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South East Hastings and its Fishing Heritage

The Stade

Although it was one of the Cinque Ports, Hastings has never had a good harbour and has always been in danger of coastal erosion. Boats have traditionally been stored and launched from the beach, as can be seen in this photograph taken in 1870 .


Fishing has always been an important part of the economy of Hastings. It still has the largest beach launched fishing fleet in the country, with over 25 boats based on the Stade. This comes from the Anglo Saxon meaning launching place.

By the start of the C19th, Hastings was beginning to develop as a fashionable sea side resort and this lead to a series of clashes between the fishermen and the corporation.

In 1834, the first sea defence groyne was built beneath the cliffs at Rock-a-Nore, to protect the old town from increasing flooding by the sea.


A large amount of shingle pilled up on the west side of the groyne, increasing the amount of usable beach.



The fishing boats along with their net shops for storing equipment were based here along with the fish market.


The Stade is still the base for the Hastings fishing fleet.

To the west, pleasure boats are berthed on the beach with the boating lake and amusement parks.


A model in the Fisherman’s museum gives a good impression of an aerial view of the Stade.


Boats were originally hauled up onto the beach above high tide mark using horse capstans. These had an oak frame with an elm winding drum. A hawser was attached to the capstan and then hooked onto a small hole at the bottom of the bows of a boat. A horse was tied to the capstan’s long bar and walked in circles winding the hawser round the large central post. Two horses were used for larger boats. The horses were owned by the Corporation and stabled in what is now the Shipwreck Museum.



Horse capstans were later replaced by motor driven winches in small tarred sheds, or tractors.

This area was also used to mend nets and sails. Fishermen’s wives would take in laundry from local guest houses to supplement income and would hang it out to dry between the boats.



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Fish is still sold from shacks along Rock-a-Nore.


Behind these are the net shops (#2). These form double rows with large gaps between allowing boats could be hauled up close to the cliff.



Near the fishing museum is an anchor from about 1812 which has been rescued from the sea bed.


There is also a massive boulder with a ring that was used to tie up boats.


In the C18th and early C19th, smuggling was rife along the coast and if a fisherman was caught, his boat would be confiscated and sawn in two. Many of the half boats were used as stores, or even as primitive living quarters. Half Sovereign Cottage outside the Fisherman’s Museum is a modern reconstruction made for the museum.



The other half of the boat is a net shop.


There are a series of information boards about the history of the Stade.

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The Net Shops

The tall narrow net shops are unique to Hastings and developed as a response to lack of space. They are all listed buildings.

Don't be taken in by the word 'shop' - these are not places to buy things. The word shop here means work place, similar to the use of the word in 'Workshop'. The buildings were used to store nets, ropes, canvas sails and fishing gear that would rot if left in the open and wet. Items were dried on the beach before storing.

Before 1835, a variety of wooden sheds had been built along the beach. Many of the older net shops were built from recycled timbers. Some were even disused boats turned upside down or stood upright on their stern.



At the start of the C19th, there was very limited space on the beach with only a thin strip of shingle in front of the cliffs. This lead to confrontations between the Corporation and fishermen as numbers of holiday makers grew.

The situation reached crisis point in 1824 when there was a riot when Hastings Corporation tried to move some net shops and fish stalls between the bottom of High Street and the Cutter Inn to widen the sea front road. Seven fishermen and fish sellers ended up in court.

Another legal row broke out in 1833 over the increasing use of net shops for other commercial purposes. Several of the larger net shops had been let for other trading purposes as ground space became more valuable. This led to the corporation commissioning John Banks to survey the Stade (the landing area along the shore) to show exactly where all the different buildings were.

Each row of net shops had an identifying letter painted on a square board and each shop had its own number on a small oval white enamelled plaque. Number one was closest to the road. Rows were labelled from west to east Rows M-W were built from 1835 on wards with Row W behind what is now the Fisherman’s Museum

In 1834, the first sea defence groyne was built beneath the cliffs at Rock-a-Nore, to protect the old town from increasing flooding by the sea. A large amount of shingle pilled up on the west side of the groyne, increasing the amount of usable beach. The Corporation made the fishermen sign a ‘memorandum of agreement’ to use the land This gave each net shop a specified piece of ground for fishery purposes only and for which they would pay an annual rent. In 1835, the Corporation signed the first 12 agreements for a piece of ground measuring eight feet square to construct a new shop. This was let to the fishermen for a charge of 2/- rising to 5/- by 1846. It is still that rate today!

The new net shops had to be lined up in double rows with large gaps between then so boats could be hauled up close to the cliff using horse turned capstans.

The beach was liable to flooding during severe gales so designs were simple and easily repairable. Most stood on stones or stumps of wood allowing the sea to flow under them. Some were on wheels. At the end of the C19th, around 34 net shops had been washed away.

In the early 1900s more storage space was needed by the fishermen . The only way this could be done was by jacking up the net shop and building a new ground floor.


The net shops were made of wood and the outsides were covered with tar. This was cheaply and readily available from the local gasworks until their closure in 1969 when a black paint called black tar varnish has been used. Tar made the buildings weather proof, but it also made them very combustible and many were destroyed by fires.

