From at least 1774, Stell had run a silk factory in the location of today's 1 Croft Road, which also served as the St Clements parish workhouse from 1776-79. A James Stell, most likely his son, was recorded as being indentured as an apprentice to him on the 16th of December 1774.
The workhouse/mill extended at least 100 feet up Cobourg Place, with 20 looms and a warping mill on the ground floor, and a winding engine that ran 75 swifts and bobbins on the upper. To fund this, Stell enlisted a number of wealthy individuals from London, investing a total of £10,000 in the enterprise.
Unfortunately, the silk factory failed, so in May of 1788 Stell turned it into a library to serve the fashionable visitors to Hastings, with Stell claiming that it was based ‘on the plan of those at Margate and other watering places, there having been no similar premises in Hastings prior to this’. The library boasted a billiard table, newspapers, magazines and approximately 1,500 books. It quickly became a social centre for the visitors to the town but it was too far from the sea – ‘an injudicious location’, as Stell later recalled.
In 1794 James wrote and published the first-ever Hastings Guide from the library. In 1795, possibly due to competition, however, he sold the library contents to James Barry, who had opened the Marine Library in 1791 on Marine Parade at the west end of George Street, which had overtaken Stell's library in popularity. Barry also took over the writing and publishing of the Guide; the next edition being published in 1797.