Glimpses of the Old Days - How The First Train Came to Hastings

From Historical Hastings

Under the above title, the Hastings & St Leonards Observer of 14th September 1901 carried the below memoirs[1]:-


It was forty miles or more from Hastingsfar away on the noble range of hills that form such magnificent background to the fashionable town of Folkestone — that I was strolling "to nowhere in particular" on the beautiful morning of Sunday last. The scenery hereabouts is as varied as it is superb. Woodland, hill, and dale, with a distant sparkling sea, in turn delight the eye.

Far from the busy haunts of men, it is just the place for the townsman to "shake off the cobwebs of the week" — and to gain fresh strength for mind and body in order the better to engage in the great battle of life. I was resting near a pretty hill village called Lyminge, celebrated for its ancient church, and it was here I enjoyed a chat with an old gentleman passed three score years and ten. Exceptionally intelligent did my newly-made acquaintance turn out to be. In the course of pleasant converse, incidentally remarked on the subject of windmills — what picturesque objects they were on the landscape, and how they appeared to give a finish to any rural picture.

At once MY FRIEND BECAME QUITE ANIMATED. The very word windmill appeared set his memory aflame. "Why," said he, "there is no man living — mark the words — no man living in the county of Sussex or Kent that can tell you more of windmills than myself. I belong almost to an extinct race of artisans - the millwrights. My father and myself either fixed the machinery or repaired it in nearly all the windmills around the countryside for miles. Yes (with a sigh), the old millwrights that worked as we did are indeed relics of the past." If he did not utter them, the old fellow appeared to adopt Elijah's words, And I, even I only, am left." Incidentally I remarked "What picturesque object was the old mill at Fairlight." "Ah!" returned my friend, " that was burned down. I was employed there on many occasions." Thus we chatted pleasantly enough, and the old millwright's "yarn" flowed along pleasantly as a rippling stream. Subsequently found out that my companion's name was Spray, and that was born at Ore over 70 years ago. If there is one thing I pride myself upon," said he. "it is my memory."

As the remainder of his converse had much to do with Hastings and its neighbourhood, I made A FEW STRAY NOTES, which I thought might prove interesting to "Observer" readers. In answer to searching questions (I was now much interested), Mr. Spray said: "Yes, I first saw the light of day at Ore, and well enough can I remember the coaches running to and from there Hastings and London. There was a great snow storm in 1836, and on the Christmas Eve of that year the mail coach to Hastings got buried in the snow which had accumulated in drift or hollow at Ore. I was just five years of age then, but the circumstance comes vividly before my mind. well remember how they dug the coach out. A man named Reed, when the vehicle was rescued, got the coach box, and I recall how he was snowballed by the crowd. That is one of the things that is so fastened on my recollection.

Talk about letters and postcards, telegrams and telephones! There was a man, Rayner by name, who got his living by walking from London to Hastings. He carried small parcels and letters, and many's the time my father paid Rayner 7d. for the carriage of letter thus received."

I could hardly keep pace with my interesting old friend, SO RAPIDLY DID THE THOUGHTS WELL UP. As the approaching Coronation is nearly due, I introduced the festivities connected with the Coronation of our late beloved Queen. " Remember it!" he exclaimed almost in a tone of disdain, "remember it! I should think I do. We youngsters were marched down from Ore to Priory Brooks, on the site of which is now Hastings Cricket Ground. Here were gathered the children from other parishes. This was in 1838. The reason I recall this so vividly is that just we were about to sit down to tea frightful thunderstorm came on, and it rained 'cats and dogs' style. Poor youngsters, they were soaked to the skin. How we looked forward to that treat. There were no bands or anything of that sort, but it was quite an event in our lives." Proceeding with his narrative, my old friend rattled away: "Dear me! how Hastings has grown. It seems but yesterday that it was but a fishing village. A few days ago I travelled thither, and found everything had changed. Ah ! I can see now the old fisher women counting up the herrings on the beach. In a sing-song style, they would call out alternately: 'There be one and twenty' and 'There be two and twenty.'

EDUCATION WAS AT A DISCOUNT, and there was one old fellow learned above his fellows 'that kept account' of the transactions between fishermen and salesmen. Those people had quite a jargon, too, of their own. Alluding to the growth of Hastings, Mr. Spray said: "The birth of modern Hastings may be said to have started in Breeds Place, and the first lodging house was built along George-street. Why, where Robertson-street now stands was all waste land. I can see it now plain as a pike-staff."

Coming to discuss his own profession, this old Sussex man said: There once stood a flour mill at White Rock. It belonged to Mr. Strickland, and I and my father fitted the machinery, which consisted of an engine and one pair of stones. This was the first steam flour mill in the neighbourhood, and was thought to be a wonder in those days. I was nine years of age when we fitted up that place.

The Stricklands were a much respected family, and believe there are SOME OF THE RELATIVES LIVING IN HASTINGS to this day." After touching on the ​building​ of vessels Hastings — a circumstance he well remembers — Mr. Spray said: "I served my time an apprentice to a mill-wright from 11 to 16 years of age at Catsfield, near Battle, subsequently proceeding to Halton. For miles around my father and I worked at our trade in the windmills, and if had the time I could relate some curious stories about them."

The river of words flowed on. Of course, I did not forget to touch my friend s memory up on the matter of the railways. " Yes, well I remember the first train coming to Hastings. That was in March, 1851. We were waiting for it, and it did not come anything near the time appointed. The delay was too much for some of us, and I recollect how we went up the line in search for it. Our diligence was rewarded, for, sure enough, there was the train, consisting of an engine, carriage, and break-van, stopped by a slip of earth which had taken place at Rocks Farm. It was not until this obstruction was removed that the train (on board of which was the Lord Mayor of London) could come on to Hastings. This was on the line between Ashford and Hastings.

TALE ABOUT RAILWAY TRAVELLING! I well remember how, in the old days, some of the 'young sparks' would take a trip on Sunday to Ashford. The third carriages were open, and sometimes the rain would come on, and we would get a thorough soaking. Why, even the second-class carriages had wooden seats! And now, in these days of corridor trains, foot-warmers, and electric light, people grumble! Such these should have little experience of the early railway days, and then perhaps their grumbling would be for something.

Time was now getting on, but my newly-made friend had not nearly exhausted himself. However, as I had a nearly ten mile walk in front of me, I was compelled to offer my hand in token of "Good-bye," but not before my companion informed me that it was in 1857 that both himself and his father removed to Ashford. Here, as mill-wrights, they had 40 wind and 30 water-mills under their control, besides several where steam gear had been introduced.

And now, in the evening of his life, Mr. Spray, I subsequently found, is living in "THE ARK," ONCE TENANTED BY NOAH. To be more explicit, The Ark a is countryside inn at a place called Each End Hill, and man named Noah was once landlord. It is well-known to cyclists as one of the most cosy haunts in the county, and where a good old English welcome can be reckoned on. Mr. Spray is a fine type of the sturdy, independent Sussex men, and the neighbouring county may well be proud of him. It is not an exaggeration to write that he is honoured and respected throughout this part of East Kent, where he is thoroughly known.

References & Notes