The America Ground

The stretch of Hastings coast that lies in front of what was the America Ground.
The stretch of Hastings coast that lies in front of what was the America Ground. Hastings Pier and Marine Court (St-Leonards) in the distance.

The article below was first published in the Hastings Independent Press as a companion piece to a history of the “America Ground”.

It is the first of many tales I hope to explore about the history of the local area. It is a story that grew from centuries of ecological and social change, culminating in the enforced exodus of a sizeable percentage of the then population of Hastings. The eviction of residents of the America Ground was driven largely by the increasing fashion for the seaside as a holiday destination. A trend that would, in time, lead to the fashion for bathing huts and in turn beach huts too. A tenuous link to Beach Hut 123 perhaps, but I find ’em where I can.

But first, by way of introduction to the article below, a little more of the history behind the America Ground and why its ownership was so contentious.

In the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, Hastings was a thriving town with a natural harbour that supported a profitable fishing fleet. As the head of the Cinque Ports of the Kent and Sussex coast, Hastings enjoyed special privileges; exemptions from tax, the ability to raise tolls; in return for supplying the king with men and ships in time of war. But, a series of storms in the thirteenth century drastically altered the Sussex coastline, blocking Hastings with a massive shingle bank. The harbour was destroyed, and with it Hastings influence and wealth.

Reliable histories of the period between the formation of the shingle bank and the early nineteenth century are fuzzy. What is certain is that this new stretch of land remained unclaimed according to the conventional English understanding of land ownership. It was the growth of Hastings and the adjacent new town of St-Leonards-on-Sea that sparked both a population explosion on the shingle bank, and increasing awareness amongst local landowners of the value of this once unwanted, unvalued, undeveloped strip of land.

By 1822, an estimated 1,000 people, mostly labourers working to build the the new town, were resident on the bank. Flat land in Hastings was, and still is, in short supply and greatly valued. For centuries, houses in Hastings have been built clinging to the sandstone cliffs. Many are built directly into the cliffs, their back walls comprising rough hewn rock and an ever-present coating of moss and lichen. In the extreme rainfall only last winter, a number of these buildings either partially collapsed or had sandstone cliffs collapse atop them. Flat land is stable – and valuable.

This “shanty town” in the centre of the newly fashionable Hastings was both an eyesore and a source of financial grievance to the adjacent landowners who now saw value in what had once been a worthless patch of shingle. A value would never be realised as long as the area was occupied by those without the means to pay. And a value that would never be realised by anyone until ownership was clarified.

On the one hand, Lord Chichester as holder to the Castle lands laid claim to it under a grant made to his family under James the 1st. And on the other Hastings Corporation claimed it under their Charter from Elizabeth the 1st. (1066.net)

Inspired by the recent American Revolution, the residents of the bank declared themselves the twenty fourth US state and raised the American flag as a a symbol of independence from Hastings and from the rule of any British authority.

In 1830, a Crown Commissioner’s inquisition not surprisingly decided against all plaintiffs and determined that the America Ground belonged to the Crown. The Crown offered seven year leases to some of those resident, but most refused this offer and; building materials being scarce; they took their homes on their backs and moved to land offered in the Gensing Farm area of St Leonards.

The America Ground was vacant until 1850 when Patrick Francis Robertson, who had leased the land from the Crown the year before, started work on the road that would bear his name. Robertson Street still stands, although part of the grand sea-facing terrace onto which it backs was destroyed during the Second World War. It has since been replaced by a brown brick construction that now houses Debenhams.

