May 23rd, 1832, James Burton obtained an Act “for better paving, lighting, watching, and otherwise improving the Town of Saint Leonard in the County of Sussex”. This was the legal authority under which the town could be governed, rates levied and the money spent on behalf of the townspeople in common.
Seventy-five Commissioners were named in the Act and these, in addition to James Burton himself, included his sons, William Ford, Henry, Decimus and Alfred and John Peter Fearon, soon to become his son-in-law. Other prominent men included were Mr. (afterwards Sir) Howard Elphinstone, Frederick North, John Ashley Warre and Musgrave Brisco, all of whom either were, or later became, Members of Parliament. There were also a number of local tradesmen and others, many of whom found themselves disqualified owing to lack of the necessary possession of land of the value of £50, or as being licensed victuallers. Others, who were eligible, withdrew since no Commissioner could have an interest in any contracts, and the new town promised great business pos sibilities. The Commissioners had powers to borrow up to £16,000, with the rates and other duties as security.
The first meeting was held at the Conqueror Hotel on June 18th with James Burton in the chair, and thirteen Commissioners took the necessary oaths. The founder himself was specially exempted in the Act from this formality. Francis Smith, the Hastings banker, was chosen as treasurer and George Fraser of London, solicitor, as clerk at £30 per annum. Tom Leave was appointed survey or (the equivalent of the modern Borough Engineer) at £10, and rate collector on a commission basis. The choice of beadle was left to Burton and a little later Henry Harmer was sworn in as a special constable by the Mayor of Hastings, and after having been called in and “admonished as to his office” started duty at 16s. a week. He was also in charge of posting up all ‘placards’ and acted as bellman or cryer. As the collection of duties on all coal brought into the town (3s. per chaldron for sea-coal, culm or other coal, and 1s. for coke) was to be an important source of revenue, John Peerless was appointed Collector with a commis sion of 21 %.
James Burton had already expended large sums on public works such as laying out roads (£1551), paving (£2814), sewers (£750), sea-walls (£1480), etc., and the Act authorised his re-imbursement. The total amount was £7026.15.2, and as there was no money in hand, the first duty of the clerk was to invite loans on mortgage. The first of these was for £3000 from a gentleman of the Inner Temple and ultimately Burton received just over £2000 in cash with mortgages for the remainder. The total cost of obtaining the Act appears to have been a little under £1000.
On January 7th, 1833, the first half-yearly assessment of rates for the previous half-year was ordered at ninepence in the pound. The collecting book in the Hastings Museum shows that these amounted to £279. These could be collected under pain of prosecution, but at first the Commissioners were loath to take such action. Robert Thomas Noakes and Edward Munster were to be “urged to pay their rates”.
One early instance of public spirit was given by G. B. Greenough who surrendered his ornamental garden in front of the Conqueror Hotel on condition that at least £100 was laid out on the roads nearby. The surveyor was instructed to have the garden returfed and the walks gravelled.
The first major contract entered into concerned the extension of the sea-wall and continuing the Parade walk a further 125 yards. Lighting the town with gas cost £75, and watering the roads 6s. 8d. a day during the season. Mr. Burton propounded a scheme for forming a reservoir on the west cliff, into which seawater could be piped and stored for use on the roads. The original watercart was by this time “much out of repair” although only a year old and was exchanged for 25 tons of broken bluestone for the roads.
That August (1833), the time allowed for gentlemen named in the Act to take up their qualifications expired and 24 names were read out at a public meeting, but no nominations were received to take their place. There was never much eagerness to act, many being disqualified at intervals and the great men such as the M.P.’s attending only once or twice.
Building had started on the outskirts at Adelaide Place so it was felt that the town boundary should be more clearly marked. Alfred Burton was asked to add the words “Eastern Boundary of St. Leonard, 2 Wm IV, c.45” on the Hastings side of the archway.
For the following half year it was proposed to take up another £500 on mortgage. The estimates for revenue from the rates was £300 and from coal dues £100. The rate for the half-year starting July 1st, 1833, was raised to 10d. in the £, and the assessments at 2/3rds instead of 3/4ths as before.
