James Burton’s St. Leonards — Description of the Town

James Burton's original plan, 1827, showing the crescent with the hotel at the centre, facing the sea

The earliest plan of St. Leonards, marked “March, 1827, J.B.” shows the hotel at the centre of a crescent with gardens and the Public Rooms in front and with Bath buildings facing the sea. A long garden or park lay immediately in the rear with blocks of buildings symmetrically arranged on either side. The hilly nature of the hinterland and the curving nature of the little valley made this impracticable.

The next design is more detailed and shows the hotel still at the centre of the crescent with gardens behind, and the Assembly Room with a portico of eight columns in front and a long low baths building as before facing the sea but linked to the hotel by means of a subterranean passage. The hotel entrance is at the rear (or north side) with a bow window at each end of the building. This formed a feature of the Conqueror but was not part of the final St. Leonards Hotel. The central part of the crescent was filled with winding paths, shrubberies and lawns and with a lodge at each of the two horns giving access to the main road leading to the Rooms. The disad­vantage of this scheme lay in its encroachment on the gardens at the rear and the fact that what later became East and West Ascent would have been almost precipitous.

St. Leonards, 1829, showing the original boundaries

Accordingly the crescent plan was abandoned and the town laid out parallel to the sea with the Assembly Rooms behind the hotel. One ofthe main features was that a long row of fine houses, the Marina, should face the sea, and the domestic side-the mews, Mercatoria (shopping area) and Lavatoria (laundry region)­ placed discreetly out of sight behind the front line at the top of East Ascent. Additional land was acquired later (St. Leonards Park) and used as the Archery Ground, as well as a smaller area which later contained the National School.

Silverhill Junction, around 1910

A road was made from the top of the valley leading through Silverhill to the main Hastings-London road at the Harrow, and in 1836 the modern London Road was constructed to replace this.

Both were turnpike roads, and the last toll on the former road was taken just outside the North Lodge on July 22nd, 1837. There was thus a direct route to London from the outset obviating the long detour through Ore and Hastings.

The St. Leonards Hotel with the Baths in front

The St. Leonards Hotel was significantly the fust and main building in the new town and from the outset was the centre of social life. The first stone was laid on March 1st, 1828, and the Sussex Advertiser reported:

“The Hotel will have a frontage of upwards of 170 feet, the rooms are to be spacious, and the whole building will, it is said, outvie in point of magnificence any hotel in the county and will be calculated from its superior accommodation for the reception of Noblemen’s families”.

Over two hundred persons sat down to dinner on October 28th the following year to celebrate its opening, both Members of Parliament, Frederick North and Joseph Planta, being present. Later that night there was a grand display of fireworks, including a set-piece “Success to the St. Leonards Hotel”, which lit up the whole front, and a grand ball on the following night.

The main entrance to the hotel was in the rear so that as many windows as possible might look out over the sea, and the south or seaward side was ornamented with tall Corinthian columns. There had been a suggestion that the large stone known as William the Conqueror’s Table, should be cut in two, polished and ornamented, and when completed placed in the dining room. This however was never done and it may be seen today on the front near the hotel.

The first manager, James George Hodgson, who came from the Piazza Coffee House, Covent Garden, left in 1833 and was suc­ceeded by James Kaye and William Cooke in that year and by Henry Edlin of the Harold Hotel in 1834. Edlin not only greatly improved the hotel and its services but in 1838 reorganised the line of posting to London so as to make the various stages more equal. In 1839 he left to take over the Gloucester Hotel at Brighton, but before he went was given a farewell dinner and presented with a piece of plate by his friends

“as a token of their esteem and of the high sense they entertain of his spirited and general conduct during his residence as the proprietor of the above hotel, and which has also uniformly elicited the approbation of the numerous and distinguished visitors who have honoured the establishment by their patronage.”

Royal Victoria Hotel, 1938. It was enlarged in 1903.

Among the latter were the Royal visitors of 1834, when permission was given to change the name to the Royal Victoria Hotel.

The next manager was William Chamberlin, who immediately put on an extra coach “in the best possible style” for the summer season. He and his family managed the hotel until 1851 and had the honour of receiving the ex-King and Queen of France and their children from April to July, 1849. The party occupied 38 rooms and during their stay were visited by many distinguished persons, including the Queen of the Belgians.

