James Burton’s St Leonards — The Early Years

The South Colonnade (Nos. 1-14 Marina). Now demolished.

The first Hastings newspaper did not appear until early in 1830, so that we have to rely on the somewhat scanty notes in the county paper, the Sussex Advertiser, for early news of St. Leonards. On February 25th, 1828, it said:

“Preparations are making for the erection of a beautiful Cres­cent, a short distance from Hastings; the site is an elevated and healthy situation near to William the Conqueror’s Table, on the road to Bexhill … The buildings, we understand, are not in­tended for lodging houses, but as commodious residences for large respectable families.”

On March 10th, it gave further details:

“On Saturday the 1st instant, the ceremony of laying the found­ation stone of one of the intended new houses, near William the Conqueror’s table, Hastings, was performed by a young gentleman of Tunbridge Wells (who arrived in a carriage for that purpose) in the presence of a number of spectators. Several coins of the present reign were deposited beneath the stone.”

This building was to become the St. Leonards Hotel and the focal point of the whole town. Brett says the young man was John Ward, son of the John Ward for whom Decimus Burton was engaged that year in laying out the Calverley Estate at Tunbridge Wells. Why he should have been selected for this honour is not clear, but it seems probable that Decimus would have come down for the ceremony and Ward may have accompanied him. The report continued:

“Diversified Promenades are intended to be formed; and enchant­ing villas near a luxuriant wood, independant of the Crescent, will be erected; and a spa-room, and warm and cold seawater baths, upon a superior scale, are also in contemplation.

The road from the general London road will commence at Beauport, passing Hollington (which will shorten the distance to the coast at least two miles) and through a beautifully rich, romantic country.”

It goes on to add that over sixty labourers were then employed, but that their number would be increased to a hundred and fifty the following week.

The necessity for some defence against the sea was soon seen, though it does not seem to have been immediately appreciated that this was to be essential along the whole of the sea front, and a wall was built, ten feet high, four feet wide and 117 feet long. The paper reported:

“Thirteen houses are intended to be immediately erected on the spot, to front the road parallel with the wall, which will defend them from the sea, and the buildings it is said will be lett as shops, in order to prevent nuisances or interruptions to the houses forming the proposed grand Crescent.”

This is the last mention (March 24th) of the Crescent, so that the plans for the town must have been altered about this time. The shops stood in front of the main building-line of the Marina on the seaward side of the road and were known as the South Colonnade or Nos. 2-14 Marina. They consisted of a long, low, two­storied building, with a covered colonnade in front. Here on April 6th 1829, at No. 13, a daughter was born to Thomas and Martha Mawle, who opened the first grocer’s shop in the town,-the first child to be born in St. Leonards. James Burton presented the parents with a silver tea-service to mark the happy event.

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

The first building to be completed however, was Burton’s own house, No. 57 Marina, the timber framing of which had been prepared in London and brought down in readiness. As the roads of that period were poor, all materials had to come by sea to Hastings and then be carted along the coast. The Sussex Advertiser, April 7th, reported that great quantities of scaffolding and materials had been unloaded from a sloop and conveyed along in waggons. It added that groynes had been constructed to keep the accumulated beach from being washed away and to act as a greater defence to the new sea wall.

“Many of the workmen employed belong to different parishes and we should hope that this may operate in some measure to lessen the parochial rates, while it will hold out cheering prospects to the labourers, and enable many of them to procure a livelihood in their own country, without being under the necessity of seeking it in a foreign land.”

In ten years, from 1819 to 1829, the disbursements of even the thinly populated parish of St. Leonards had dropped from £97.19.3 to £43.16.3. There was one entry:

“May 23 Paid the passage to America for Geo. Standen £10.0.0.” But the influx of labourers needed soon altered the economy of the whole district and affected Hastings as well. By May, 1828, five hundred were employed and by March the following year this figure was doubled. These often presented their own problems to the authorities, some, for example, being “taken to the watch-house on a charge of riotous behaviour and assaulting a butcher and another person at the Priory”. Food too caused a marked increase in the numbers of hawkers of fruit, eggs and poultry, so that the inhabitants of Hastings complained of their activities. But the greatest problem was that of accommodation, and the great majority of the newcomers squatted in little hutments on the ‘America Ground’ at the Priory, now the area covered by Robertson Street and Terrace and Carlisle Parade.

There were also a number of accidents, caused by blasting operations in the quarry or by falling scaffolding. Perhaps the most fortunate escape was that of a horse, which with a cart attached, fell over the hill (East Ascent) behind the Marina, and escaped with bruises. In February 1829, five houses fell down (“in consequence of the frost and sudden thaw” it was said) and had to he rebuilt.