So it goes …

The concept of land ownership is something that has long fascinated me. I find the idea that someone can stand on a patch of land and say to all who come thereafter “This is mine, by virtue of my saying so before anyone else – now pay me rent”  just plain weird. I know that’s not the most eloquent of explanations for my fascination, but hopefully the article below will go some way to explaining. I may expand on this in a future post – as long as I can tie it back to beach huts in some way …

In the mean time, here’s the article for the Hastings Independent:

 

Land Ownership, Social Cleansing and the America Ground

12cm Boats Sepia PRINTEDBorders and land ownership are constantly changing, whether through war or by accord, through erosion or, as in the case of Hastings’ America Ground, through accumulation of new land. Every one tells a story; of the underlying geography; of coastal and weather systems; or of the push and pull of people and politicians over generations. They may follow natural contours and landforms or they may ignore them completely and cut straight through a region. Such examples tell another story – of a lack of care or understanding – of a lack of interest in the stories that went before.

The straight line borders of modern Africa were drawn up to prevent warfare amongst European nations as they divided the continent amongst themselves. This paper division of the continent, with borders drawn by office-bound bureaucrats, paid no heed to geography, to history or to social factors – or indeed to the existing nation states. Many states were divided by these new borders. Others were thrown together in new countries without social or cultural common ground. This arbitrary division of Africa has caused great misery and has a continuing and bloody impact. It is illustrative too of the belief that one race, nationality or social class is superior to another; that one can legitimately exploit another without guilt because the exploited tribe is in some way sub-human or inferior.

Human beings are inherently tribal. Whether its race, religion, education, income or the football team we support, we all look for similarities that bind us and differences that set us apart. We want to belong – but not too completely. We want to feel safe within our own tribe, but that tribe cannot be so large that the rules of membership cannot be enforced. To define our tribe and what it stands for, we must exclude others who don’t quite match our criteria.

The territorial instinct is found across the animal kingdom. Territory means land to hunt and to forage. It means shelter and fuel. The ability to defend your territory means the success of your genetic line over that of your rival. And that, ultimately, is all any species is programmed to achieve. But the borders defined by one species are irrelevant to others. Wildlife may freely cross where humans may not. Territories fiercely defended between garden robins or between packs of wolves have no bearing on the political ambitions of human inhabitants within the same range. This is niche ecology at work. Humans are no different from other species. From arguments over the placement of a garden fence, to mass bloodshed over the ambition of empires, we too are highly territorial.

The ownership of land; the belief that it can be possessed to the exclusion of others; that one creature can economically benefit from that claim is a peculiarly human invention. Other species may defend their territories, but they do not claim more than they need and then charge rent for its use.

It is not a universal human belief either.

At the same time as the residents of the America Ground were fighting for independence from a feudal system of land ownership, 12,000 miles away, the Māori people of New Zealand were falling foul of the same entrenched European concept of absolute ownership. It was a concept that was totally alien to them. In Māori society, land had no exclusive boundaries. Extended families and sub tribes had different rights to the same land; one to fish, another to grow crops; but no one owned the land. In accepting payment to allow Europeans to settle, Māori chiefs did not intend to give up their own rights to the same land. Something European settlers failed to grasp.

Even being raised in the same belief system is no defence against avaricious land owners. While the methods may have been less brutal, as an example of social cleansing, the clearing of the America Ground was no different to the Highland clearances of the same period. Or to the clearances of the favelas of Rio in preparation for the 2014 World Cup and 2016 Olympics. All were done in the interests of “improvement”; to “modernise and create a legacy for future generations”. All were motivated by surging land values and the opportunity for profit.

Despite its appearance in the thirteenth century, the America Ground had not long been inhabited by more than casual tenants before the mass eviction in 1834. The first permanent building was only recorded in 1806. The ropewalk had fallen out of use by the 1820s when the Industrial Revolution and factory-made rope made it redundant.

It was the emergence of a new industry; tourism, and the advent of Hastings as a fashionable seaside resort; that contributed both to the population boom of what would become the America Ground, and to a growing general realisation of its potential financial value. With land at a premium, this area of shingle provided space for workers, there to build and service the new seaside homes of the wealthy at Pelham Crescent and St Leonards. It was an attempt to sell a property within the ground without title deeds, an inherent part of the system of land ownership that the residents came to refute, that brought the area and its potential financial value to the attention of the Crown.

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