Kent Barker calls for a community effort to make the works of one of the town’s great historians and eccentrics more widely available to all.

Students of some of the more obscure byways of Hastings’ history will likely know the name of Thomas Brandon Brett. Born in George Street in 1816, he was the son of a blacksmith – though his father was found dead in a fishing boat when Thomas was just ten.

Forced to work to help his mother, the youth had less than two years of formal schooling but developed into something of a Renaissance man, dabbling in baking, painting, glazing, carpentry, bricklaying and paper hanging. He tried his hand at drapery and blacksmithing. He worked in the post office and as a dancing master and music teacher and composer. However, from our point of view his most important accomplishment was journalism. From 1839 he was a correspondent for the Sussex Advertiser and then in 1854 he bought his own printing press, learned how to set type, and started a monthly publication, the Penny Press. The following year he founded and ran the St. Leonards & Hastings Gazette – entirely by himself.

Hastings, in the early years of the1800s, was in its heyday as a fashionable resort, and the town was developing rapidly. Pelham Crescent had been constructed in 1824 and the Burtons began building St Leonards four years later. By 1851 the railway reached the town centre, thus enabling thousands of day-trippers from “the noble lord to the poor London warehouseman” to visit. The place was buzzing with societies, organisations and institutions. The fashionable attended lectures and concerts at the Royal Victoria Hotel and on the Marine Parade. They promenaded through the Pelham Arcade and along the seafront to St Leonards – the ‘Belgravia’ of the resort. They watched the annual regatta or went to the Races in Bulverhythe. Pleasure boats plied their trade and plans were laid for the building of a pier.

Between 1801 and 1851 the town’s population increased from 3,175 to 17,621 and from that point very nearly quadrupled by the end of the century. And there to record all this in his weekly journal was the indefatigable Thomas Brandon Brett. He once said that since the age of ten he had worked 18 hours a day, and certainly he seems to have spared no effort in writing up the comings and goings of visitors and residents of Hastings. And this before setting his copy in type, operating the printing press and even delivering copies to his subscribers.

In the latter stages of his life he collected some parts of these remarkable writings together, pasting printed columns into a foolscap book and supplementing them with handwritten text and illustrations to form his extraordinarily detailed Hastings and St Leonards’ History and Reminiscences. By the time of his death in 1906 aged 89, he had filled ten large books, each running to well over 100 pages as well as producing five volumes of Hastings Historico-Biographies and four of a Premiere Cinque Ports Chronicle.

The first of Brett’s many volumes detailing Hastings’ history, which have now been digitalised.

Ever since, Brett’s works have been an invaluable and much-consulted source for all historians of the town and area. Although ostensibly just spanning the years 1828 to 1864, they in fact refer back to local events and people from the middle ages onwards. But the problem has always been accessing them. The library is very willing to produce the volumes which, frankly, appear more like scrapbooks than conventional published histories. Reading Brett’s handwriting is time consuming and somewhat taxing, and his indexing eccentric. And crucially there is no way to search the text, so long hours have to be spent in the reference room ploughing through the work, page by page and volume by volume. 

Thomas Brandon Brett’s gravestone, Hastings Cemetery.

The last time I embarked on this I was surprised to find that the Histories had been reproduced and rebound so there was no longer a danger of damaging the originals. The librarian told me they had been scanned rather than photocopied so I asked if the digitised versions might be made available. To my delight the request was granted. I now have all ten volumes in PDF form which I am happy to share. It means the laborious task of deciphering the text can now be done from home rather than a reference library desk. But there is still no way to search the odd mixture of print and handwritten text, which means it remains fairly inaccessible. What is clearly needed is a full transcription of the PDFs into a word processing programme like Word so they can be searched, indexed, edited and, hopefully, published in book form. But it is a big task with more than 1,000 pages to do. The task was started a while back by Rod Lavers on the 1066 Genealogy website but seems to have stalled after he completed one volume. Another website: Historic Hastings Wiki – (http://wiki.historymap.info/Main_Page) is currently trying to co-ordinate transcriptions. So this is by way of an appeal for help. Anyone who would be interested in taking on a few pages at a time, please get in touch. Alternatively, if you have any ideas of how one might fund such a project and get it done professionally, let me know. 

Rather plaintively, Brett prefaced his Histories with the following words: “The contents of these volumes (are) being placed on one side of the paper only…if at any time the Hastings Corporation deem it desirable to publish the work … the leaves can be taken out as being ready for the printer…” The council never did publish them – but we now have the possibility of doing so as part of a community effort which would be of lasting benefit to writers and historians as well as opening up to all readers a fascinating window on our town in the early Victorian era.

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