Thursday, 6 January 2005

Star-Spangled Hastings

Very few Americans know that nearly two hundred years ago their flag flew proudly and defiantly over part of the small seaside town of Hastings in the county of East Sussex in England.

Nowadays Hastings is known for its battle (which actually did not take place there at all), as a small fishing port, as the place where John Logie Baird did much of the work that led to the development of television (or would have done if Marconi had not invented a much better system), for its winos and druggies and for its thriving artistic community which has nurtured the talents, if that is the right word, of many deservedly little-known figures such as Goswell Frand and Godfrey Horsecroft.

The present Victorian town centre was once part of the sea: it was the Saxon and Norman harbour of the rich and important Cinque Port and town of Hastings. The great storms of the thirteenth century changed the coastline dramatically, destroying the harbour and the prosperity of the town. Over the following five hundred years the harbour was gradually transformed into land. This lay empty until 1800, when enterprising merchants built warehouses, rope walks and dwellings on the former waste beach, which they occupied until 1835.
At some time during that period, the Corporation of Hastings attempted to take control of the area. The inhabitants rioted and raised the flag of the United States of America as a symbol of their independence, and thus the area became known as THE AMERICA GROUND.

Sadly, this Declaration of Independence was not as successful as the better-known one. The Government claimed the site as it had once been sea and therefore belonged to the Crown, and in 1835 it was cleared and lay empty until it was leased and then developed from 1850 as The Crown Estate (now three streets, mostly of shops, in the centre of the town).

It would not do to make too much of this transatlantic link, and it is not even known whether any contemporary American ever heard about their flag being raised in Hastings. But on the site there is a mural (occasionally floodlit) commemorating the events of those years, and a plaque was unveiled in 2001 by a very junior US Vice-Consul, with celebrations featuring schoolboys re-enacting it all, the Town Crier proclaiming something or other and, inexplicably, bungee jumping in the town centre.

[Whether the contemporary US flag featured in the mural is quite correct is not clear; it should have had 24 stars. It was about that time (1831) that it was first called “Old Glory”.
The full story of The America Ground is
HERE but switch your sound off before going to this site so as to avoid hearing one of those awful MIDI files beeping “Yankee Doodle"]

P.S. I shall be pleased to welcome personally any Americans who come to Hastings with their wives and daughters to visit the site of The America Ground, and to accept an invitation from them to dinner at either of the town’s excellent restaurants, during which I can tell them more about the town and about myself.

Goswell Frand

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