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Poor valley

Ore Valley workhouse
Ore Valley workhouse

Until the beginning of the 19th century Ore valley was farmland, a mixture of fields and woods, with a stream running down the middle. At the heart of the valley was the large Bunger Hill Farm (later partly renamed Broomgrove), at the bottom end of the track that is today Upper Broomgrove Road. The only road in the valley then was Cackle Street, renamed Frederick Road in 1904, connecting Mount Road with the Ridge.

Going round the edge of the valley was the main highway from Hastings to London, now called Old London Road and the Ridge. Two hundred years ago there were just a few small houses and a pub where today’s Ore village stands. The pub was popular because it stood a few yards outside the borough boundary of Hastings, and could therefore supply services that were not so easy to obtain in the town! At that time Ore (or Oare) was still seen as being the small settlement a mile to the northwest around the Saxon church at St Helens.

The modern Ore village started appearing from 1815 onwards, as the town of Hastings mushroomed and a land speculator moved in. Hastings suddenly became a very fashionable seaside resort for a few years from 1815, and the greatly increased traffic along the Ridge brought many customers for the pub and some shops that set up. At the same time, Hastings needed many new building labourers, and these found places to live on the farmland that had been purchased by one of the biggest property owners in the Hastings area, Edward Milward. In 1811 he bought much of what was known as Fairlight Down, the slopes from Ore village to North’s Seat. He sold off many small parcels and cheap housing soon appeared.

The new residents, the increased road traffic and the surrounding farmland all helped form the village of Ore by early Victorian times. But in the late 1830s the village lost much of its trade when the new town of St Leonards built new London turnpike roads - including today’s Battle Road and Sedlescombe Road/A21 - that took much of the Ridge traffic away.

At the same time, the first big development was taking place in Ore valley: the building of the Hastings Union Workhouse in 1836/7 which helped create the feeling of depravation and isolation that is the hallmark of the valley today [see separate story].

Ore - like Hollington - has always been a poor village, a home for the labourers rather than the bosses. Most Ore people were in the building trade, and they shared some of the benefits of boom years, including the construction of the local railway network in the late 1840s and early ‘50s, and the general expansion of the whole borough through the 1860s to the early ‘80s (especially the building of the neighbouring Clive Vale estate in the later years).

But from the mid-1880s onwards the whole town started a long-term decline, growth came to a halt and extreme poverty hit the people of Ore. In 1884 the Ore Penny Dinner Fund was started, to feed hundreds of near-starving children with at least something of a midday meal when they were at school.

Until 1897 Ore valley was officially outside of Hastings. But then the corporation extended the town’s boundaries to take in the outlying districts of Ore and Hollington to help solve its serious financial problems. By absorbing these well-populated areas the wheelers and dealers in the town hall could raise the rateable value of the borough, and thereby borrow more money to pay for their ill-fated schemes. They needed to incorporate their poor neighbours to reach the rich pickings beyond.

But the Edwardian years that followed were perhaps the worst in Ore’s history, with widespread unemployment and misery. In early 1905 a new local GP in Ore, Dr AH Huckle, said that what struck him when he started his work in the district was the utter destitution and poverty of the poor. Poverty was relative, he said; it depended not only upon the amount of money, but the purchasing power of that money, and in Hastings, unfortunately, the amount of money received by the working classes was very small. The poor of the town, he believed, were poorer and more destitute than in the worst parts of London in which he had practised. Women had become breadwinners because men’s wages were so low, if any.

The summer of 1905 was a milestone in the history of Hastings. The building of the tramway system around the town opened up much of the new borough for development and provided a means of transporting the impoverished labourers of Ore to the building sites. A tramline ran from the Old Town through Ore, and along the Ridge.

The building of the tram system also helped create a major industrial area in the lower Ore valley. Until 1888 it had remained as farmland, with just a brickworks, but then the opening of the new Ore railway station, followed by the laying out of sidings, opened up possibilities for development. Since then the many acres around the Ore goods yard have been the setting for innumerable large and small businesses, several of a highly dubious character, and often stretching planning regulations to build the lowest quality, badly designed premises in anti-social settings almost touching neighbouring houses.

It was the building of the tramway power station in 1905 that gave the lower Ore valley the industrial image it still has. It was built at the bottom of the newly laid-out Parker Road, and from here it supplied all the borough’s trams with electricity. Its 176-feet high steel chimney was fuelled by coal delivered via the rail sidings.

More sidings were added when the Hastings electricity station was built nearby in 1926 adjoining the brick works. Hastings Council’s electricity station in Earl Street - built in 1882 - had come to the end of its life, so it was replaced with a much bigger station at Broomgrove, which was also coal-fired via its own siding. This power station lasted four decades, being replaced in 1966 by an even bigger one, with two Rolls Royce 55-megawatt gas turbine generators that could be started quickly when national demand was high or supply limited. It was used during the 1984/5 miners strike, after which the privatisation programme made it redundant.

Then, during the night of 15 May 2000 the power station caught fire. About 30,000 old tyres had been dumped there over a long time, and these ignited on that day, causing irreparable damage to the station. Demolition did not take place for over a year because of the dangers in the building, including much asbestos. It cost £1.96m to create the building site that it became.

Not only have all the power stations gone, but so have the busy sidings and carriage sheds that used to give a real feeling of life to Ore Station and its surroundings. In the early 1930s the station’s goods yard had big carriage sheds built for the newly-electrified Ore-Brighton line. Until the early 1980s the station played a valuable role in the local rail service, but now it is almost disused - just a couple of fenced-off platforms down the end of a long, inhospitable pathway.

