If you continue westwards from Hastings pier (see previous post) along the seafront, once you reach Warrior Square you will have arrived at the relative newcomer of a town, St Leonards. Warrior Square is unmissable – it’s an expansive rectangular park surrounded by very large 19thC seaside apartment houses, but the square is misleadingly-named. It’s less a memorial to fighters than smugglers; “the name Warrior is most likely a corruption of ‘Warehouse’ – smugglers being known to secrete goods in the vicinity”. St Leonards was originally conceived as part of a planned seaside resort in the mid 1820s – “a place of elegant houses designed for the well-off” (quoted on many websites, but without a source); created for the gentry, by the gentry – more of this below.
But right now, in 2023, just up from the sea front you’ll find a number of comfortably ungroomed streets (more Victorian or post-war than quaint Hastings Old Town) with a lively, cosmopolitan mixture of shops; just across the road from a traditional style electrical appliances store is a Chinese restaurant, Lebanese cafe, halal butchers and a coin and stamp collectors’ shop, while in adjacent streets are Turkish, Ukrainian, Middle Eastern and other flavoured grocers, Kurdish barber’s, shoe repairers, take-away Italian pizza and fish and chip shops, etc. Cheek by jowl with these though you will find the same indications of regeneration and ‘alternative entrepreneurship’ as in parts of Hastings – the artfully decrepit cafes, artisan bakers and organic shops, craft beer pubs, local designer clothes, lots of art, craft and photo galleries, and more ‘midcentury-modern’ furniture and home wares than you can shake a vintage stick at.
As a visitor it appears, on the surface, to be a largely inclusive and dynamic area but there is gentrification here for sure and that undoubtedly makes an impact for locals on accommodation and general living costs. But, maybe the process of repurposing defunct shops could have saved a few buildings and businesses from vanishing and possibly generated some new employment, hard to tell as an outsider.
On our first visit to St Leonards, after ambling among the shops described above, and knowing nothing of its history at that point, it was a real surprise to discover a set of grandiose Neoclassical buildings a little further west just behind the seafront; the South Lodge, which is one entrance to St Leonard’s Gardens, and opposite, the grand Assembly Rooms, now the Masonic Hall. These two are among many buildings by James Burton and his son Decimus; James was part of London’s high society, and a property developer, responsible for the development of substantial parts of Georgian and Regency London including Regent’s Street and Regent’s Park.
The idea of the health-giving properties of the seaside and sea air had become fashionable by the early 19th C, and the Burtons provided “public buildings for entertainment and the picturesque siting of villas amongst the wooded slopes and water of the central gardens, to be paid for by subscription” from Wikipedia .
Service areas were provided too to ‘support’ the life-styles of the visiting gentry – the Mercatoria district was built to house tradesmen, and Lavatoria for washerwomen. However,“In practice, multifarious trades-people lived here. The St Leonards rich lived in spacious opulence: frequently just two or three persons occupied a villa boasting three or four large reception-rooms, several bedrooms, servants’ accommodation, and gardens. A short walk away, working people were overcrowded into terraced cottages with meagre back yards.” From: “Living conditions of the Upper and Lower Classes in Victorian Hastings“
Nearly fifty years after the foundation of St Leonards, it became merged with Hastings in 1875 as the County Borough of Hastings. For a further 20 years the distinctive Decimus Burton ‘East Lodge” – an arch spanning the seafront road and marking St Leonards’ eastern boundary – remained in position until the council decided the arch should be removed as the road needed widening to accommodate new trams. Despite opposition from the public, and “Under the cover of darkness, and in great secrecy, the arch was demolished overnight on the 22nd January 1895”; from Historical Hastings.
The merger of Hastings and St Leonards and subsequent infilling in the Victorian and Edwardian eras, and on into the 1930s, created around 3 miles of developed seafront between them, within which there is abundant variety of building styles and townscapes, vistas and oddities. St Leonards had its own pier too, which was opened in 1891 becoming a popular tourist attraction to rival its neighbour a short distance east. However, a WW2 bombing raid in 1940, followed by storm damage in 1943 and fire in 1944 eventually led to its demolition in the early 1950s.
At the end of the 19thC, such was the demand for sea-view locations with bracing breezes for private, lung-related hospitals and convalescent homes that some were built on a precipitous, prone-to-crumbling cliff top. Despite ingenious 20thC reinforcements beneath them to combat the (continuous) subsidence, these grand piles are now structurally and economically barely viable and may not survive for long. For more details on this, and many other posts on the St Leonards’ area, visit this excellent site Life on the Edge
Another victim of unreliable geology not far from this site is St Leonards’ Church, built to replace an earlier version constructed by… the esteemed James Burton! “This was the only Church ever designed by James Burton. It is said that he originally planned to build the church on top of the hill, however he built it on the current site due to objections about having to walk uphill to the church….Five years after completion in 1837 a section of the cliff fell down and destroyed the chancel.” From 1066 online. . It survived until 1944 when it was demolished by a German ‘doodlebug’. The church that can be seen today was begun in the early 1950s, designed by brothers Sir Giles and Adrian Gilbert Scott (think Battersea Power Station and the Red Telephone box) in a “simplified modernist gothic revivial style” (something for everyone?!) but this too is now suffering structural damage and was closed for worship in 2018. It has an uncertain future, but with a faint glimpse of optimism.