A big fire in 1846 burnt down about 20 net shops. Public subscription helped the fishermen cover their rebuilding costs.

A second major fire in 1961 destroyed four shops and damaged one more.

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It highlighted the deteriorating condition of many of the shops which were described as ‘untarred and falling to pieces through neglect’. A restoration fund was set up to repay for replacements.


Seven new net shops were built to the traditional design. Construction was done by council workmen and tarring by the fishermen.


Designs are now standardised with most shops standing up to three storeys high. Fishermen used three different types of net for herring, mackerel and trawls. Boats fished for herring in the early winter and mackerel in spring and early summer. The rest of the year they trawled for flat fish like sole and plaice. The different nets were kept on separate floors, hung up from hooks on the ceiling beams. Trawling gear was usually kept on the ground floor or in the cellar if there was one.

Head room was low, making it easier to lift and hang up nets. A ladder gave access to the upper floors. Each floor had its own door for gear to be brought in. Some had a projecting beam with a pulley block to haul up heavy loads.

One of the restored shops by the Fisherman’s Museum is open to show what the the inside of a typical shop might contain.



The fishing shops have become very much a characteristic part of Hastings. Beatrix Potter visited Hastings on Holiday and a net shop featured in the illustrations in ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson”.

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Net shops also featured in set of five paintings commissioned by BR in 1952 depicting the Cinque Ports.



1000+ Posts
Fisherman's Museum, Rock-a-Nore Road

The Fisherman's Museum is in the former church of St Nicholas, who was patron saint of fishermen. Next to the net shops, this was built as a Chapel of Ease to the parish church of All Saints in 1854 and served the needs of the large fishing community of the Old Town.

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The church closed at the start of the Second World War and was used as a store by the military. It suffered some war damage and stained glass windows were lost. After the war it was used as a warehouse by Butler’s the Ironmongers.

The church was restored in 1956 by the Old Hastings Preservation Society as a Fisherman’s Museum.



A new stained glass window was inserted in the central east window.


This is a wonderful small museum set in the heart of the fishing area in Hastings with a wealth of exhibits and loads of information. There is something for everyone from stuffed birds and examples of maritime life, to model boats and boats in bottles. There is a lot of information as well as many wonderful old pictures.






1000+ Posts
Fisherman's Museum cont...

Pride of place in the museum is the clinker built sailing lugger, Enterprise, built in Hastings in 1912 and typical of the fishing boats used at the time.





She was built for sail only and designed to carry large catches of drift fish (herrings and mackerel). She fished from the North Sea to the Isle of Wight, beginning the herring season from Lowestoft in the autumn and then following the fish round into the English Channel, finishing at Hastings at Christmas.

Oars were only used as a last resource when ships became becalmed from lack of wind. There is a story in the museum of one boat that took 4 days to row back to Hastings , by which time the fish had gone bad.


The lugger is registered RX 278 from Rye, as Hastings is not a port and hasn’t got a harbour.


On the prow is a bronze plate Dunkirk 1940. Most of the Hastings fleet, including Enterprise, sailed to Dover in May 1940 to join the rescue of soldiers from the beaches of Dunkirk. In the end, they were not needed.

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Visitors can climb up steps onto the deck with lobster pots as well as barrels for storing salted fish, skim net for scooping fish from a trawl net and a basket used to carry fish to market.




Glass covered hatches lead down into the living quarters or the hold where fish were stored.



Next to the Enterprise is a horse capstan which was the last of to be used to haul boats up onto The Stade before being replaced y motor driven winches. A horse was tied to the capstan’s long bar and walked in circles winding the hawser round the large central post, pulling a boat up the beach.


There is a small 1:12 model of a horse capstan. The bar was about 18’ long and a horse would walk about 54' to pull a boat 4’ up the beach. The bar is positioned sufficiently high to duck beneath it when the horse came round.


Next to it as a 1:12 model of a typical net shop. This is shown with a tiled roof, although they could also be either tile or weather board. This had originally been built on stilts to allow water to flow beneath it. This was later boarded over to give extra storage space, as this was always at a premium.


Access was via a ladder to a door on the first floor , with internal ladders giving access to the ground and upper floors The two main floors are used for storing the long drift nets used to catch herring and mackerel. The basement was a work area with workbench and assorted fishing items.

There are also examples of shuttles used to mend nets and a sailmaker’s ‘palm’ which helped protect the hand when repairing sails. A thick flat piece of leather reinforced with a round patch of steel was fixed across the palm and used to help push the needle through the fabric.


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There are also examples of glass floats in a hemp net.


The Museum is open daily and has a small shop. The building is still used for baptisms and special services. A red ensign flag is flown when the museum is open. Entry is free, but donations appreciated. Allow plenty of time as there is so much to see.

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1000+ Posts
Shipwreck Museum Rock-ap-Nore Road

The English Channel has always been one of the busiest shipping lines in the world. As well as collisions between vessels, navigational errors and weather conditions led to many hundreds of wrecks. There is even a website dedicated to all the known wrecks. Apart from the Shipwreck Centre and Maritime Museum on the Isle of Wight, this is the only dedicated Shipwreck Museum in Britain.