Collecting the rates was no easy matter and early in November Leave attempted to resign his office, but this was refused. Instead he was urged to greater efforts and authorised to summons two persons for non-payment. His resignation was accepted the following January, but only on condition that he collected arrears then due. He remained as Surveyor, and Peerless took over his previous duties. In June one of the leading builders, George Scott, was “remonstrated with” for not paying, but on explanation succeeded in having his rates reduced. Peerless resigned in 1837 and John Painter appointed. As illustrative of some of his difficulties, he reported in 1843 that the Hastings magistrates would not grant a summons for more than two rates owing, so that a third, due from James Noakes, was lost.
The beadle too had his problems. In September, 1834, he was instructed to give notice to the occupiers of East Ascent to remove their pigs and abate other nuisances before 2 p.m. the next day on pain of a summons. A local shopkeeper had to be forced to remove his sofa standing on the footpavement, and no undressing was to be allowed on the beach, or bathing in the sea, except from a bathing machine.
In 1836 the Hastings Police Force was formed, and there being no further need for his services Harmer, the St. Leonards beadle, was discharged and engaged to break stones for the roads. Three years later the Collector was instructed to notify the police of any donkeys, goats or other animals straying in the streets and to ask for them to be placed in the Hastings pound. This later proved inconvenient, so a local pound was selected and a poundkeeper appointed. This was James Reed, who was to devote half his time to this at 7s. 6d. per week.
Bathing in the sea had to be regulated and in 1843 on Nov. 6th (a strange time, being then winter) the following resolution was adopted unanimously:
“That Mr. Burton’s particular and immediate attention be called to the situation of the Bathing Machines for Gentlemen, common decency being outraged by the close approximation of the Machines to the Houses on the Marina and the consequent exposure of the person of the Bathers-which they have ascertained has been very injurious to the Town-and suggest that the Bathing Machines be removed as far as practicable to the Westward.”
Then in the summer of 1862 a further notice had to be posted.
“Gentlemen are requested to bathe in drawers and are cautioned that by Act of Parliament a penalty of not exceeding £5 may be inflicted in default of their not doing so.”
Apart from the construction of sewers and the problems of defence against the sea, which will be dealt with later, the main work of the Commissioners concerned the roads. In 1836 a presentment by the Grand Jury drew attention to the state of the road west of the new market and the Hastings Town Clerk wrote to complain about it. Immediate action was taken, and throughout their history the Commissioners acted as swiftly as possible in any matter concerning the roads.
Roadmaking was still by no means easy in those days. In 1837 they ordered the surface of the parade to be covered with “the binding loam of which it was formerly composed”, and that this should he rolled to provide a smooth, firm and uniform surface. But in the main broken stones were thrown on the roads and left to bind as best they could under passing traffic, while paths were gravelled. In 1859 Decimus Burton gave 50 guineas for treating Maze Hill near North Lodge. An experiment of mixing a little chalk with the beach thrown on the roads was also tried in 1863.
As time went on it became more and more difficult to get the necessary stone. The railway excavations at West Marina proved most helpful, but in 1872 the Commissioners turned their attention to the beach and ordered the surveyor to take enough rock between high and low watermarks to “such spots as will least interfere with the present picturesque appearance of the shore” to put the whole length of the roadway along the front in good condition. This raised a great local uproar, as it was rumoured that this would endanger the natural deposit of shingle and expose the front to the action of the sea. Among the Commissioners was Dr. J. S. Bowerbank, the marine zoologist, and he had known the coast at St. Leonards since 1825. He maintained that their action would make no difference, but when the Ministry of Trade was informed and the question of the foreshore being Crown Land was raised it was decided to give up the idea. So 100 tons of Kentish Rag stone were ordered from Maidstone at 4s. 6d. per ton to be delivered by barge. This had to be broken to pass through a 1in. mesh.
Up to this date (1872) the front had sloped gradually towards the sea and it was not until then that W. C. Boden, one of the Commissioners, suggesting altering its design. He proposed that it should be raised in the centre and lowered on the north so that the surface water could be drained off on each side instead of spreading constantly across the whole road as at present. He wrote “I have never seen the principal carriage drive of any seaside place made in the same way as ours; and I have never seen one so universally bad. Nor is it for want of money spent upon it, for we are always scraping off mud or dust and putting on new material” .