It was the railway sidings, the many businesses around them and the workhouse further up the valley that helped open up the undeveloped west side of the valley for council housing between the wars. There were already privately-owned houses north of the workhouse, in and around Ore village and in all of Parker Road (built 1935/6).

In the late 1920s, with many local jobs available - unlike today - the forerunner of the Broomgrove council estates was built. But these were extraordinary houses: they were made of steel. ‘Tin Town’ as it was widely known was the new Fellows Road and Clement Hill Road, plus the west side of the existing Upper Broomgrove Road. The old house of Broomgrove, from which the area drew its name, was demolished to make way for them. The steel houses where very cold in the winter, with frost and damp on the inside as well as outside, and were exceptionally hot - like an oven, it was said - in the summer months. They were replaced in the early 1960s by the more conventional houses that stand there today.

Work on the main Broomgrove estate began in the mid-1960s, but the construction companies found it very difficult because of the hillside terrain. This is why many of the buildings are positioned on top of artificial slopes. By 1967 many residents had moved in to homes on an unfinished estate which still resembled a building site, without proper roads. The Broomgrove estate looked much as it does today by the end of the 1960s. On the east side of the valley, the lower quality Farley Bank estate was built several years later.

The biggest building in Ore valley was the catering equipment manufacturer WM Still and Sons. It was built on the allotments on the west side of Fellows Road, dominating all the adjoining houses and gardens (although almost invisible from Parker Road). The first part of this factory went up in the mid-1960s. The name ‘Stills’ became internationally known because the name was on the front of the water-boiling devices seen in many cafes. Following the closure of Stills, its old factory became the Saturn Facilities Centre, before demolition.

Despite the many light industry units around Ore Station, the whole valley until recently had only a handful of shops and just one pub. Attempts to tackle the social isolation this helped create were made by setting up two community centres in the early days, both of which have been rebuilt. The Broomgrove Community Centre is on the corner of Malvern Way and Chiltern Drive, and the Bridge in Priory Road, above Farley Bank. The new Bridge, with a multi-purpose hall and large café, opened in January 2006, and is the base of the Ore Valley Forum.

The Workhouse

For the better-off people of Hastings, Ore valley has often been out of sight and out of mind. In the 1830s it was also outside the town’s boundaries, and so, when the local establishment were told they had to build a big new workhouse, the site they chose was a chicken farm near the bottom of the valley, where the good folk would not see the building and the impoverished people who used it.

The government ordered the building of the new type of workhouse following the Captain Swing riots of 1830/1 in which rural workers took violent direct action against farm owners and their new machines. The 15,000 parishes had to form groups (‘unions’) and replace their small individual workhouses with a much bigger single one. The new unions were also ordered to be much harder on the unemployed and homeless who wanted to use the new workhouses, making them prefer to work harder for less wages rather than enter these inhospitable prison-like structures

The nationwide Captain Swing riots had started in the countryside immediately to the north and east of Hastings, and in neighbouring Kent. The disturbances so threatened the British establishment that

The Hastings Union comprised 14 parishes in and around the town. Their first meeting was in July 1835, but within just 24 months they bought the land, built the workhouse and opened its doors. On its first day, the old parish workhouses transferred 160 paupers, half of them from Hastings old town. The tramps, the sick, the disabled, the elderly, the orphans - all were now over the hill and far away.

A large part of the original 1837 building still stands, on the east side of Frederick Road, near Clifton Road, having recently been converted into private housing.

After just 30 years the Hastings Workhouse was severely criticised by Whitehall’s Poor Law Board for its many “serious defects”. It had been run in the cheapest possible way, with little regard to the needs of the sick inmates. A guilty conscience forced the Board of Guardians that ran the workhouse to build a new 60-bed infirmary, which also can still be seen, alongside Frederick Road.

By the mid-1880s, however, unemployment had increased dramatically in Hastings and it was clear a much bigger workhouse was needed. In 1885 the guardians started trying to buy nine acres of fields on the other side of Frederick Road. But then in 1886 they suddenly abandoned the scheme and bought a site double that size in Elphinstone Road. This provoked widespread public opposition, not least because the whole project could cost up to £100,000.

In 1891 new guardians abandoned the Elphinstone Road project, but were left with a bill for £15,000 for what the Hastings News called a “great financial blunder”. Eventually the site was sold in 1920 to Hastings Council and it became the Pilot Field football pitch.

The guardians then went back to the first site, where a new workhouse was built from 1900-03, at cost of £46,000, half that feared for Elphinstone Road. The Edwardian years brought huge numbers to the workhouse. In January 1908 there were 433 inmates living there and 150 overnight ‘casuals’ (tramps and job-seekers). All lived in harsh conditions, although not quite as bad as in the early Victorian years. Casuals had to break up large stones in order to earn their food and bed. If they refused they could be sent to Lewes prison.

In 1930 the government scrapped the workhouse system, with such establishments being recognised as hospitals as well as places for the unemployed and disadvantaged. The Hastings Workhouse was renamed the Municipal Hospital, although it remained known as just ‘the workhouse’ for many years. The 1946 National Health Service Act brought major reforms, including separating hospital functions from traditional workhouse aid for casuals.

In 1948 the former workhouse was renamed St Helen’s Hospital, and over the following decades it became a friendly and well-remembered institution. Its staff were popular - and that included the management! Unfortunately in the mid-1990s St Helen’s and most other Hastings hospitals were replaced by the bureaucrats dreamland, the Conquest Hospital. By 1998 all the 1903 workhouse on the west side of Frederick Road had been demolished and is now a housing estate.

© Steve Peak 2011

© Copyright 2012 The Hastings Chronicle