The West Terrace, Marina

By the end of 1828, Burton’s own house, the South Colonnade and the Archway at the eastern boundary of the town had been completed, though work was well forward on many others. The following year saw the town beginning to take shape, with the completion of the main axial buildings-the St. Leonard’s Hotel with the Baths in front and the Assembly Rooms and South Lodge in the rear-and two main blocks,one on each side, Nos. 36-44 Marina on the east and Nos. 48 to 56 on the west, as well as the Harold Hotel (No. 21 Marina) and the Horse and Groom Public House, which lay just outside the Burton boundary.

The St, Leonards Hotel (now Royal Victoria Hotel) with the Baths in front

In August 1829, three houses at St. Leonards — the St. Leonards Hotel, the Harold Hotel and the Horse and Groom — were licensed; but the demand was so great that, Brett tells us, the last of these was supplying workmen with beer before its windows had been glazed.

The active life of the new town was initiated on October 28th by the opening dinner of the St. Leonards Hotel. This was held in the grand ball room, where over 200 of the great men of the district and their ladies sat down. Frederick North was in the chair, sup­ported by Edward Milward and Joseph Planta, M.P. The room was brilliantly lit by three elegant chandeliers and a “star shining with great lustre” at the extreme end. Mr. Burton was loudly praised for his grand plans, and, “in a neat speech,” returned thanks and stated that “his inducement was the eligibility of the spot and the beauty of the picturesque scenery”. At nine o’clock there was a grand display of fireworks, by a Vauxhall artist, from a platform arranged on top of the baths in front of the hotel, so that everybody could see it, and a great bonftre of tar-tubs blazed in front. There was a great crowd to enjoy the rejoicings.

The following night there was a Ladies’ Assembly, when between two and three hundred persons danced until a late hour .

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

A start was made on Lavatoria, which was finished in 1830, as well as No. 15-20 Marina near the Archway, and Nos. 23-33, thus extending the front line as far as Mr. Burton’s house. The same year saw the completion of both the East and West Villas (now Nos. 1 in East and West Ascent), North Lodge, North Villa (later renamed Winterbourne), the Quadrangle Chapel, the Castellated Villa (later Gloucester Lodge) as well as four houses away towards West Marina.

It was well for Burton that his enterprise was a constructional and not an agricultural one, for it was a period of great unrest among the farm labourers. A meeting was held at Hastings on November 15th, 1830:

“in consequence of the numerous and diabolical acts of Incen­diarism in destroying the stacks, barns and property of many of the farmers in different parts of England and particularly in the neighbourhood of Battle and vicinity of this town, and who had for the most part escaped the vigilance of the ordinary police of the county, and it being thought advisable at this momentous crisis that persons honestly affected towards the King and Government should openly show their determination to dis­countenance the present disaffected spirit breaking out amongst many of the labourers and other of His Majesty’s subjects, and also their willingness to oppose and resist the same should the like dangerous spirit show itself in this town.”

Twenty-one special constables were sworn in to serve for three months. Nine of these came from St. Leonards. This was the first occasion on which the new town and the old had worked together. The St. Leonards men included a surveyor (Tom Leave), four builders (Benjamin Homan, George Scott, Joseph Wells and Edward Smith), two plasterers (John Bowens and Thomas Boynes), a bricklayer (Thomas Burgess) and Thomas Howe, whose occupa­tion has not yet been discovered.

In January, 1830, as required by law, James Burton handed in a certificate to the General Quarter Sessions that he was using the Assembly Rooms at St. Leonards for divine services. Later in the year he gave notice that he was applying for an Act of Parliament to erect a chapel for the parishes of St. Leonard and St. Mary Magdalen and to provide a burial ground attached to it.

By March 1830, the town was ready to receive visitors and the following advertisement appeared in the county newspaper:

“St. Leonards near Hastings.

The elegant but OECONOMICAL HOTEL at this very beautiful watering place at once celebrated for the salubrity of the Air and the beauty of its sea and inland scenery was opened in October last. There are now several well furnished Houses, partly occupied and perfectly aired, ready for occupancy. The Baths, Public Rooms and Gardens are completed, which taken with the delightful country in which this place is so happily situate, must ensure a continnual recurrence of the company of those who may once visit it. The Shops under the Colonnade facing the sea are also ready for the reception of light genteel trades, and others are prepared for the reception of Butchers, Bakers, Fishmongers, Cheesemongers, etc. The whole of which (the number in each trade being limited) will be sure to command success if well conducted. The distance from London is 62 miles, quitting the road to Hastings at the gate between the 59th and 60th mile­stone.”