In a memorial garden, once open to the public, on the hill behind the church is a small stone pyramid overlooking the sea (photo from about 1960, below). This is the final resting place of James Burton, the family tomb where he, his wife and other family members were buried (not Decimus, he lies in Kensal Green cemetery in London). Perhaps this is where he intended his church to be, but like the falling cliff that destroyed his chancel, the memorial garden itself has been subject to landslips and access is no longer possible. Having the family’s carefully preserved remains potentially slide down the cliff seems a rather undignified way for the Burtons to spend their afterlife.
The photograph above, H01807, is part of East Sussex Library and Information Local History Collection (click on link to visit the website), and is reproduced with their consent (colour adjusted from copy shown on their flickr page). To view more historic photographs of East Sussex, go to the East Susssex County Council Libraries’ flickr collection. Not to be copied without permission.
By the late 1920s St Leonards (and Hastings) saw “dramatic changes influenced by none other than the ‘Concrete King’ Sidney Little” Sidney Little was a civil engineer and enthusiastic user of reinforced concrete, a throroughly modern material in the late 1920s and 30s. He built new reservoirs in the area and “rebuilt the entire seafront from Pelham Crescent in the east, via the White Rock Baths (opened 1931) under the promenade east of Hastings Pier and his masterpiece ‘Bottle Alley’ (opened in 1934), linking Hastings Pier with Warrior Square and onward, with a double deck promenade to St.Leonards Pier in the west.” Quotes from Sussex World.
He created some enduring seafront shelters but was also responsible for a once magnificent construction just behind the far west end of St Leonards beach that did not survive. All that remains now is a rather sad rectangular patch of grass (photo below) but this was formerly the site of the spectacular sea-water filled Bathing Pool, measuring a generous (Olympic size) 330 ft by 90 ft with seating for 2,500 spectators and dare-devilishly high diving boards. It opened in 1933 and had 33,000 visitors in the first week. It later became a holiday camp but with cheap holidays to sunnier foreign resorts its future was doomed and it was demolished in 1989. For more detail and old photos of this once glamorous destination visit Hastings in Focus and Lost Lidos.
The photograph above, H00770, is part of East Sussex Library and Information Local History Collection (click on link to visit the website), and is reproduced with their consent. To view more historic photographs of East Sussex, go to the East Susssex County Council Libraries’ flickr collection. Not to be copied without permission.
The penultimate stop on this decades-straddling tour is (… how to describe it …notable landmark? Ship-shaped edifice?!) Marine Court apartment block, completed in 1938, also known by some locals as Monstrosity Mansions. Writer Iain Sinclair’s take on it in The Guardian in 2010 is “this prewar monster looms over the remnants of James Burton’s 1820s colonnades, at a slight angle, like a stack of dirty plates from a wedding breakfast in the [adjacent] Royal Victoria hotel”. But he has affection for it too, the article is well worth the read. On first sight in 2017 I took it for a tacky, run-down 1970s pastiche Art Deco building, but it’s the real deal, a pioneer of steel-frame construction, originally with distinctive Crittal windows.
The building has though suffered various forms of abuse to its fabric and integrity over its 80+ year life span – the signature windows mostly replaced, and, the weather has taken its toll! Its design by Kenneth Dalgleish and Roger K Pullen was influenced by the newly launched Queen Mary liner and was intended to be as luxurious and modern as the ship; the serviced apartments were all electric, with refrigerators, air-conditioning and central heating and there were restaurants and a public lounge. But the design courted controversy from the start – residents in the houses behind what was to become the tallest dwelling in the UK were to loose their precious sea-views. But in addition, its construction meant the demolition of “The magnificent Burton terrace with its Palladian fronts” (from Sussex World)
I don’t know about St Leonards in the mid 20th century but I suspect that, partly due to the diminishing appetite for English seaside holidays, along with the post-war visions of a ‘modern future’, the 19thC architectural fabric of St Leonards became a bit unloved: “The Council’s planning department (from the “1950s – late 1960s) approved a series of demolitions of listed buildings [many by the Burtons] to make way for modern developments” from the Burtons St Leonards Society website. Fortunately, due to pressure from residents and societies like these, formed in the late 1960s there remain some great specimens of St Leonards former glory.
One charming, Burton-era domestic survivor of time, town planning and modernity is a tucked-away crescent of lovely, airy “double villas” built by Decimus Burton in 1834. We often stay at a B & B here owned by a couple of artists. It’s just a short walk inland on a slight rise above the beach so there are glimpses across an adjacent, large private garden to the sea from the front bedroom where we stay.
The crescent’s residents (and happily, their visitors, like us) have shared access to this grassy area bordered by mature trees and shrubs that’s used for playing (there’s an excellent tree house and swing), lounging (hammocks and benches), veg growing, outdoor cooking, eating, and sculpture exhibitions; it’s a delightful space for all ages. It would be fascinating to know what Decimus Burton might make of the evolution of his planned, Regency style development for the gentry, into the very informal, somewhat bohemian settlement that exists now.
Travel further west with me to Bexhill-on-Sea…
All photographs, unless otherwise stated, are by the author, © Liz Milner. With thanks to those credited who allowed their photographs to be used in this post, including East Sussex Libraries who can also be found on Facebook and Instagram