The Museum is in the heart of the Old Town, next to the Fisherman’s Museum. As well as the wrecks it also has a collection of fossils collected from along the coast.


On display in the museum is part of a Roman ship thought to be the remains of the oldest sea going vessel discovered in the Northern Hemisphere. Ships like this with their flat bottoms allowing cargoes to be loaded and unloaded on the beach, were probably used to transport iron made by small foundries in the weald.


There is the remains of a C7th Saxon dug out canoe.


There are also the remains of a C15th sailing barge found wrecked in the River Thames. The remains of iron rivets can be seen which held the planks together.


Joints between the planks were made watertight by filling the gaps with animal hair using a caulking mallet.


Inside the museum are the remains of C13th sided rudder and and C18th stern rudder. Their size gives an idea of just how large the ships must have been.


There are parts of a C17th capstan which is one of only two known of that age.


The STIRLING CASTLE, a 70 gun warship built in 1678, as part of Samuel Pepys ship building programme for Charles II, was shipwrecked off the Godwin Sands during a great storm in 1703. The Ship’s Steering wheel wheel is displayed along with some of the artefacts rescued from her.



THE ANNE, also built in 1678 was one of the first warships built for line of battle warfare. She was badly damaged in the Battle of Beachy Head against the French in 1690 and was beached and burnt by her captain to stop her being taken as a prize by the French. Lying in the sand to the east of Hastings, she is the only know accessible wreck from Pepys’ navy. Many of the tree nails which were used in the Anne have been recovered from the wreck. They were 1-3’ long and made of well seasoned oak and held the outside planking, frames and internal planking secure. They were better than iron bolts as they did not rust.


Many of the smaller artefacts found reflect her role in warfare.






1000+ Posts
Shipwreck Museum cont...

In the mid c18th, The Dutch East India Company, with its headquarters in Amsterdam, was the largest trading and shipping enterprise in the world. Ships sailed from the Netherlands carrying cargoes of wool, linen goods and wine as well as silver bullion to buy spices, silks and porcelain from the Far East for the return voyage.


The AMSTERDAM was built in 1748, and had about 50 guns to protect against enemies and pirates. On her maiden voyage in 1749, she encountered severe storms in the English Channel. Taking shelter, she grounded and lost her rudder just west of Hastings. The guns were fired as a distress sign. Soldiers were stationed at the shipwreck site to try and prevent looting. The ship gradually sunk into the soft clay seabed burying much of her cargo and personal possessions.

In 1969, the remains of the wreck were revealed at low tide after storms and a hurried excavation took place. A team of archaeologists and divers worked the wreck for the next three years whenever tides allowed.

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The wreck is owned by the Dutch Government and protected by English Heritage. It is still visible at low spring tides. This is the best-preserved wreck of an East Indiaman anywhere in the world.


A huge range of artefacts have been recovered from the wreck and are displayed in the Shipwreck Museum. These include parts of the ship.


There are personal items including buckles and gaming marbles.



Most of the artefacts were part of the cargo, including jugs, broken porcelain, spoons, candlesticks, combs, sailor’s belts, cuff links, needle, musket and cannon balls, pulleys and even intact bottles of wine.





The EARL OF ABERGAVENNY was built in 1796 for the East India Company fleet based in London and was one of the largest ships built for them. Setting off to China via Bengal, a strong storm in 1805 drove the ship onto rocks of the Shambles sandbank off Portland. She was grounded for several hours before floating free. The hull was badly damaged and distress guns were fired. She later sank in Weymouth Bay.


The THOMAS LAWRENCE was a Danish Merchant ship and one of the last wooden sailing ships trading between Europe and Central America. She sank off the coast of Hastings in1862 after collision with a German steamer.



SS STORAA was built in Scotland in 1918 and passed through a series of owners before being bought by Denmark in 1939. In 1943, with a crew of Danish and British seamen, she was part of a convoy carrying tank parts from Cardiff . The convoy was attacked by German E-boats off the coast of Hastings and SS Storaa was hit by a torpedo and sunk. It is now designated as a war grave. Some of the cartridges recovered from the wreck are on display.



In the yard at the rear of the museum is PRIMROSE, the last of the Rye river barges, built around 1890 to a design that had hardly changed over the centuries. She was used to carry bulky cargoes and heavy goods from Rye to towns along the local rivers and waterways. Cargoes included timber, coal, hops, manure, sand, gravel, bricks, wool, and even livestock. Trade was lost to railways and later roads and Primrose was abandoned on the saltings at Rye harbour. She was submerged by the tide twice a day and her interior gradually filled with mud which helped preserve her. She was rescued in 1990 and transported to the Shipwreck Museum.


The Museum is open daily during the summer, but closed on Mondays. Tuesdays and Fridays from November to March. It is free but donations are appreciated. There is plenty of car parking at Rock-a-Nore Car park.

Allow plenty of time for a visit as there is a lot to see. I had been worried it might be a bit ‘tacky’ but it wasn’t. This is a serious museum.


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