It was not until December, 1838, that the question of fire-fighting seems to have been seriously considered, though under Section 63 of the Act, they had power to provide engines. Then a public subscription was raised in the town, and the Commissioners contributed no towards buying an engine, leather pipes and buckets, provided that these were kept within the town and under their control. Hastings had by then three engines and the town clerk wrote to suggest that St. Leonards should provide one, which might work in close co-operation with theirs, but for at least ten years, St. Leonards held aloof. In 1844 however, George Naish, the keeper of the fire engine, was allowed a sum not exceeding £5 for forming a fire brigade on the understanding that the engine should be exercised not less than four times a year.
In 1861 Hastings had formed a modern fire brigade, thanks mainly to the energy of the Superintendent of Police, William Glenister. He wrote and offered its services to the Commissioners, without any mention of payment. This was gratefully accepted. The St. Leonards firemen were promptly discharged and from thenceforward a donation of five guineas was given annually to the Hastings Brigade.
Throughout their reign-for the greater part of their existence the Press was not admitted to their meetings and they earried out their administration in almost regal aloofness-the Commissioners waged an unending battle with the waves. Burton’s sea wall was but the first line of defence and had to be repeatedly extended and reinforced.
In 1834 an additional 300 yards was added and Burton himself lent the money needed to build it. This seems to have been in the nature of an ordinary wall, for that winter the Surveyor was ordered to prepare estimates for facing it with hard stone and also for protecting it by faggotting.
A year later saw the first groyne being run out and in 1836 a “Raddie fence with Piles” was built in front of a damaged part and about four feet from it. That winter a double row of fencing had to be built and the shingle which accumulated in and around this temporarily saved the front line.
A second groyne was built in 1838 at a cost of £137, but then occurred some unusually high tides and gales and the sea wall was breached in many places. Temporary repairs had to be undertaken at once and the committee concerned reported to the Commissioners:
“It is a matter of deep regret that these unlooked-for expenses should have happened at a time when the Commissioners were incurring heavy but necessary outlays in the erection of the new groyne, and the continuance of the seawall further westward. Nor do your Committee in spite of all their efforts at economy know from what quarter now to look for assistance to meet this additional expenditure.”
It was becoming harder than ever to obtain additional money on bonds, but fortunately there was comparatively little trouble from the sea until 1848.
Then on February 26th the sea undermined the wall opposite Victoria House (57 Marina) for a distance of 180 feet westward and while the committee were considering the best method of repairs the whole was covered with shingle. They sought the advice of Mr. Major Vidler, Surveyor of the Pevensey Levels, who recommended lengthening the groynes, building another and making them all slope more down to the sea from the wall. But the “boisterous weather in August” caused two additional oak groynes to be erected at a total cost of £257. No sooner were these completed than they were forced to build yet another at the extreme west of the town at a further cost of £128. These five groynes, the height of which was lowered at the land end on occasion to permit the passage of shingle, proved reasonably effective. Then a new difficulty arose.
In 1850 the railway contractors had been dumping the spoil from the tunnels on the shore at Bo-peep and this not only interfered with the eastward drift of beach but caused a great eddy to sweep round and attack St. Leonards. The railway company denied liability and while the matter was being argued the sea removed both the dump of earth and the problem.
By November 1851, an additional 866 feet of sea wall had been added, though on account of the additional expense it was not made as high as the Commissioners had at first hoped. Then ensued a period of almost quiet, apart from minor repairs, which lasted for 20 years. By that date (1870) the Commissioners numbered among them one man who was an authority of the seashore, Dr. J. S. Bowerbank, and he was responsible for building three additional groynes not at right angles to the seawall as previously but at an angle of 20 degrees to the westward. These proved beneficial and far more effective than the older ones. The seawall was also raised and the lengthy struggle was over.