As the leading hotelier Chamberlin was a prominent figure and served on the Hastings Town Council from 1843 to 1852. He sup­ported the efforts of Hastings to have the provisions of the Public Health Act applied to the whole borough, though these views were not popular in St. Leonards. However, at a public meeting in the Assembly Rooms he stoutly maintained them and even criticised the Commissioners. According to the Hastings and St. Leonards News, he said that

“the Commissioners had utterly neglected their duty and he had no confidence in them. They were under the rule of one man who had but to drop his pen, or move his eye, and they all voted accordingly”.

After this pointed allusion to Alfred Burton, it is not surprising that he had to leave the Royal Victoria Hotel at the end of the quarter. He moved to Nos. 6-7 Eversfield Place and announced that he would remain there until he could build his own hotel. Later he gave up the idea and moved to Brighton. He had served both Hastings and St. Leonards well, and his son had done yeoman work for the Mechanics’ Institutes in both towns.

The hotel has had many distinguished managers and visitors, many of them of royal blood, though Queen Victoria never repeated her visit to St. Leonards. In 1876 the adjoining house on the east was incorporated into it and the one on the west a little later.

One hotel was obviously insufficient and two others were built a little to the east. These were the Conqueror (No. 22 Marina) at the end of the esplanade facing the Harold Hotel (No. 21) across the open ground in front of the Undercliff.

The Archway and Nos. 15-21 Marina. The Harold Hotel was No. 21, on the extreme left

The Harold Hotel, built by Benjamin Homan, was li­censed in August 1829, but it was not until December 15th, 1830, that Henry Edlin gave his opening dinner there. The chair was taken by B. P. Smith, the surgeon, supported by James Burton. On the following morning a fox was unbagged on the new race-course at Bo-peep and “after a capital run of about forty minutes was killed in gallant style by the hounds of A. Brook, Esq. of Bexhill”. The field then returned to the Harold for a cold collation.

Edlin set out to “combine the convenience of an Inn with the pleasure and retirement of a private residence” and by all accounts succeeded. After he left to take over the St. Leonards Hotel in 1834, the establishment declined both in standards and popularity.

The Conqueror Hotel, built by Joseph Wells, was licensed a little later, in 1830. John Mollard of the Crown and Sceptre, Greenwich, came to manage it in 1831 but was not successful and left after two years. The hotel had a succession of managers, the last being Mrs. Sarah Johnson, who converted it into a boarding-house some time after 1841. In its day it must have been comfortable enough, for Robert Hollond, M.P., repeatedly stayed there when in St. Leonards. He was a very wealthy man and seemed to prefer it to the St. Leonards Hotel. Its site is now represented by the extreme eastern end of the Marine Court Flats. It was a fine square building, with a semi-circular apse on the east, and a pediment supported by four lonic columns facing the sea. Originally there was a small ornamental garden on the east, but this was given up in 1833 to improve the roads there.

The West Villa (now Crown House), 57 Marina

At the far western end of the town Benjamin Homan built the Sussex Hotel, but for nearly two years afterwards there was no other building completed between it and No. 64 Marina. Even when sixteen houses were built on its western side, they were un­protected from high seas and sometimes flooded and more often than not were unoccupied. The Sussex Hotel did not flourish and disappeared from the directory in 1840. Its site was No. 100 Marina (later No. 110 -after the renumbering of those houses above No. 100 in 1862). For some years it remained a minor private hotel and for a short period, 1886-7, was used as an infirmary. In 1889 it was rebuilt as the present Sussex Hotel.

Still further to the west, Stanton Noakes built the Fountain Inn in 1835, which did great trade when the town was invaded by the labourers who came to build the railway. This still survives.

Two other hotels should be mentioned, though technically just outside Burton’s boundary. In 1832, a limeburner, George Hyland, purchased the site of his kilns and built a public house known “by the name or sign of the Warrior’s Gate”, though for the first few years after its licensing it was called the Warhouse Gate. It stood on part of an old field belonging to Gensing Farm known as the War­house Field. The allusion may be to William the Conqueror or possibly to the activities of smugglers, then colloquially called “warriors”.

A little nearer to the sea William Eldridge secured a valuable site and built No. 13 Adelaide Place (now Grand Parade). This faced Saxon House (No. 14), the other side of which was the new London Road. Here he established the South Saxon Hotel, licensed in 1832, and soon to become one of the important coaching inns. It had attractive open work balconies on the first floor and two entrances under porticos supported by Doric columns, one facing the sea and the other London Road.

Immediately in front of the St. Leonards Hotel on the Marina were the Baths, being built sufficiently low so as not to obstruct the view from its windows. The first design was for a long low building, with shallow rounded arches containing seats at each end and with the entrance in the centre, surmounted by an obelisk. The litho­graph of this shows an undecipherable inscription, but in view of its prominent position it may well have been intended to commemorate the foundation of St. Leonards.

