This section of the Hastings Chronicle aims to put on record all the important events in the history of Hastings and St Leonards, in chronological order. The material used in compiling this section has come from so many different sources that it has not been possible to give a reference for each entry. However, the starting points have been the local newspapers (from the late 18th century), local authority records, national archives, primary publications (especially street directories) and personal memories. The main secondary sources have been other publications (including all notable Hastings history books) and reliable websites. All this material has been checked as far as possible and is believed to be correct, although it cannot be 100% guaranteed.
The aim is to produce a reliable, accurate chronicle of the town - raw material for historians, teachers, family researchers, authors or anyone just interested in its history. The key events are being constantly updated, and any comments, additions and changes are welcome. You too can rewrite history!
This list has its origins in a project which I (Steve Peak) set up and ran under the management of Hastings Reference Library and the University of Sussex in 1983/4. A provisional Hastings Chronicle was produced (on a photopier), and since then the Library has been very supportive in helping me compile this much enlarged edition. Without the help of the Library staff, this new Chronicle would not have been possible. Many thanks also to Hastings Museum and Art Gallery for their aid over the years.
The events are listed in chronological order, starting in 771, when printed records began, and running through to 1990 (later dates will be added). But first, the earliest times …
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The Origins of Hastings
The word 'Hastings' is believed to come from the Haestingas, the people who supported a Saxon (Danish or German) migrant leader called Haest (or Haesta) who occupied Sussex east of Pevensey Levels in the 7th century. In Old English, -ingas means followers, so originally the word 'Haestingas' was describing a group of people spread over a wide geographic area, rather than giving a name to a village or town.
There had been some people living in what is now eastern Sussex for thousands of years before the Haestingas, except in the ice ages. The most recent ice age reached its height c19,000 BC, making England almost uninhabitable. There were then glaciers north of a line between the Severn and the Wash, and tundra to the south of it. The gradual retreat of the ice northwards over the next 10,000 years brought hunter-gatherers across the land-bridge from the continent until about 9,000 BC, when southern England started becoming a place where people could again live permanently. The ice age had ended by 8,000 BC, and this was followed by a steady global warming between roughly 7,000 BC and 3,000 BC, by when it was hotter than today. Southern England became a near-forest of mainly deciduous trees, with many forms of animal and plant life.
During the Ice Age there was no English Channel, as the sea level was much lower than today, making England and France part of the same land mass. But roughly in the middle of today’s Channel was a wide river, a continuation of the River Rhine, draining much of northern Europe into the Atlantic. So England on the north bank of the broad Rhine was effectively cut off from France on the south side.
As the ice melted, the sea level rose, and the Atlantic moved up the river. By about 8,000 BC the rising sea was off Hastings, and around 6,000 BC it broke through the barrier of the North Downs at Dover to meet the North Sea, which had been rising on the northern side of the North Downs.
So Britain only became a sea-bound island about 8,000 years ago. It took another 3,000 years, to c3,000 BC, for the British Isles to take a shape similar to that of today. The sea level continued rising till about 1,000 BC, since when the many changes in the coastline have been more the result of shingle movement, steady erosion and severe storms.
There is archaeological evidence of continuing human life in the Hastings area since the end of the last ice age. The most significant early evidence, in the form of flintwork, shows there was a substantial settlement on Ladies Parlour (and probably the castle site) late in the Mesolithic period, which ran from c10,000-4,000 BC. At that time the landscape was largely forested and the Mesolithic people were semi-nomadic, living by hunting, fishing and fruit gathering.
The Mesolithic period gradually evolved into the Neolithic period (4,000-2,200 BC), when the people became more settled as farmers, with cereals and domesticated animals, and the first pottery. Neolithic stone axes were found at Fairlight, plus flints in the Bourne Valley.
The use of metal grew during the Bronze Age (2,200-750 BC), and three axes from this time were found at West Marina in 1869. In the Bronze Age the coastline was further to the south than today, and much more uneven, with many inlets. Large wooden boats are known to have traded with France from Dover, and this may have also happened from the Hastings area. The hills from White Rock westward to Bexhill sloped down to the sea, and remains of the trees then growing on that coastal lowland still survive in the sand, and at Pett Level.
Next came the Iron Age, from 750 BC until the Roman invasion of England in 43 AD. The Iron Age had worse weather than the Neolithic and Bronze Ages, and was also a more dynamic time, with more human activity, including the nucleation of settlement and the expansion of agriculture onto previously marginal land. By the last years of the Iron Age Britain had between 1.5 million and 2.5 million people, living as farmers or small tribal groups, but with defended areas (known as ‘Iron Age forts’) where they could meet for protective, cultural and religious reasons. The East and West Hills were both such forts, the one on the East Hill covering 60 acres. The production and use of iron as a worked metal began in 2-300 BC.
