As part of his history of America Ground Steve Peak wrote about the three main fairs, and how the killjoys ended the biggest and best – the Rock Fair. 

Three ancient fairs were held every year in Hastings until they were brought to an end by the local establishment in the 1860s and ‘70s because of the ‘trouble’ they had been causing. These fairs combined funfairs, trading markets and social meeting places, where people could have an enjoyable time eating, drinking, playing games and watching theatre shows. 

The first annual fair on the calendar was the ‘Whit-Tuesday Fair’ at the end of May, probably originating from pagan celebrations at the start of summer. The ‘Winter Fair’ or ‘Town Fair’ took place every November 23 and 24. Both were held on the beach in front of the Old Town, but the third annual fair, the ‘Rock Fair’, may have been even older.

The retail fishmarket, built 1870

The Rock Fair was held on 26 and 27 July every year, and by the 19th century (and possibly before then) was the biggest of the three fairs. The reason for the date may have been because by then the fishermen’s annual mackerel-catching season had ended, giving them extra income for the Fair. 

Until 1822 the Rock Fair had always been held on the part of the ‘America Ground’ where today Claremont, Trinity Street and Robertson Street form a triangle, described on the 1827 government map as “Land formerly called Rock Fair Green”. The Green abutted the promontory of White Rock, the probable Saxon location of the town of Hastings, probably the origin of the name. In 1823, as the America Ground expanded, the Fair was relocated to Priory Farm open ground on the other side of Cambridge Road. 

Gambling and drunkenness

Rock Fair was a popular mixture of fun, games and social get-togethers but by the early 1820s the Fair was becoming seen as problematic. A Hastings man recalled: “It resembled an ordinary fair, but a vast amount of gambling took place with halfpence, and fishermen often staked, and lost, their boats, nets and other appliances.”

By the mid-1830s the fair was seen as encouraging gambling and drunkenness, but initially its real crime, as far as Hastings Council was concerned, was that local traders (heavily represented on the Council) suffered a serious loss of business while the Fair was taking place.

In 1846, as the Fair became increasingly rowdy, the Council tried to quash it altogether by issuing an official-looking notice saying that the Fair “will cease to be held” because it was “objectionable and of no public benefit”. Many local landowners agreed not to allow it on their property. But the Rock Fair continued unabated, and the large crowds of merrymakers were increasingly distasteful to the new generation of middle-class Victorian abstainers and shopkeepers. 

The situation came to a head in the late 1840s when the Hastings area railway was being built, and 3,000 hard-working and hard-drinking navvies moved into the town. The Fair had remained in the Priory Farm area for many years, but was forced to move out when the railway station was sited there. In 1850 the Fair moved to the top of White Rock, between today’s White Rock Gardens and Cambridge Road.

Described as a “grievous moral pest” by a letter-writer in the Hastings News of 27 July 1849, who added “Efforts have been made, both private and magisterial, to abolish it, and yet it lives.” The correspondent complained about the “wholesale debaucheries, the disgraceful riots of every year’s fair”. Another letter writer urged the authorities to clear the Fair before the Saturday when thousands of navvies would be paid their fortnightly wages. The following year, 1850, the News reported that the Fair’s “especial patrons consisted of the most riotous and dissolute characters in the neighbourhood, the navvies forming a large proportion.”

The navvies moved on from 1852, and the Fair entered its last phase in 1858, when building work at White Rock and hostility from the owner of the ground, Wastel Brisco, forced it to move to farmland where Manor Road is today, then part of Mount Pleasant Farm. 

Closed down

In July 1860 the local magistrates failed to close down “this abomination” and the 1861 Rock Fair was reported as being a large event. From then on it declined, and the last one of any size seems to have been held in 1864, when the borough magistrates posted a notice saying that the police would take action against all people selling excisable liquor there. That seems to have worked – there are no reports of the Fair in later years.

In July 1865 the Hastings News published an obituary of the Fair, saying that in the last few years there had been “a large increase of immorality in connection with it; and we wonder how anybody who knows how much drunkenness and debauchery have lately characterised this fair, can plead for its continuance on any ground whatever.”

Rock Fair, July 1811

Having quashed in 1864 the “loathsome excrescence” known as the Rock Fair, Hastings Council turned its attention to the town’s two other annual celebrations, the Whit-Tuesday Fair and the November Town Fair. These had both been events primarily for the fishermen, mainly as market-places, but this function was largely taken over by the increasing number of shops in the early Victorian years. 

Hastings Council brought to an end the two surviving fairs by building a new retail fishmarket on their usual High Street site. In addition, in 1871 a petition was launched against the November Fair, and the editor of the Hastings Observer described it as “an abominable nuisance to all respectable people in and about the neighbourhood, and a cause of dishonesty, drunkenness, and kindred vices and crimes in others.” The last Whit-Tuesday Fair took place in late May 1871. 

Hastings Council voted in January 1872 to legally abolish the fairs, which had been established under Royal Charter many centuries earlier, so the Council had to obtain the Secretary of State’s consent to ban them, forthcoming in March 1872. 

Ironically, in August 1872, just five months after leading members of the Hastings establishment had finally managed to do away with the last of the town’s ancient festive fairs, the powers-that-be themselves launched a new and even more popular form of mass entertainment, merriment and imbibing: Hastings Pier. So this year is the 150th anniversary of both the murder of the town’s fairs and of the birth of the borough’s first pier.

Steve Peak’s book The America Ground, Hastings www.thehistorypress.co.uk, was reviewed in HIP: hastingsindependentpress.co.uk/features/the-america-ground

The Rock Fair was explored in an art project, covered by HIP at the end of last year:  www.hastingsindependentpress.co.uk/arts/un-fairly-killed


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