The Baths (now demolished). The revised design

The final plan shows three separate buildings, joined by a wall, and each resembling small classical tempies, supported by Doric columns. A contemporary account says “The arrangements are such that the most fastidious cannot fail to be gratified. It is supplied with warm and cold baths with the greatest facility – each Bath requiring only a few minutes to prepare it”. Domestic bath­rooms were still unknown and the graceful design of the Baths building must have added greatly to the enjoyment of those who patronised it.

The most eastern block was the circulating library, under the management of Charles Haywood Southall, opened in 1831. He was a man of many parts and his little office later became a branch of the Hastings Old Bank as well as the St. Leonards Post Office. He was also a printer and published both views and guides to the new town.

The Public Rooms (now the Masonic Hall)

The Public or Assembly Rooms in all the three plans examined stood close to the hotel and were the main social centre where all the big balls and assemblies were held, as well as political and other meetings. There was a large and lofty ballroom in the centre, sixty feet long, flanked by smaller rooms. Those on the east were a billiard and card room and on the west apartments for refreshment.

It was originally a fine building with a projecting portico sup­ported by four fluted columns of the Doric order, with a flight of steps leading down to the road immediately facing the front entrance of the hotel. Later when the baths on the Parade were abolished, others were provided under these rooms. Alterations were made which spoiled the original lines of the facade. It is now the Masonic Hall and together with the gateway into the gardens in the rear is scheduled as an Ancient Monument.

The Subscription Gardens, Clock Tower and Maze Hill

The little wooded valley originally known as the Oldd Woman’s Tap Shaw was transformed into Subscription Gardens. These were entered through the archway of the South Lodge and at one time William the Conqueror’s stone was placed just inside, having been dragged there by oxen before the hotel was started. Diplock’s Handbook to Hastings and St. Leonards, 1846, noted:

“It is truly astonishing how much is here made of a small space. From the serpentine arrangement of the walks, and the quantity of embowering trees which prevent the true extent of the ground from being seen, and the irregularity of the ground itself, one is at first deceived into the belief that the gardens are of considerable extent.”

Osborne’s Stranger’s Guide and Directory, 1854, describes the style as “rather Swiss”, which seems to suggest that Decimus Burton was concerned in the planning. There were two ponds at different levels up the hillside and in winter these were much in demand by skaters. Admission was by subscription, a family paying 25s. for a year’s admission and 5s. for one week’s, a separate key being available for the purpose.

These gardens were the property of the Burton family and in 1843, when the Commissioners were considering how best to encourage more visitors to the town, it was decided to suggest to Mr. Burton that the public should be admitted free “as a great additional advantage would thereby be secured to the Town”. They remained however as subscription gardens until they passed into the hands of the Hastings Corporation, when they were thrown open free.

The growth of religious toleration in the early part of the 19th century is shown by the erection of a chapel for the Independents at St. Leonards within its first few years. Twenty-five years earlier no local tradesman had dared to tender for the erection of such a place in Hastings, and so the little chapel in the Croft had had to be made of wood and transported from London.

“The Chapel for the use of the Protestant Dissenters, usually called Independents, but more properly Congregationalists, is about 50 feet long and 30 feet wide, and will seat about 400 persons. It is built by voluntary contributions. Attached are excellent rooms, 20 feet by 15 feet each, intended for day and sabbath schools, for children of the poor of both sexes. This building is of Grecian architecture, and forms the north end of a quadrangle. One half the sittings will be appropriated to the use of the poor; from the sittings of the other half the income of the minister arises”.

It was known as the Quadrangle Chapel and the first Minister was the Rev. Joseph Wood, whose wife was mistress of the little school. But within a few years financial difficulties arose and eventually the buildings were purchased and turned into dwelling houses.

Mrs. James Burton herself had taken the initiative in arranging for schools for the young, classes being first held in the Assembly Rooms. Then funds were raised by means of a Fancy Bazaar to build the first National Schools in 1834. These were in a long low building at St. Clement’s Place, at the top of Bast Ascent. They housed 70 boys and girls, the first master and mistress being Mr. and Mrs. Tebay. In 1847 new schools were built on the existing site in Mercatoria.

Mrs. Burton also, appropriately enough, took the lead in estab­lishing meetings for religious purposes at No. 36 Marina. When the numbers grew too large, these were held in the western part of the Assembly Rooms and were conducted by a curate, the Rev. Caleb Molyneux.