When the Romans invaded England they may have experienced little conflict in Kent and Sussex, as indigenous traders had had a working cross-Channel relationship with them. It appears that the Romans allowed the existing way of life to continue where possible, in a period which saw the reorganisation and expansion of settlement across Sussex. No remains of Roman buildings have been found in Hastings, the nearest being at the major ironworks which was set up in Beauport Park to produce the hardware needed by their military forces. But many Roman artefacts have been discovered in Hastings, including a large quantity of coins in Elphinstone Road, and these indicate there could have been a settlement and trading centre here. Roman roads in the Weald were small and rough, and the iron would have been transported from Beauport by boats as much as possible. The large inlet of the Priory Valley would probably provided a good harbour if there were no shingle bar across it, as would the Combe Haven area.
After the Romans left Britain in 410 the population of England fell dramatically, and the indigenous people probably returned to much of their previous culture, living in self-sufficient settlements. In the following two centuries, Saxons and other native peoples of north Germany and Denmark area migrated into south-east England in what have been called ‘invasions’, but were probably semi-forceful occupations, especially of thinly-populated areas, such as eastern Sussex.
It was the arrival of the person called Haest/a and his/her backers which seems to have given a specific identity to the district lying between roughly the Pevensey Levels to the west, and Kent to the east and north. This Haest/a migration, possibly in the early 600s, probably brought a significant number of new people who shared common interests to this sparsely habited and unnamed district. They may have been Christians before they arrived, because there are no pagan Saxon sites in the Hastings area.
Until 1066, the Haestingas were a ‘third county’, separate from Sussex west of Pevensey, and from Kent, with a stronger Hastings-Kent relationship than Hastings-Sussex). The earliest Haestingas seem to have lived in mainly farming groups initially. But in the 8th and 9th centuries England began taking shape as a single nation, and the Haestingas were forced to become part of it in 771 when King Offa of Mercia invaded and took control of the area.
By c900 a new national economy was beginning to emerge, with more trading, manufacturing, transport and commercialised agriculture. It was then that the size of England’s population began to rise again, and towns began to develop for the first time since the Roman period. The main form of transport in England was by water, using natural havens and estuaries as harbours, and the lucky Haestingas could provide one of the nearest ports of passage to and from the continent for the budding cross-Channel trade.
There was almost certainly some form of port at Hastings right through the first millennium AD, using at least the natural shelter of the Priory Valley for as long as possible, depending on the movement of shingle along the coast. It is quite likely that this would have included some form of wharfage and/or a flat gravel spread on which vessels could be beached, although there is no archaeological evidence of this.
But the narrow Priory Valley could easily be blocked by shingle, and from at least the ninth century there was also an ‘official’ port at Bulverhythe. This name is derived from the late Saxon words Burhwara hyd, meaning the ‘hythe or harbour of the burgesses’, the men living in the Cinque Port and Borough of Hastings, to which the area belonged. The haven at Bulverhythe was much larger than the Priory Valley, with many streams running into it that could combat the shingle build-ups. There was also probably a significant settlement at Bulverhythe, on today’s small hill around the Bull Inn on Bexhill Road. That hill would then have been much larger to seaward, Its harbour would have been where the flat land to the north-east is now, with wharfage on the sheltered northern edge of the hill. The large haven of Bulverhythe could have been one of the main landing places that William the Conqueror was aiming at with his large number of invading vessels in 1066, although there is no archaeological evidence of this.
The town of Hastings in the 10th century, and up to the Norman invasion, was centred on a piece of ground that has nearly all been lost. This was the headland at White Rock which then extended further to seaward than it does today, sloping down to sea level. The buildings, churches and market place were on top of the hill, spreading along to the west. The town overlooked the port in the Priory Valley, while on the other side of the valley was the West Hill, with a church and fortifications where the castle is now. The West Hill also went further out to sea, while on its east side was the inlet of the Bourne Valley, which may have formed a port and where some people probably also lived. The East Hill was possibly also used by the Saxons, as what seemed to be a 9th century burial was found on top of the hill when the East Hill Lift was being built.
The late 10th and 11th centuries saw a remarkable economic growth in England, with many new towns emerging by the Norman Conquest. William probably chose Hastings as the first base for his invasion because it was by then a town of some size with two harbours, being an important trading place, fishing port and cross-Channel communications route. Parts of it were also already owned by the Norman Abbey of Fécamp.
As the chronicle shows, it was from the late 11th century that the town of Hastings moved, or began to move, into the Bourne Valley