By Steve Peak

In the early 19th century, the America Ground, 8½ acres of Hastings’ town centre, was an open piece of beach, beyond the borough boundary and with no obvious owner. It was gradually occupied by a thousand or more people (many of them squatters) who lived and worked there – until they were all evicted by the government in 1835.

But in the first three decades of the 19th century, the Ground – despite being ‘out-of-town’ – played a key role in the expansion of Hastings during a crucial period in its 1200-year history. The Ground was a combined industrial and housing estate providing many services to the town’s developers, plus much housing for the many workers that were needed. The Ground’s seeming freedom from local authority control also created something of a radical libertarian atmosphere, and one of the names the Ground acquired was ‘America’, after the newly-independent former British colony. 

CREDIT: Marianne North

The America Ground owes its existence to what has become a forgotten landmark event in the history of Hastings: an attempt in about 1580 by corrupt local businessmen to create a ‘haven’ for ships – a form of marina – where the Priory Meadow shopping centre is today. Queen Elizabeth gave them roughly £2 million in today’s money to create it, and they spent about half of it on building an embankment where Cambridge Road is now – and then ran off with the other million! As a result, in 1589 the Crown forced the local establishment to set up a superficially accountable local authority, which became Hastings Corporation in later years. 

On its north side, the embankment stopped the Priory Stream in the town centre valley from draining properly into the sea, turning it into a marshland that was not developed into what we know today until the early Victorian years. 

On the south side, the embankment was a barrier to the sea, and shingle built up against it over the next two centuries, gradually turning hard enough to build on.

Then, in the 1790s, what had been the small fishing port of Hastings started becoming a popular seaside resort, and much development began in the early 1800s. As the town could not expand to the east, it started spreading west under the Castle Cliff and into the Priory Valley, going as far as the Priory Stream (where Queens Road and Harold Place are today).

At the end of the 18th century, the roads linking Hastings with London and elsewhere were poor quality, so the town was heavily dependent on seagoing vessels to transport people and goods. In 1800 the leading local ship-owners, the Breeds family, took over a large part of the Priory Ground, as the America Ground was then known, and built a long rope walk on it, plus storage warehouses and workshops. It is believed that they arranged a lease for the land with the Earl of Chichester, who it was thought at that time (but wrongly, it transpired) to be the owner of the Ground.

CREDIT: Thomas Hearne

The expansion of Hastings increased from 1814, and work started in 1816 on building up-market housing in Wellington Square and Castle Street, followed in 1820 by Pelham Place, and then Pelham Crescent from 1823. All this construction work on the east side of the Priory Stream needed many labourers, skilled workers, workshops and stores, and as there were few available places in the existing town, the handy Priory Ground west of the Stream started becoming both a housing and industrial estate.

As the town’s boom speeded up in the early 1820s, the need for somewhere to live became especially urgent. But by then it was known that Hastings Corporation had decided not to exercise any local authority rights it might have over the Priory Ground, as the Priory Stream could be regarded, rightly or wrongly, as the town’s western boundary. At the same time, the Ground’s possible landlord, the Earl of Chichester, had adopted a low public profile. 

As there seemed to be no local authority or landlord control over the Ground, many people began squatting unchallenged on it. And as these new residents and businesses had no taxes and little (if any) rent to pay, the financial overheads of running a trade or living there were low, while at the same time their employers could pay them less than usual, giving the developers more to invest.

The Ground was a mutually beneficial financial arrangement for all layers in the local society, rich and poor, and this would be the reason why actual USA-type ‘independence’ does not seem to have been declared for the America Ground, a name it did not acquire until the 1840s.

The only known occasion when the stars-and-stripes flag was flown was during the major town-wide celebrations of the passing of the 1832 Reform Act which made parliamentary representation more democratic. On that day, a procession from the America Ground carried a modified version of the stars-and-stripes flag during the celebrations, and it was then donated to the town hall by the not-so-independent ‘Americans’.

The occupants of the America Ground were by no means all rebellious. Over a third of the Ground was in the hands of prominent members of the local establishment, most notably the three Breeds brothers – James, Mark and Thomas – whose priority was maintaining good profit-generating ties with the many residents and businesses of Hastings and the surrounding countryside.

However, the Ground’s apparent almost-uncontrolled sovereignty meant there was often conflict between the actual occupants as they tried to settle which of them was going to reside in what piece of landlord-free
land. The increasing frequency of these clashes eventually prompted central government – the probable legal owner of the Ground, as it was shingle, which the Crown owned by default – to take control of it in 1828. All the settlers were given notice to quit, and by 1836 all of them had gone, many to what is now central St Leonards, to help with the construction of that new town.

Not much happened on the America Ground – now officially called the Crown Land – until 1849, when a wealthy Scottish businessman, Patrick Robertson, took a 99-year lease on most of it. Earlier he had become affluent from a controversial form of drug trading in the Far East – selling opium to the people of China – which enabled him to semi-retire to Hastings in 1847. Locally he became known as a gentlemanly benefactor of the poor, and he was elected as a liberal-oriented Conservative MP for Hastings from 1852. He laid out and leased Robertson Street and its surrounding area, creating the fashionable shopping and residential district we have today.

CREDIT: The History Press, cover image Paul S Munn

The full history can be read in Steve Peak’s new book The America Ground, Hastings, published at £9.99 by
The History Press www.thehistorypress.co.uk 


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