The America Ground
HOT’s Sean O’Shea talks with local historian, Ken Brooks about the origin of the America Ground and the fate of this short lived quasi-republic of Hastings. They also discuss the Battle of Hastings, the future of history and Ken’s interest in geology.
When I first came to Hastings I was struck by the somewhat domineering presence of businesses such as Cafe NERO, the COSTA Cafe and McDonald’s Restaurant in the town centre and wondered what the place was like before the invasion of the multi-nationals.
A previous invasion by the Normans in 1066 and their historic victory at the battle of Hastings has just recently been celebrated. The Norman conquerors carved up Anglo Saxon England and established a pattern of aristocratic land ownership which, according to author and investigative journalist, Kevin Cahill, hasn’t changed much up to present times. (Who Owns Britain & Ireland, Canongate Books 2002, Kevin Cahill.) Given that a supposed shortage of land is often quoted as a reason for the growing housing crisis, it is surprising that this historical distribution of land ownership has remained largely uncontested.
In the early nineteenth century the area around Robertson St consisted of a large shingle bank caused by sea storms, which was settled by local labouring people and merchants. It soon became a thriving independent community, comprising carpenters, millers, bakers, brewers, cow-keepers, pig-keepers and fishermen. Activities pursued included warehousing for tallow, rope and coal, lime-kilns, a sawing house, stonemasons, a tallow factory and a slaughterhouse. There was also a gin-palace and a school. (The America Ground, Barry Funnel.)
As the land was outside the borough boundary, the residents paid no rates or taxes. At some point Hastings Corporation sent in the bailiffs, ostensibly to apprehend suspected felons. In protest the residents chased the officials back over Priory Bridge, hoisted an American flag to demonstrate their independence from the Hastings authorities – and the area became known as the America Ground.
I spoke to local historian Ken Brooks to find out more about this short-lived quasi- republic of Hastings.
Could you say a bit about your own background and how you became interested in history?
After leaving school I completed a five-year apprenticeship at a stonemason’s workshop. During this time I joined the Hastings Judo Club and progressed through the grades to qualify as a judo instructor, and it was this experience that inspired my ambition to become a school-teacher. My interest in history really began at the Teachers’ Training College, where the course included field trips to sites of historical interest.
Some people seem to view history as a random sequence of events or series of allegedly important dates to be committed to memory for an exam. What is your view of the relevance and importance of history?
For me the study of history can provide fascinating glimpses into bygone ages. This applies particularly where artefacts may be used as physical links with the past. Modern technology is the result of many years of learning from historical discoveries and events. Unfortunately we do not always learn from the mistakes of the previous generations.
Many history teachers are concerned about the dumbing down of the subject and fear that it may disappear from the curriculum. What’s your diagnosis of the current state of history in our schools and its likely future?
As I retired from school teaching over 25 years ago, I cannot comment on present history teaching from personal experience. However I am dismayed at the possibility that the subject may be dropped from the curriculum. I think it is very important that boys and girls should learn something of their origins and their ancestors. All of the children in my class lived in the Hastings area – yet they knew nothing of its fascinating history, so I arranged a full term’s topic on ‘Hastings, My Town’. This included collecting old images for slide show presentations and taking the class on visits to certain parts of the town to make comparisons with photographs of exactly the same locations in the past. This proved to be very popular and inspiring with the children. It also encouraged them to talk to their grandparents and ask questions. Some children also brought old photographs to school.
Could you tell us about the origin of the America Ground?
In medieval times, Hastings town centre had a natural harbour that was sheltered by a rocky promontory extending out into the sea from the White Rock area. Unfortunately, this natural barrier was destroyed by disastrous storms during the 13th century, and the result was a build-up of silt and shingle that blocked the entrance to the harbour. Hastings then lost its status as the premier Cinque Port, when traders and merchants moved to other south coast towns.
In her book, ‘Tamarisk Town’, Sheila Kaye-Smith refers to the America Ground and its inhabitants as a lawless community of squatters comprising beggars, gypsies and ‘undesirables.’ By way of contrast, the image that Barry Funnel presents in his book, ‘The America Ground’, is that of a diverse, industrious, self-contained community, which at one point numbered over a thousand people and even included a school. What is your view of the nature and evolution of this community?
My own research into the America Ground seems to suggest that, although the settlement may have started with a few homeless squatters, it certainly appears to have evolved into a self-sufficient community. While the inhabitants refused to pay taxes and did not recognise the authority of the Hastings Corporation, they apparently lived and worked by their own rules.
The land was eventually taken over by the Crown and those living there were given notice to move out. While there is physical evidence that some people re-settled in St Leonards, the uprooting of such a large community must have caused considerable hardship and homelessness for many of the residents. What have you learnt from your personal researches on how this area was appropriated and the fate of its residents?
By the 1840s, with the increasing popularity of seaside ‘watering places’ and the arrival of the railway, the Hastings authorities obviously wanted to develop the ‘America Ground’ area as an attractive site for visitors. Unfortunately, the non-tax paying inhabitants were evicted and had to find their own alternative accommodation.
The 950th anniversary of the Battle of Hastings has just been celebrated. However, the Norman invasion involved not just a single battle but the mass slaughter of the indigenous population and the harrowing of the North in particular – an event that has been referred to by some historians as an act of genocide. Some people question why such an event should be ‘celebrated’. What’s your view?
I do believe that dressing up in contemporary costumes and re-enacting historical events is a great way to have fun while learning about life and conditions in the past. However, it does seem rather odd that we should ‘celebrate’ the defeat of our country by the French in 1066.
You have written a number of books including ‘Hastings Then & Now’ and you also deliver regular illustrated talks at the Shipwreck Museum and elsewhere. What has been the response to your continuing campaign to extend people’s knowledge of local history?
After attending my local history courses or lectures people often tell me that they now look at the older parts of Hastings with greater interest and appreciation. If this can help to save at least one historically important building from demolition, I should be delighted.
Geology is another passion of yours and you were awarded the Halstead medal by the Geologist’s Association for promoting local geology. Could you tell us a bit about this interest and some of the geological richness of Hastings and St. Leonards?
My interest in geology really started with the rocks and fossils that children would occasionally bring into class and ask me to identify! As my knowledge of this subject was very limited, I began studies in earth sciences with the Open University. Within a few years, I was tutoring adult courses in geology for the University of Sussex, Hastings College and the W.E.A. It was in response to an increasing interest in this subject that I founded the Hastings and District Geological Society with members of my group in 1992.
The sandstones and clays in the Hastings area contain a great variety of sedimentary structures and fossils from which we can learn much about the ancient environments. Such evidence includes the remains of sub-tropical plants and the bones of dinosaurs dating from 140 million years ago. At that time, Hastings was part of a vast flood plain that extended across to central France.
Note: Images of the America Ground courtesy of Ken Brooks. See his book Hastings Then & Now, Published in 2002 by S.B. Publications and available at the Tourist Information Centre, Hastings.
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