History of Hastings Beach

Taken from the Hastings Coastal Adaptation Pathfinder Project, 2010

Hastings in the 1500’s

While the Anglo Saxon Chronicles describe the men of Hastings as providing ships to the King there are no records from the time that indicate where the harbour might have been situated. The ports at Arundel and Lewes were located up river on the Arun and the Ouse respectively, however that at Hastings is believed to have been situated in an inlet (Leslie and Short, 1999) which may have been protected by a shingle spit (Martin et al. 2009). The development of shingle spits is thought to have had a significant influence on the location and subsequent growth of ports in the region many of which were situated where a river or tidal embayment met the sea and were afforded protection from south westerly storms by a developing shingle spit. This is thought to be the case for Shoreham and Winchelsea and according to Martin et al., (2009) long shore drift may have resulted in the creation of such a feature against White Rock which may have extended further south than is the case today. This barrier will have acted as a natural harbour arm behind which a sheltered bay or lagoon may have formed at the mouth of the Old Roar Stream that passed through Priory Valley. Martin et al (2009) suggest that this may have initially drawn the Saxons to the area. However the subsequent build up of silts from the stream behind the barrier will have resulted in the formation of a marsh-like environment and have rendered any harbour all but useless. This area of reclaimed land later became known as the America Ground and now forms part of the present New Town.

Remains of the old 16th Century harbour wall are buried under the present day stade, and are the oldest known remains of port structures inSussex (Marsden, 2003). Many attempts have been made to fund and build a harbour.

In 1546 a wooden pier is believed to have existed and the construction of a stone wall for the stade was commissioned five years later in 1561 (Salzman, 1921). However there are no records that would indicate if this work was undertaken and if so, whether it was successful. Interestingly at around the same time Yarmouth was also struggling with its harbour and the corporation felt it necessary to employ a pilot for:

‘bryngyng in of shyppys in to the haven, by the grace of God.’ [1]

In 1562, when Rye was considered to be the region’s principal port, initial steps were made to construct a harbour in the form of a protective pier or breakwater atHastingsby enlisting the aid of the Lord Warden of the Cinque Ports William Brooke, who wrote to William Cecil, Queen Elizabeth’s Secretary of State, requesting the provision of:

“…such stuffe laborers and artificers as shall be merit to these works.”

For whatever reason no immediate steps appear to have been taken and it was not until October 1578 that the Queen issued a proclamation acknowledging the importance to the country of the town in the past with regard to both military matters and the provision of fish to not just the Royal Household but the City of London and the country as a whole. The statement goes on to say that since the loss of the pier, the town is:

“…much decayed, the traffique of marchants thither forsaken, the fishing, by virtue of dangerous landing but little used…”

As a result Hastings was granted the sum of £4000, around £600,000 today, for the construction of a suitable harbour. Sadly it would appear that much of the funds made their way into the pockets of individuals rather than the project itself and no further work was carried out until March 1595 when men from Lyme Regis were called in to help repair the pier. By this time its construction had taken on such importance that all able men in the town were ordered to work on it or forfeit 6d every time they were required but failed to show up. By the end of the summer it was decided that all the funds obtained from that year’s forthcoming trip to the Herring Fishery in Yarmouth and half of that from theScarboroughvoyage would be appropriated to finish its construction and if these were insufficient, the balance would be borne by a tax on the town.

The pier was constructed solely of stone and situated outside the foundations of the earlier pier. However, the first winter storm is reported to have resulted in its break-up, the lack of a timber brace considered to be a contributory factor. Further work continued the following year and this time, without the men of Lyme Regis, it was thought prudent to construct the pier within the timber work of an earlier structure. By early November 1597 a pier of around 100ft long and 30ft high had been constructed as is described in the Court Books of the time:

“And this woorke was with singular industry and arte brought above the full and by All Holloutyde 1597 well nere finished, viz.:—xxx foote high and C foot long at least, bowtyfull to behold, huge, invincible, and unremoveable in the judgment of all the beholders …” [2]

However not long after, a large storm is reported as rapidly destroying the pier:

