr. W. Dalton a low Phaeton & Poneys, his late fathers”. Once again the family moved, this time to North House, newly built on Southampton Terrace. In 1796 he was “Forced to serve the Office of Overseer of the Parish of St. Pancras,” his first position in public life.


How his activities had prospered may be judged from the fact that in 1786 they were £1404. Another item of interest he recorded was: “In 1800 I made 8,140,000 bricks and in 1801 10,368,000.”

His building activities were summarised by bim up to 1823 in a paper found by his son Alfred, after his death. These cover the period 1785 to 1823, but are exclusive of buildings erected for others under his superintendence.


A footnote had been added at the end that by 1826 44 first, 56 second and third and about 60 fourth rate houses had been built by him to the value of nearly £200,000.At this period (1799) he was looking after his step-brothers and sisters-who were “doing very badly”-by means of pensions, and schooling for the children.

In 1800 Messrs. Howell & Atlee obtained an award of £1417 against him in a disputed action – “an award obtained by the grossest perjury on their part”. But he was soon busy pulling down Bedford House to start building on the site.

Next year (1801) the preliminaries of peace were signed with the French Republic and there were great illuminations in London. Burton gave a grand fete at his North House. But two years later, in August:-

“In consequnce of the Breach with the French & consequent tenders and raising of a Volunteer force, was appointed Lieut. Col. Commt. of the Loyal British Artificers –upwards of 1000 enrolled & nearly 600 effectives formed into a Regimt. Mr. John Barnes, 2nd Lt. Col. and Mr. Thos. Lewis, Major. Reviewed with the eastern division of London Volunteers in Hyde Park by H. Majesty in all about 10,000 Men. The L.B.A.s mustering nearly 550.”

Their official strength (Dec. 15) was 730 and their allotted Alarm Post in case of invasion was Tottenham Court Road.

That December, riding his pony to Penshurst, he was very nearly drowned in a flood.

In July 1804, he moved with his family to Quarryhill, near Tunbridge Wells, and renamed it Mabledon, and engaged a bailiff and gamekeeper at 40 guineas a year. Two years later (Jan. 9th, 1806):

“Attended with LBA’s the funeral of Lord Nelson-stationed between Northumberland House and Villiers St., Strand.”

He was beginning a more social life. That July he gave a ball for Eliza on her twentieth birthday, and a month later dined with “Sheriff Smith at the Old Bailey”. That winter they removed to 9 Bedford Place, where the officers dined with him and “generally agreed to resign their Commssn”. Burton himself resigned in 1807 when he recorded that the number of effectives in his regiment had dropped to 161. In 1809 he and Mrs. Burton dined with the Lord Mayor at the Guildhall, and the following year

“Jan. 31. Pricked for Sheriff of Kent.

Feb. 14. Sworn in Sheriff.”

Before the assizes in March he witnessed the launch of the Cresey, 74 guns. The rest of the entries for that year concern legal business and a round of dinners in noble company.

The notebook ends in 1811 but reveals James Burton as an active and adventurous man, loving in his care for all members of his family whether closely related or not, proud of his possessions and scrupulously careful in his accounts. His final venture, building this new town, was not exactly welcomed by his sons. Decimus was never in favour of it and during his father’s lifetime tended to hold himself rather aloof. Alfred wrote to his father from Italy in December, 1827:

“I am still uncertain as to the fate of the Hastings proposition. I can therefore only hope that what is-is right.”

Nevertheless the family came down to the new town of St. Leonards and several of them lived there. In 1831 they supported their father’s rather venturesome plan to build a harbour at the western end at a cost of £6000 and indeed subscribed £1000 of the £1600 raised before the scheme was abandoned.

The West Terrace, Marina

Not content with building houses, it was typical of the man that he should endeavour to improve the lot of those who might live in them. In December, 1831, he issued “Cottage Regulations recommended for the Preservation of Health”, induding such suggestions as regular washing of floors, opening of windows, removal of refuse and even personal items of clothing and diet, including abstention from “indulgence in spirituous liquors”.

He lived to see his new adventure successsfully started and died on March 31st, 1837. His six sons and three sons-in-law saw him laid to rest beside his wife in a vault with a pyramidal top in the little hilly burial ground above St. Leonards Church. The reason behind the design is obscure, though his grandson wrote in 1912: “The object of the pointed sepulchre of the Burton family was perhaps to avoid the incidence of the Eastern curse ‘May jackasses sit on your grandfather’s grave’ but that is supposition!”

The memorial tablet in the church reads:

“In Memory of James Haliburton, founder of the town of St. Leonards, lineally descended from the Haliburtons of Newmains on Tweedside, but better known under the abbreviated name of James Burton. Born 29 July, 1761. Died 31 March, 1837. Also of Elizabeth his wife, born 12 Dec., 1761. Died 14 Jan., 1837.”

Note: These stories are based on Burton’s St. Leonards, by J. Manwaring Baines F.S.A., published by Hastings Museum in 1956.

Click here to read the second chapter — James Burton’s St. Leonards — The Early Years.

Click here to read the third chapter — James Burton’s St. Leonards — The Improvement Acts.

Click here to read the fourth chapter — James Burton’s St. Leonards — The Royal Visitors.

Click here to read the fifth chapter — James Burton’s St. Leonards — The Two Towns.

Click here to read the sixth chapter — James Burton’s St. Leonards — Description of the Town.

Click here to read the seventh chapter — Children of James and Elizabeth Burton.

Click here to view my video of James Burton’s St. Leonards

About Jack Vanderwyk

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One Response to St. Leonards-on-Sea — The Beginning and James Burton

  1. This might be this blogs greatest post yet!

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