This early attempt at publicity, so much at contrast with modern efforts, was attuned to the times, and St. Leonards began to flourish. The Hastings and Cinque Ports Iris reported on April 30th that “St. Leonards is still full” and again on November 13th: “The arrivals at St. Leonards during the past week were very numerous”. They numbered among them many persons of title and importance come to enjoy themselves by the sea, and balls, quadrille and supper parties were the order of the day.

That September the town races became a joint affair of two days, the Town and Ladies Plates being run on the 22nd, and the new St. Leonards cup and St. Mary’s cup on the 23rd. The latter day was unfortunate in the weather, but the large crowds present, we are told, were loud in their praises of the work of the two Stewards, Frederick North and James Burton.

The following week saw the St. Leonards Regatta held before a large and fashionable crowd. In the evening there was a concert in the Assembly Rooms under the direction of, and for the benefit of, Mr. Oury. The Hastings Regatta took place next day at Hastings.

The year 1831 was somewhat clouded at the outset by the sudden death of Burton’s grandson, a lad of 18, who died after a fall on his return from hunting. It was specially noted locally for the last great efforts of the Hastings smugglers. The preventive service had made four captures locally in 1829 and eight in 1830, winding up with an open fight on Marine Parade on a Sunday morning in December. Both sides were particularly active in 1831, and the warfare became more bitter. On July 25th a run was made by a body of smugglers “armed with bludgeons and having their faces black­ened,” near No. 38 Tower, and the Government issued a reward of £200 for information leading to the arrest of the man who badly wounded a chief boatman of the Coast Guard Service. On October 6th, two more boatmen were badly wounded while trying to prevent a run at the Priory (near the present Memorial) and a reward of £500 was issued. Finally on the night of Sunday, 1st January, 1832, there was a desperate fight at the very gate of the new town of St. Leonards. This took place “at the Warhouse Gate” (now London Road) and at least three smugglers were killed, though both parties received other injuries. A reward of £500 was offered but apparently without result. Then in February, three members of the Coast Guard were killed during an attempted run at No. 40 Tower, and the Government took more active measures. A body of Dragoons was sent down and later these were replaced by a detach­ment of the Rifle Brigade. The end of active smuggling on a large and lawless scale was in sight.

The continuance of building along the coast, and better roads, aided law and order, as the Romans had already discovered many centuries before.

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

Nos. 58 to 64 Marina were added in 1831 and Nos. 65 to 72 in the following year. A road had been cut partly through solid rock near the Quarry, and Park House (first named Thatched Cottage) was built near it. Here, too, Burton had been building a new residence for himself, called Allegria, and in August he moved there from West Villa. At the same time St. Leonards had its first visitor of royal blood, the Princess Sophia Matilda of Gloucester, who had stayed the previous year at Bohemia House (now Summer Fields). After her visit, North Villa was renamed Gloucester Lodge.

On September 8th she laid the foundation stone of the new chapel, and as it was also the Coronation Day of William IV and Queen Adelaide the two events were celebrated by roasting an ox whole, fireworks and other festivities. “Standards were hoisted at elevated points, and in the evening a brilliant gas star was exhibited at the Warm Baths”. This must have been witnessed by Thomas Campbell the poet, who lived at No.10 South Colonnade for some years, and there wrote his “Address to the Sea”.

The year 1831 also saw the start of the first buildings to the immediate east of the boundary arch, soon to be known as “St. Leonards without”. This was Adelaide Place (now Nos. 1-12 Grand Parade), a most fashionable promenade twenty years later, and the fust step on the way to linking up the two towns by con­tinuous building.

It was also a year of intense political feeling and activity. The great Reform Bill was imminent and numbers of Hastings men were clamouring for the freedom and a vote. In the end the Corporation gave way, and on December 6th appeared the first mention of the new town in the great books of Hastings, when the following were admitted to the freedom:-

Benjamin Homan, Saint Leonards, builder; James Burton, Saint Leonards, Esquire; Tom Leave, Saint Leonards, surveyor.

But although thenceforth eligible to attend meetings of the Corporation, there is no record of any of them doing so until the new Municipal Reform Act was passed in 1835.

The time was now ripe for placing the new town on a permanent footing by means of legislation. Up to this date it had been a private building venture on the part of James Burton, but he had no legal power to levy rates to pay for public services, such as drainage, roads, etc., that would be urgently needed.

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 third chapter — St. Leonards-on-Sea; 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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