Mister Hastings

By Nick Pelling

The eighteenth century is an unloved sort of century. Certainly, British history in that era is hardly taught in school at all. Instead, students are faced with an endless diet of Tudors and a slightly smug obsession with the two world wars. Maybe this partly explains why the man at the centre of Kent Barker’s new book, John Collier, is “virtually unrecognised,” even in his hometown of Hastings. This, despite the fact that according to this study, Collier “probably did more for Hastings than almost any other citizen in its history.” Barker’s book is a highly readable attempt to bring this man out of undeserved obscurity.

In some ways the book is a tale of one man’s skilful climb up the slippery ladders of patronage that defined the class system of early Georgian England. He rose from being a lowly son of an Eastbourne pub landlord to being, as Barker’s title has it, “Mister Hastings.” He started in Hastings as a mere town clerk but before long he had risen to the positions of mayor, lawyer, customs official and political fixer for the aristocratic Pelham family.

John Collier

Probably the decisive moment in Collier’s young life was when he met Thomas Pelham-Holles, the Duke of Newcastle, at The Swan Inn. The Duke was a top-drawer Whig Grandee who went on to became Prime Minister in the 1750s. Collier seems to have made himself so useful to the Duke that lucrative positions came his way, including the grand title of Baron of the Cinque Ports. Well paid posts – with almost no actual work involved – fell into his lap. (Such sinecures were quite common, apparently.) 

Perhaps the pinnacle of Collier’s slide up the greasy pole came when he was appointed as a canopy bearer to Queen Caroline at the coronation of George II in 1727. (Subsequently, the silver staves were melted down to create a commemorative bowl for the town – although it should be admitted the town has not shown a lot of excitement about it.)

But it would be wrong to think that Collier was simply a man on the make, or an unctuous social climber. Barker is very clear that he feels Collier to have been “quite a moral man”. Even when he was conducting his business up in London, with all its myriad temptations, Collier did not indulge himself. (As far as we know.) Barker is very good at describing the dangers and delinquent delights of Georgian London: the perfumed nobles, the dandified gentry, the society ladies, all rubbing shoulders with prostitutes, con men and thieves. In some ways John Collier’s achievement in London was just to stick to coffee. 

RIGHT: Collier’s home, Old Hastings House. His study is bottom right; LEFT Mid 18th Century Hastings from West Hill

Collier certainly seems to have worked hard to try to improve Hastings. He funded a scheme to bring clean running water to the town, which was sadly thwarted by petty local jealousies. Undoubtedly some resented Collier. He also helped to purchase a fire engine for the town and persuaded the local MPs to provide oil fired lanterns for street lighting. And he sought to improve the roads and pavements. He also had a workhouse constructed in George Street, to give basic shelter to the impoverished. Doubtless workhouse life was tough, but it does seem that Collier had a social conscience of sorts: he helped to raise monies for the children of the lady proprietor of his favourite coffee house in London after her demise.

And yet, perhaps the most startling fact about Collier, in my view, is that he sired twenty-four children with two different wives, Elizabeth and Mary. Mary appears to have had eighteen children which may sound excessive or even oppressive. How Mary or Elizabeth felt we cannot really know. We do know thirteen of the children died in infancy! One of the most cherished sons survived infancy but died at the age of twelve. Interestingly, Barker has chosen to quote from Collier’s poignant lament for his twelve-year-old “tender child” at the outset of the book. 

Collier also had a significant role in some of the big dramas of the age. Hastings was felt to be strategically important during the scares of 1744 and 1745 when a French invasion seemed a possibility, given their support for the Jacobite Pretender, ‘Bonnie Prince Charlie’. In the end the invasion never arrived but Collier was involved in the capture of two alleged Jacobite spies. 

Inevitably, Barker has relied heavily on the published letters of John Collier but he also allows himself the occasional flight of fancy. At the beginning and end of the book we have imagined meetings with Collier. It is a curious sort of lyrical device, but it works well. In Barker’s view Collier would have wanted to be known, most of all, as “Mister Hastings.” Sadly, few of Collier’s improvements for the town now exist. Perhaps what Barker has achieved is to give
the man his monument in splendid book form.

Mister Hastings is available to order from [email protected] for £10.00. 

Life of John Collier

1685 Born in Eastbourne. Son of an innkeeper.

1706 Appointed Clerk to Hastings Corporation (Town Council). Bought Old Hastings House. Married Elizabeth Elphick.

1712 Takes on first apprentice to his Hastings legal practice.

1714 Becomes a widower, aged 29 & single parent to two or three infants. 

1715 Meets Duke of Newcastle at civic function in the Swan.

1717 Marries Mary Cranston, daughter of All Saints parson.

1719 Elected Mayor of Hastings. (also in 1722, 1730, 1737 & 1741).

1727 Canopy Bearer at Coronation of King George II.

1731 Election agent in Hastings for Duke of Newcastle.

1732 Cryer and Usher of King’s bench – a Duke of Newcastle sinecure.

1733 Surveyor-General of the Riding Officers of the Customs for Kent. Agent for all Pelham family estates in Sussex.

1734 Appointed Newcastle’s Deputy Vice Admiral in Sussex.

1746 Personally praised by King for apprehending alleged Jacobite traitors.

1748 Eldest daughter Cordelia marries (General) James Murray later a ‘hero’ of Quebec.

1749 Gives up position of Town Clark after 43 years’ service.

1760 Dies aged 75 leaving an estate worth several millions in today’s money.

Hastings in 1715

The population of 1600 people includes:

10 butchers 
11 shoemakers 
7 carpenters
7 masons 
3 coopers 
2 glaziers 
5 smiths 
3 weavers 
2 periwig makers 
5 barbers 
4 brewers 
Plus various chandlers, cheesemongers, maltsters, millers and mealmen, rippiers, ropemakers and saddlers. 
200 households’ income derived from fishing.

Source: Chamberlains’ Records 1715

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