“But behold when men were most secure and thought the woorke to be perpetuall, on All Saints’ daie 1597 appeared the mighty force of God, who with the finger of his hand at one great and exceding high spring tyde with a south east wynd overthrew this huge woorke in lesse then an hower to the great terrour and abashment of all beholders…”

Hastings in the 1600’s

Very little work was undertaken until 1611 when it was decided to repair what remained of the pier. Again the whole town was called upon to contribute and anyone failing to do so when required would be fined 12d. Finances remained an issue and in 1617 the catch allowance for the fishing fleet was doubled with 25% going towards the repair of the pier. Further funds were raised by imposing a 12d tax on every tun of beer half of which went towards the pier. However work was sporadic and came to a halt in 1621.

The last attempt during this period to provide the town with a decent harbour began in 1635. Henrich Cranhalls, a renowned Dutch engineer, was brought in to determine the location and method of construction but this time rather than focusing on the stade, the plan called for the provision of a safe haven at the site of the former Saxon port inPrioryValley. Cranhalls suggested it was possible to build a harbour that could be used by ships of 400 tons or more and provide shelter to 200 or more vessels. However he estimated that the cost to be around £220,000 (ca. £19m today). This vast expense meant that King Charles I was petitioned in 1636 in the hope of securing the necessary funding.

There were many promises of assistance. The Company of Fishmongers offered to give £300 and loan £3000 until more funds were available. However the provision of funds was generally lacking and in 1656 a winter storm washed away what remained of the Elizabethan harbour wall and all work was brought to a halt. So after almost a century of trying, the efforts of the town had come to naught.

Hastings in the 1800’s

There would then appear to a prolonged episode of inactivity as far as the development of a harbour is concerned. Fishing vessels were brought ashore and Peak (1985) suggests that the stade was afforded some protection by the remains of the Elizabethan harbour In 1806 however, as the town grew in both prosperity and size Sir John Rennie, who was later responsible for the original Southwark and Waterloo Bridges, proposed the construction of a harbour to the west of the Priory Stream. No other details remain and it is suggested that the plans were too costly and/or ambitious to be carried out (Manwaring Baines, 1953; Peak, 1985). The need for an improved harbour would not only benefit the fishing fleet but trade as a whole as large ships were also coming into Hastings in the 1800s, eg The Roanoke, bound for Antwerp from New York which is listed as having been discharging at Hastings Harbour on February 13th 1829. Rennie’s plan was reassessed in 1834 but was again deemed to expensive. Consequently it was decided to construct a smaller 12 acre harbour at a cost of around £100,000. This too was shelved.

Several other harbour designs were considered but it was not until 1896 that a plan put in place some years earlier was actually underway. The harbour, designed by Alfred Carey, was to cover 24 acres and would be equipped with landing stages, wharves and jetties. The harbour wall was located to the east of the Elizabethan remains. The inshore section was to be constructed of open wooden staging in order to allow shingle to pass through. The design would also incorporate the recently constructed 76m long Rock-a-Nore groyne which was put in place to prevent the eastward movement of shingle and the subsequent loss of the stade. This had been a concern since the 1870s when the council constructed a large groyne to the west of the Old Town. The subsequent failure of shingle to move eastwards and replenish the stade, combined with its constant removal by local builders meant that the stade was rapidly decreasing in size and that boats were crowded together on a narrow strip of beach (Peak, 1985). To many people in Hastings it appeared that the failure of the council to construct suitable groynes to the east of the Old Town was due to their desire to see the local fishing industry relocate to Rye. After all, the council had readily agreed to the construction of sea defences which benefited the New Town but it took severe gales which battered the Old Town in October 1884 and a subsequent public outcry to spur the council into action, so that by 1885 they had relented and constructed the Rock-a-Nore groyne which would now be heightened to form the eastern end of the harbour in accordance with Carey’s design.