A church had always formed part of Burton’s original designs and he had settled on a site at the top of West Hill. His friends however objected to the climb and so a spot was chosen midway between two blocks of houses on the Marina, but standing apart from them and off the immediate front line. The cliff had to be excavated to provide space.

He revived his plan for acrescent with the church at the centre, but later abandoned it.

St. Leonards Church, destroyed by enemy action, 1944

Early in 1831 he obtained the necessary Act of Parliament to build a private chapel and as there was a royal visitor staying in St. Leonards at the time, the Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, daughter of the Duke of Gloucester and niece of George III, she was prevailed upon to lay the foundation stone. This was done on September 8th and the building was completed in the follow­ing year. The Bishop gave special permission for services to be held there before it could be formally consecrated and dedicated by the Bishop of Durham on May 22nd, 1834.

The Church and West End of the Marina, showing Nos. 72-65, 64-58, Victoria House and 56-55 Marina

One interesting event that took place before the consecration was the marriage of Burton’s youngest daughter, Jessy, to John Peter Fearon of the Inner Temple on Christmas Eve, 1833. This was arranged by special license and to ensure no doubts as to its validity, the ceremony was repeated at Hollington where most of the baptisms, marriages and burials for the old parish of St. Leonard had taken place.

The Watering Places of Great Britain, 1831, said that it was to be of Gothic architecture after the examples of the 15th century, from the design of the elder Mr. Burton.

“under the cliff in a situation, which combined with the intended cemetery that is to surround and surmount it, will produce a most extraordinary and picturesque effect, combining a proper melan­choly appearance (so satisfactory to surviving friends) with correct and honourable testimonies (in appropriate and classical sculpture) to the virtues and merits of the deceased.”

The building was to measure 50 feet by 108 feet and to include 800 sittings, two-fifths of which would be free.

The first minister was the Rev. William Greenlaw with William Abraham as his clerk. There was no organ and the services were accompanied by a flute and a violin. In 1837, thanks to the efforts of Edmund Elford, the conductor of the St. Leonards Band, an organ was obtained by public subscription. Queen Adelaide gave a dona­tion of twenty guineas. For the first recital Elford wrote a special Te Deum, which became very popular and obtained him the royal patronage of the Queen Dowager.

The year 1837 however had seen a disaster, a sudden fall of cliff destroying the whole of the chancel and endangering the building. As a result the new chancel had to be much shortened. Since that date services were held there steadily, the chapel having become the parish church and the incumbent thenceforward the rector by Act of Parliament in 1868, until the Second World War, when it was finally destroyed by a flying bomb on July 29th, 1944.

One story which may be briefly mentioned here occurred in 1845.

An African princess was brought by her husband to St. Leonards to recover from an illness but died and was buried in the vaults underneath the church. A few days later the verger was horrified on opening the church to find the vault broken open and the corpse standing in the pulpit. Rumour had it that the lady had been buried with her jewels and the grave-robbers on discovering this not to be so, had played this horrible practical joke. Justice however caught up with them.

In the cliffs at the far end of St. Leonards some caves were excavated by William Smith which could be inspected for a small fee. They could not of course be compared with the Hastings caves but they housed the Smith family and one passage gradually descended 300 feet to a reservoir of water. Smith was a milkman and on his tradesman’s card announced “Milk from the Cow at the door”.

In 1848 a chalybeate spring was discovered at No. 2 West Hill (now 8 West Hill) and a spa was opened there by Emil Grosslob the following year. Later he built a Russian Bath there and when this was burned down, a Turkish Bath. The latter was opened in 1864. Grosslob left St. Leonards two years later.

St Leonards Archway (East Lodge)

The Archway, formerly known as East Lodge, remained until 1895 as the last reminder of the former division between the two towns. There was a room in the southern section which had originally housed the St. Leonards beadle and had later become a shop. In 1894 after much spirited opposition on the part of the rate­payers, who objected not so much to the removal of a well known landmark as to the payment of £1700 to widen the road at that point by 45 inches, the decision to purchase and demolish it was passed by the Council by 13 votes to 11. During the night of Jan. 22, 1895, it was entirely removed within seven hours. Curiously enough as long ago as 1867 Decimus Burton had already suggested its removal.

One of the conditions attached to the purchase was that a stone or other memorial to James Burton should be erected on or near the spot. This may still he seen by the side of the roadway at the junction of Marina and Grand Parade.

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

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 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 James Burton’s St. Leonards — Description of the Town

  1. jimbreeds says:

    Very interesting, thank you.

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