Residents invoke historic associations with Robert Tressell to oppose new flats

by Hugh Sullivan

A group of St Leonards residents who oppose the construction of a new block of residential flats are calling on the late author Robert Tressell for support.

The Tower Road Protest Group claim that the site, on the corners of Tower Road, St Peters Road and Cornfield Road, has direct historical links back to the labour yard described by Tressell in his classic novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – and should be preserved as a light industrial working environment for this reason.

The site, which was originally a labour yard and has been used over recent decades as workshops, is owned by local charity Magdalen & Lasher. Last year, the charity applied to turn the premises into a four-storey block of 14 flats. The Council’s planning department initially recommended granting planning permission, but the decision is now on hold while car parking issues are investigated further.

Although the fictional town in Tressell’s novel was called “Mugsborough” it contains close descriptions of real events and sites in Hastings and St Leonards. Tressell moved to 241 London Road in 1907 and is understood to have written the book there. According to Viv Fox, who has led the research for the Protest Group, the labour yard site was less than 100 yards away from this address. From the rear window of his top-floor flat Tressell would have looked out directly on to it.

Records show the site as ‘The St Peter’s Labour Yard’, says Viv. From the 1860s onward, labour yards came into existence as alternatives to the workhouse. Able-bodied unemployed applicants became semi-inmates, subject to workhouse rules, but living in their own homes.

Hastings suffered severe deprivation during the years 1902-1910. The St Peter’s Labour Yard was run by the Hastings Charity Organisation and in January 1904, the local newspaper reports that the yard was providing 29 men with employment, sawing and chopping up railway sleepers for firewood.

Fellow objector John Humphries argues that while the workshops have been sadly neglected in recent years, they are structurally sound. “Rather than seeing them and their social history destroyed, we would love to see them refurbished and providing affordable, much needed workshop space,” he says.

One wonders what Tressell himself might have made of the argument. Would preservation of the site as a reminder of the deprivations suffered by workers in Edwardian St Leonards be in the best interests of its modern population? Some may consider that affordable housing is a more pressing need.

As a charity whose principal objects are the prevention and relief of poverty – since the 13th century apparently – Magdalen & Lasher’s motives can be assumed to be in accordance with that purpose. However, their Trustees do not wish to make any comment at this stage of the planning process.