Back in the mid-13th Century, a series of great storms brought about dramatic changes to the Sussex shoreline in England. Large areas of the coast were destroyed, rivers changed course and previously accessible safe havens for shipping were blocked by huge deposits of material.
One such harbour was Hastings, which had previously boasted the best natural port on the south coast but now had to come to terms with a vast shingle bank which clogged up the harbour and blocked its route to the sea. It was this shingle bank that would later become the America Ground.
It didn't take the locals long to work out that nobody owned this piece of land and that they could live there and run their industries or boarding houses without paying any rent or taxes. Over the following years the Lord Cornwallis, the Earl of Chichester, Battle Abbey Estates and Hastings Corporation all laid claim to the land, and while they squabbled over ownership the settlement expanded.
Time passed, lawyers grew rich and by the 1820s the ramshackle collection of rate-free shacks and upturned boat hulks on the shingle bank had developed into a viable community supporting more than 1,000 souls, including a carpenter, a miller, a mast and blockmaker, a baker, a brewer, a cow keeper, fishermen and a gardener.
Lodging houses were a major business along with pig keeping, although there were also warehouses for rope, tallow and coal. Limekilns, stonemasons and a tallow factory, a sawing house and butchers also existed. There was a gin palace, and surprisingly enough, a school.
Affairs of State
Unfortunately for the residents of the shingle bank, the quaint little town of Hastings was moving up in the world and had become very fashionable. This caused the local councillors to request the central government to act and remove 'the beggars, gypsies or other undesirables' that inhabited the city of shacks, huts and tents that was by now encroaching on the western end of the town.
Some efforts were made to impose official control and the settlers responded by raising the American flag, although they weren't at all American, in defiance and declaring themselves independent of Hastings. Thus, the 'America Ground' was born.
A Crown Commissioner's Inquisition was called to establish ownership of the land and 'generously' decided to grant leases to 100 inhabitants for seven years after which time the property would be acquired by the crown.
However, the squatters had the last laugh as most of them refused the lease offer, transported their buildings to St Leonards, and re-erected them there. Twenty-eight buildings in the centre of St Leonards have been shown to have been moved from the America Ground.
The America Ground was vacant from the 1834 exodus until 1849 when real estate developer Patrick Francis Robertson leased the crown lands for 99 years at a rate of £500 per year. The following year, he started work on the road that would bear his name on what had been the America Ground.
The flying of the Stars and Stripes next to the Union Jack around 4 July bears witness to the fact that the spirit of the America Ground continues in present day Hastings.
In 1999, there was a ceremonial reading of the American Declaration of Independence in Robertson Street, and in 2000, the America Ground threw a sensational party with four stages set up to cater for a variety of entertainment.