A hundred years ago this month, in November 1916, the Battle of the Somme was reaching its murderous close, every town in the land suffering unprecedented losses of young men killed or crippled in the bloodbath. For the people of Hastings, with its proximity to channel ports and its profusion of holiday residences readily adaptable to convalescent units, the front line may have seemed particularly close. It was against this backdrop that the vicar of All Saints Church started a boys club in the Old Town.

Happily, the Somme and trench warfare are old history, while the boys club, now known as Junior Club, Tackleway, is still going strong. Its Latin motto – Ludere causa ludendi: play for the sake of playing – heads its modern website. 

The club has very little archive material that dates back to its earliest years, but it is understood that gymnastics, athletics and boxing were popular pursuits of the members. For much of its history it used two floors of a former school hall in Tackleway, the road at the side of East Hill, to host its gatherings. Current club secretary Andy Brown remembers first going there in 1969 when he was aged eight. (His father Dave was a long-time member and the club leader for over 20 years, so it’s not surprising he started young). Sport of all sorts was what the club offered.

There was space for indoor football, and sometimes games of “bulldog”, boxing bouts and other fun activities, in the main hall on the ground floor. There was an old snooker table in a back room. Monday nights were dedicated to table-tennis, Andy recalls the club putting out seven or eight teams in a local league. Friday was the big youth club night, with generally around 30 youngsters attending. Girls became eligible to join the club from the 1970s onwards, and a ladies night was introduced, though boys have always been and remain much in the majority.

Funding to maintain the hall and its facilities was always precarious, though Andy believes that a certain flow of government money was channelled into youth clubs until the Thatcherite 1980s. Some income used to be generated in daytime hours by inviting in a local playgroup, and Saturday nights the hall was regularly hired out for community use.  At one point the local fishermen donated a pile of re-claimed timber, which enabled the floor to be re-laid. Otherwise there was the usual round of jumble sales and raffles to keep things going. But gradually the building became dilapidated, and eventually had to be closed altogether on safety grounds.

Besides table-tennis (now removed to a church hall in Hollington) the club used to play outdoor football matches on two pitches high up on East Hill beyond a pitch-and-putt golf course. These had minimal facilities, and the Council found them hard to maintain. But they produced notable players – among them Dean White, who went on to play for Millwall and Gillingham and later to manage Hastings Town.

By the mid-1980s the East Hill pitches had been abandoned, and the club resorted like other Hastings teams to Council grounds such as Sandrock, off the Ridge. However, in 1997 the Old Town charity Magdalen & Lasher offered the club a 50-year lease of land at Barley Lane, further up the coastal hillside above Clive Vale. That enabled it in turn to secure funding of £94,000 from the National Lottery to level and lay two dedicated football pitches and to erect changing rooms. The ground was named the Dave Brown Memorial Fields in honour of Andy’s father, who though deceased by then had sought over many years to find the club a new home.

These days it runs no less than ten football sides, each kitted out in easily identifiable tangerine and black: two adult teams playing in the East Sussex League; two 11-a-side under-13s teams playing in the Rother & East Sussex Youth League; and six more junior 9-a-side teams in respective age groups down to under-7s. These junior teams are in theory mixed sex, and there are some girls who play alongside the boys. The club’s attempts to found a team of adult women or higher-age girls have, so far, failed, though it would like to pursue this further.

The club still boasts six table-tennis teams – the most in town – competing in the Hastings and District League.

As usual with community sport in Hastings the club is dependent on the voluntary efforts of dedicated individuals. Much of the work falls upon Juniors Secretary Freddie Ansell who oversees the organisation of all the junior football teams – organising fixtures, managing teams, appointing other team managers and arranging CRB checks for them, acting as welfare officer refereeing, supervising ground maintenance…. it’s virtually a full-time job for someone who also has to earn a living.

The splendid isolation of the twin pitches – one divided off into separate units for 9-a-side games, the other a (smallish) adult size – has proved a mixed blessing. From the top of the slope there is an impressive view back over the town, exhilarating in fine weather. On the other hand the exposure to coastal wind, rainfall run-off from the hill above and inadequate drainage (too much compacted clay, not enough sand, according to Andy) render them often unplayable in winter. The rest of the year they are over-played – not just by club teams but by local kids spilling over from the neighbouring housing estate.

This year has been the most demanding of all as the club has sought to mark its centenary with special events, with many parents and other volunteers offering up time and funds to make them a success. Past club leader Jack Payne, together with Andy, Freddie and other committee members, set up a series of football tournaments, organised in eight separate age groups (eight teams in each) over two weekends of the summer. The biggest, at least most populated, float at the Hastings Carnival in August was the Junior Tackleway boat. And on 19 November there was a formal dinner for the committee followed by a disco for past and present members of all ages held at Shearbarn Holiday Park community centre further up Barley Lane. Amidst all the centenary events marking the death and destruction of World War I it’s good to have such a positive local history to recall – though the mud of recent winters at the Dave Brown ground may also have its Somme affinities.

pic: Ben Hamilton