At the first meeting in 1839 approval was given to the projected railway from St. John’s Common to St. Leonards as likely to be “productive of essential advantage to the town”. Nothing more was heard for five years, when plans for a railway from Brighton were approved and it was decided to urge the Members of Parliament not only for the Borough but the County to support the forthcoming Bill. In 1845 they wrote to the Directors of the Brighton, Lewes and Hastings Railway asking for a station at the west end and seeking compensation if tunnelling operations behind the town curtailed their water supplies.
The early part of 1846 saw great railway works in progress which benefitted the Commissioners, since they secured some of the spoil earth “which would otherwise have to be removed to a greater distance”, for improving and raising the road from the Fountain Inn westward.
The opening of the railway as far as the temporary station at Bulverhythe took place on June 27th, 1846. There were two trains up and two down every morning and afternoon. These ran into Brighton to connect with the London trains. Many sightseers came from Hastings for the occasion to witness “the extraordinary sight of a number of carriages rushing along horseless”.
The new method of transport, which was to force the coaches off the road within a few years, created an increasing traffic to and from Hastings through St. Leonards, which was put to the expense of additional lighting at the west end. In June 1849, the Commissioners recorded their satisfaction “at the improvement that appears to be taking place in St. Leonards as well as in the Borough at large”. Houses of a very “superior character” were rapidly rising and there was a great demand for them even before they were finished. This unhappily meant further outlays for drainage and paving, but the rateable value was going up.
By 1852, having successfully resisted a move to have the provisions of the Public Health Bill applied to St. Leonards, the Commissioners had exhausted the amount (£6,000) they were authorised to borrow under their Act. They managed to borrow sufficient from the Royal Exchange Assurance Co. to pay off all the bonds outstanding and replace them with others at a slightly lower rate of interest. Four years later they had to appeal to the inhabitants to subscribe to a voluntary rate of 6d. in the £, seven of the Commissioners themselves promptly raising £170.
Then in June 1857, after the failure of the Hastings Old Bank, they had to appeal once again for a voluntary rate of one shilling. Response to this seems to have been good. £461-19-0 was collected. The Commissioners managed to balance their budget each year with a margin that was small but adequate, and in December, 1859, increased the salary of their clerk, W.B. Young, to £50 as “his services had been so liberally and ably discharged by him for the past eight years”.
That year saw the publication of a bill promoted by Charles Clark to form a Western Waterworks Company within St. Leonards, and the Commissioners acted with the Local Board of Health at Hastings in opposing it. The Bill was shortly afterwards withdrawn.
In 1863 the Local Board of Health enquired whether the Commissioners would take part in a plan for a comprehensive drainage ofthe whole borough. Briefly, as far as this affected the new town, all the area west of the Infirmary at the White Rock would be drained through St. Leonards to discharge just over one-third of a mile beyond the Commissioners’ western boundary.
One of their number, J. C. Savery, who was also surgeon to the infirmary, objected strongly to having a long tube projecting from the beach and feared that St. Leonards would “still retain its old unenviable name for bad drainage”. However, in May 1865, nine Commissioners being present, the decision to co-operate with the Local Board, subject to certain modifications, was carried by one vote.
Finally a year later they decided to withdraw and draw up their own plan for drainage of St. Leonards. They also succeeded in obtaining powers from the Secretary of State to borrow £7500 for these works.
In March the Commissioners set up their own office north of the Archway, next to No. 15 Marina and from thenceforward all their meetings were held there. During the past few years they had been adopting various sections of the Local Government Act, 1858. Then a reaction set in and it was decided to petition for leave to amend their borrowing powers under the Act from £16,000 to £21,000. This however was never done, and in June 1872, agreement was reached with the Local Board to unite the sewers.
This was the beginning of the end. On March 25th, 1873, it was resolved
“that it is the opinion of the Commissioners that it will conduce to the public advantage if all the powers and authorities still remaining vested in the Commissioners under their Local Act be transferred to the Urban Sanitary Authority.”
This took time, but the last meeting was held at the Archway on January 12th, 1875, to consider the draft Provisional Order submitted by the Local Government Board for dissolving the Commission and amalgamating it with the Hastings Town Council.
This was finally dated 1885 and from thenceforward the town of St. Leonards ceased to exist.
Note: These stories are based on Burton’s St. Leonards, by J. Manwaring Baines F.S.A., published by Hastings Museum in 1956.