A Very Hastings Riot: The story of the town’s iconic net shops
Sheds of various shapes and sizes have stood on the shingle in front of Hastings Old Town for centuries, but it was a council planning decision in 1835 that created the design and layout of the distinctive net shops that can still be seen today.
The buildings were used to stow gear made from natural materials – cotton nets, hemp ropes, canvas sails etc – which would rot if left in the open, especially when wet. Pre-l835, most stood on stones or stumps of wood which let the sea run under them. Some were on wheels, while others were simply old boats turned upside down, or stood upright on their stern.
The boom in the tourist trade in Hastings from around 1815 turned the siting of net shops into a serious problem. There were then about 60 between Tamarisk Steps and the Cutter Inn, and space was becoming more limited as the town expanded. This reached a climax in May 1824 when there was a riot as Hastings Corporation tried to move some net shops and fishmarket stalls standing between the bottom of the High Street and the Cutter Inn in order to widen the road. Seven fishermen and fish sellers ended up in court after they physically stopped corporation officers from moving their property.
Another legal row erupted in 1833, leading Hastings Corporation to commission plans showing exactly where all buildings were on the Stade. The following year the first Hastings sea-defence groyne was constructed beneath the cliffs at Rock-a-Nore. This was designed to protect the Old Town from increasing incursions of the sea and to enable a road to replace the rough track along the beach at the bottom of the cliff.
Large quantities of shingle quickly piled up on the west side of that first groyne creating new ‘ground’ in front of the cliffs. With the number of fishing boats increasing steadily and the existing beach too small for them, boat owners soon moved onto this new piece of land.
But Hastings Council took ownership of the ground, clearing and levelling it. The corporation attempted to ensure there would be no repeat of the 1824 disturbances by forcing the fishermen to sign a ‘memorandum of agreement’. This gave their net shop a specified piece of ground for which they paid an annual rent.
The shops had to be lined up in rows, so that boats could be hauled up between them. Horse-turned capstans were set up between them. The limited ground space meant that they could only get bigger by growing upwards, forcing them to become slim lofty buildings, rather like the skyscrapers in New York.
At least 36 of the 39 net shops given a Grade II* listing in 2010 were built following the 1835 agreement.
■ This extract from the Hastings Chronicle website by kind permission of Steve Peak. (http://hastingschronicle.net/)