The America Ground
Hastings was well known for having the best natural harbour on the South coast, but during the mid 13th Century, dramatic changes where to take place along the Sussex coastline. A series of terrible storms hit the shores in 1287 and caused large areas of the shoreline to be reshaped. With rivers being forced to change their natural course to reach the sea, previously accessible shipping harbours became blocked by huge deposits of earth, silt, shingle and debris from the storms.
Hastings was particularly badly effected and the people now had to come to terms with a huge shingle bank which had clogged up the harbour and blocked the previous route to the sea. It was this shingle bank that would later become known as the America Ground.
The growth of Hastings as a Seaside resort (the health-craze for sea bathing and drinking brought the first visitors) from the end of the 18th Century, and particularly between 1815 and the mid 1820`s, produced a demand for property and land that forced the town to expand westward out of the Bourne Valley and into the Priory Valley.
The development of Pelham Crescent by the architect Joseph Kaye for the Earl of Chichester (started 1820) and James Burton`s new St. Leonards, (started 1828) necessitated importing a large workforce for the necessary construction work, who it was reported “took possession without leave, licence, or interference, and built houses, shanties, warehouses, and other erections, for which they paid no rent or consideration - a ‘No Mans Land` and independent of any law or order and, who when challenged hoisted the American Flag, very much a symbol of independence at that time.
The novelist Sheila Kaye-Smith described the area in her 1919 book ‘Tamarisk Town’, as having been “free to any beggars, gypsies or other undesirables ... a mock city of shacks, huts and tents.”
The America Ground is born
This 8 acres of foreshore was soon covered by 195 buildings with well over 1000 inhabitants, The earliest recorded inhabitants of the America Ground being Thomas Page and John Prior in 1806. They were listed as resident in an old Hulk, now in two tenements, formerly the Brig named Polymina. Many other trades soon sprang up including a gardener, carpenter, miller together with Lodging houses, as well as limekilns, stonemasons, a tallow factory, a sawing house and a butchers with slaughter houses and piggeries. Eventually the area even contained a gin palace and a small school – the forerunner of William Parker School
This new piece of land created by the shingle bank comprised of the area which is now Robertson Street, Trinity Triangle, Carlisle Parade and Harold Place, was just outside the boundaries of Hastings Borough, effectively making it a no-man’s land.
The ground was first occupied at the beginning of the 19th Century by the installation of two rope walks each of 120-150 fathoms in length, used by Messrs. Thwaites & Co. and Messrs. Breeds & Co. for the making of rope, quickly followed by an enterprising group of local tradesmen. They developed the area into a sort of colony with its own shops, houses and businesses including a coach factory.
The Crown takes control
This so called America Ground - “an area of land occupying a space of nearly a quarter of a mile in length and 500 yards in width, which from its situation and appearance was without doubt, formerly part of the sea shore, but, by the accumulation of the shingle, the sea has gradually receded, leaving the ground in question waste, and for very many years totally unproductive,” was claimed by the Crown following an inquiry at the George Hotel, Battle on 6th Dec. 1827 as to the legal ownership. The Crown then completed a detailed survey of the Ground before offering a 7 year ground lease at relatively small rents to those who claimed to own property there, after which the ground was to be cleared - only four such leases were taken out, 3 by the same family of Breeds.
The ground was duly cleared of all buildings and inhabitants by Christmas 1835 and then stood empty for the next 15 years apart from the Rock Fair (July 26-27th) and the occasional cricket match, and became known as the `Derelict’ or `Waste Lands`.
The America Ground today
In 1849 real estate developer Patrick Francis Robertson leased the crown lands for 99 years at a rate of £500 per year. The following year work was started on building the road that would bear his name and is still called Robertson Street today.
The spirit of the America Ground continues to this day in Hastings and the American Flag is flown next to the Union Jack around the 4th of July every year. 1999 saw a ceremonial reading of the American Declaration of Independence in Robertson Street, and a huge party was thrown in 2000 by the America Ground with four stages set up to cater for a variety of entertainment.