Hastings in the 1900’s

However due to construction difficulties and insufficient funds all work came to a halt at the end of 1897 by which time the eastern harbour arm measured 371m (226m and 145m of concrete and wood respectively). Over the last 100 years shingle has accumulated against the incomplete harbour wall and the Rock-a-Nore groyne, resulting in the seaward expansion of the stade. By 1930 the low water mark was 112m further out than in 1908. The remains of the Elizabethan harbour have been buried and the entire 145m wooden portion of the harbour arm is now covered by shingle.

Overlooking Hastings in the 1900s

By 1955 Hastings Council had stopped viewing the structure as a harbour but as a breakwater, or large groyne. The accumulation of shingle on the western side of the harbour arm continued and resulted in a dramatic decline in the fishermen’s stade with some boats being forced to move to Rye. In the late 1960s the Rock-a-Nore groyne was made both higher and longer. While this prevented erosion of the fishermen’s stade it also increased the width of the beach so that any benefit from the harbour arm was reduced. By the mid 1970s the harbour arm was breaking apart. Professional advice was sought from Halcrow and it was decided to shore up the collapsed centre with 7 tonne concrete blocks, or stabits, these are still in place today.

Since the 1970’s, a number of studies have been carried out as well as urgent sea defence works to ensure the towns’ defences are sustained.

Hastings Today

The Coastal Adaptation Pathfinder report provide a detailed analysis of what impacts coastal processes, climate change and recent beach replenishment and sea defence works have had on the stade beach. In addition a structural condition review of the harbour arm which considers its strategic importance as a sea defence structure was undertaken in 2008.It is clear that Hastings has had a long and relationship with the sea. While there is no evidence to suggest that this stretches back to the Roman era it can be said with some certainty that during the Saxon period the town and this relationship became firmly established. Over time Hastingswas to become one of the most important port towns in the country as a result of its membership of the Cinque Portswhile the town flourished its fishing industry was also one of the most prosperous in the country and played a vital role in the local economy. The present decline in the number of fishing boats, which is by no means unique to Hastings, is a result of over-fishing and the subsequent quota limits implemented by the EU. However this decline is just one of many that the fleet has had to withstand over the centuries as a result of both natural factors and anthropogenic activity. The continual loss of its harbour since the silting up of the original Saxon site in Priory Valley has left the town without a safe haven for its fleet for at least 500 years during which time it has had to launch off the present day stade in front of the Old Town. During this time they have had to contend with competition from other fishing fleets from Kentand Sussex, the south west of Englandand France. All these factors, when combined with a series of bungled attempts to construct a harbour worthy of the name during the 16th, 17th and late 19th centuries, might have proved terminal for others yet the fishing fleet has endured so that it is now Europe’s largest beach-launched fleet and as such is a vital part of the town’s heritage.

Fisherman’s Beach 2011


1. Williams, N.J. (1988) Maritime Trade of the East Anglian Ports. Clarendon Press Oxford 321pp.

2.  From: ‘The corporation of Hastings’, The Manuscripts of Rye and Hereford Corporations, etc.: Thirteenth report, Appendix Part IV (1892), pp. 354-364.

www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=67163&strquery=hastings lyme  Date accessed:20 April 2010.[ From: ‘The corporation ofHastings’, The Manuscripts of Rye and Hereford

3. Corporations, etc.: Thirteenth report, Appendix Part IV (1892), pp. 354-364. www.british-history.ac.uk/report.aspx?compid=67163&strquery=hastings lyme  Date accessed:20 April 2010

Leslie, K. and Short, B. (1999). Historical Atlas ofSussex. Phillimore,Chichester

Manwaring Baines, J. (1953) Historic Hastings. F.J Parsons Ltd,Hastings.

Marsden, P. (2003). The maritime archaeology of Sussex. In: Rudling, D (ed.) The Archaeology of Sussex to AD 2000. Centre for Continuing Education,University of Sussex.

Martin, D. and Martin, B. (2009). Hastings Old Town: an Archaeological History to 1750.East Sussex Architectural Research Report.

Peak, S (1985). Fishermen of Hastings:  200 Years of the Hastings Fishing Community. Speaks Books,Hastings.

Salzman, (1921) Hastings. S.P.C.K.,London