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West Street Dog

West Street Dog, photo by Lorna Crabbe

Illuminating West Street: A Winter Salon

Following a grant from the Heritage Lottery Fund (HLF), the West Street Community Group will be supporting a year-long project researching, sharing and celebrating the history of West Street in Hastings Old Town. Xaverine Bates found out more.

It is easy to miss West Street. Squeezed between George Street and the seafront, this narrow and dimly-lit back street has a history of smuggling, piracy and slums, though very little information is currently to be found about it in local archives or history books. The West Street Community Group is made up of residents, business owners and artists based on the street, who are working together with volunteers and enthusiasts to recapture the street’s forgotten history through research, oral histories and running events with local people. The project, made possible with money raised by National Lottery players, will put together an archive of publicly accessible material and create a publication, The West Street Chronicle, to be launched at a street party in the summer. Project manager and resident, Lorna Crabbe said: “We are delighted to be running this year-long project, which we hope will raise awareness of our often forgotten street, to celebrate its history and demonstrate the creative and interesting things still happening here today”.

Lorna said, “I have lived on West Street in Hastings Old Town for over ten years now and it never fails to surprise me. Postcard photographers were not interested in it, local historians have only basic information, nobody has undertaken any thorough research and yet its history is steeped in tales of a host of characters. Some of these include prominent Suffragettes, a champion swimmer & costumier, Oswald Mosley and the Black Shirts, the Ancient Order of Druids, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Biddy the Tubman, Nelson’s valet and an octopus. I have wanted to develop a project for West Street for some time. To look beyond the overspilling wheelie bins, blocked drains and the noise of late night revellers and to encourage greater awareness of the street, it’s past, and the creative endeavours happening here now.”

View of West St

View of West St, photo by Lorna Crabbe

West Street in the Old Town has been described as down at heel and a ‘blot on the town’ and was recently mentioned in the Hastings Old Town Residents Association newsletter as being ‘the most neglected road in Hastings and St Leonards’. In the 1950s, when architect Lord Holford was asked to completely redesign the area, he described how “West Street .. has now virtually degenerated in to an all too narrow service road.” The Community Group has discovered images of his radical designs, akin to the Brighton Lanes, that would have created a warren of shops between the two streets, which were never adopted.

Before the current sea defences were in place, the street was very close to the seafront with a series of tunnels connecting West Street properties to George Street. Both streets often flooded and you could sail a boat down them. Fishermen lived here alongside tradesmen, skilled workers and shopkeepers. Street directories include a confectioner, dressmaker, bell hanger, blacksmith and bootmaker. Thomas Boucher was listed at no.33 as a comedian. When cross referencing newspaper records, Lorna found that he was a fruit and potato merchant and his shop doubled up as a theatrical dress store, lending costumes to local productions. He was a champion swimmer, gave diving displays through hoops, as well as being a voluntary fireman and amateur actor. He also went to court for assaulting his wife.

Biddy the Tubman

Biddy the Tubman, source 1066online

Biddy the Tubman grew up on West Street as part of a large family. Many buildings like Lorna’s were built as warehouses and would have had a donkey living in the bottom room to pull fish up from the shore. Her house has been an ice house, a grocer’s, a ladies’ clothes shop, a video rental shop as well as various other uses. Neighbouring Market Hall hosted public gatherings, talks and rallies, including ones featuring prominent Suffragettes. It held balls until 5am and tea parties for poor children, raising money to buy them boots. It was also at one time a Coroner’s court, a theatre and an aquarium complete with an octopus.

The large building at the top end on Marine Parade was formerly a library and billiards room, where ‘elegant musical evenings were held’. It later became the Belle-Vue boarding house and the Norfolk Hotel and at one stage was a photographic studio. Oswald Mosely and the Black Shirts spoke there. At the other end of the street, The Hastings Arms hosted meetings of the Ancient Order of Druids. The artist Rosetti stayed in rooms above The Cutter while courting Lizzie Siddal, where at one point the landlord was James Bell, a former valet to Lord Nelson.

Family Portrait, Duo Bogof

Duo Bogof, photo by Sin Bozkurt

The first event will be Illuminating West Street: A Winter Salon funded by Arts Council England and coordinated by Home Live Art and will run during Friday 1 – Sunday 3 December. Under the umbrella of the Old Town’s Spirit of Christmas weekend during which the shops open late and music, entertainment and festive food are all on offer, the Winter Salon aims to bring an alternative Christmas experience.

Some of the activities will be taking place in the Simply Italian restaurant on the seafront, backing onto West Street, starting on Friday 1 December when Colchester Arts Centre Director, Anthony Roberts, performs his very own candlelit rendition of Dickens’ classic tale, A Christmas Carol with musical accompaniment by Jamie Cunliffe.

On both Friday and Saturday between 4pm – 8pm, the wonderfully eccentric Duo Bogof will be flitting between West Street and George Street, serving up vintage style magic, a vanishing lady and a lost rabbit.  Meanwhile, Hastings-based artist collective, Radiator Arts, will create a series of light interventions to illuminate West Street and local artist Peter Quinnell will create a “Christmas Grottoesque” – a wonderfully distorted seasonal tableau.  From 2 – 4pm, Transition Town Hastings will present ‘Ye Olde Curiosity Swap Shop’ a free present and curios swapping event at Simply Italian – and just to prove that beautiful things can come out of West Street, on Saturday 2 December between 2pm – 6pm, a spectacularly large and colourful snail will emerge and take a trip along George Street.

On Sunday 3 December from 11 – 12.30, artist and illustrator, Ed Boxall will perform magical storytelling, poetry and projections for families and in the afternoon, FREE, craft based workshops for all the family will be on offer including antler making and handmade Christmas decorations from 2 – 4pm.

If you would like to find out more about the project and how to get involved or have any information to share about West Street, please get in touch with Project Coordinator Lorna Crabbe.

More information:

Instagram @west_street_hastings

West Street Hastings group on Facebook


Posted 09:29 Tuesday, Nov 21, 2017 In: Community Arts

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