The First Company of the Cinque Ports Rifle Volunteers was launched in 1859, soon followed by the Volunteer Artillery Corps, as a defence against a possible invasion of south east England by the French. They practised their rifles at Rock-a-Nore, firing at targets set at the base of the cliffs, and drilled at the Market Hall in George street. Later in that year, Lady Waldegrave permitted them to set up a range firing across Ecclesbourne Glen, which was used for many years. Most of the men provided their own rifles, and the company funded its own grey and red uniform. By the middle of the summer of 1859, there were 70 members and the company was officially recognised in the autumn. 1
Two years later, the Hastings News reported 2
that a drill hall had been created in Middle street, to be shared between the two Volunteer corps (Rifle and Artillery). Ecclesbourne Glen was still in use as a range, and the Rifle Volunteers held a fete there in August, 1861 and a shooting match in September. 3
It seems as if the cricket ground was used for drill practice. In December, 1870, there was a public meeting to buy the Priory Meadows and retain it for public use, on condition it could still be used as a Volunteers’ drill ground. 4
This evidently prevailed, as the cricket ground was still used in 1871. ‘The Hastings and St Leonards (6th and 7th) Artillery Volunteers were inspected in the Central Cricket Ground on 17th July. They had 18 pounder guns. The inspecting officer criticised turnout arms and steadiness on parade. His remarks, though much more severe than usual, were ‘received with an approving rattling of carbines on the ground’.’ 5
Controversy about the right to drill in the enclosure of the cricket ground still persisted in 1903. 6
An excited report in June, 1871, mainly about the Admiralty ordering a gunboat with a 40-pound gun to Dungeness to protect the local fishing area from the French, records that the 7th Cinque Port Artillery Volunteers practised with a 32-pounder at their battery, No 40 Martello Tower. 7
A year later, the Rifle Volunteers were proud participants in the ceremonial opening of the Pier on 6th August, 1872. 8
A new Volunteer rifle range was opened in Warren Glen in May, 1901. 9
Volunteers from Hastings participated in the Boer War, the First Cinque Ports Rifles leaving in February, 1900 and another contingent in February, 1901. When Pretoria fell, the remaining Volunteers marched as part of the town’s celebrations. 10
In June, 1901, the returning men were treated to a supper at the drill hall [we do not know which drill hall]. 11
‘A new shed was to be the HQ of the 7th Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers, on the corner of Hatherly Road and Southwater Road. It was economy and utility. 90 ft x 60 ft, with inside drill hall 80 ft x 40 ft. Thomas Elworthy was the architect, David Parks the builder. £650 plus land. The roads in its neighbourhood were a mass of mud a foot deep. On 14 March 1873 the News reported the CPAV dragged two 40 pounder Armstrong guns from Hastings Station to their new depot. They then started drill for breech-loading.’ 12
There are references to a site on Middle street in files held by East Sussex Record Office, dated 1861 13
and 1895 14
On 17th June, 1861, the Hastings Chronicle carried a report that a new drill hall had been created on Middle street to be shared between the Volunteer Artillery Corps and Rifles. In late 1895, its replacement was opened on the same site. 15
The new Drill Hall was built by Peter Jenkins, a prominent local builder. 16
The new Drill Hall in Middle street was formally opened on Friday 25th October, 1895 17
. Among its many qualities, the building benefited from electric light installed by a local company, Bruce and Co, and from the breathless excitement of a report 18
on Mr Bruce’s display of fabulous ‘electrical apparatus’ in 1896, we may speculate that the very latest appliances ensured that the drill hall was well lit.
The Hastings Advertiser published a photograph on 1st July 1909 19
, showing the 5th Battalion Royal Sussex Regiment leaving the drill hall on Middle street. It is possible to pick out a small two-storey crenellated tower at the left hand side (street facing) corner of the building and a single storey facade, also with crenellations and a string course of decorative brickwork.
The drill hall was depicted in the Hastings Observer 20
the day after it opened. It was in fact symmetrical, with crenellated towers at each front corner, a large arched central door set in a square decorated doorway, three paned windows either side, a false front topped with crenellations and a sloping roof rising behind this to reveal the hall itself. The doorway and the sets of windows were each topped with a curved moulding. There was a small stone shield and text above the portal (just visible in archive images).
The architects were Piggott and Oxley of St Leonards, and the builder Peter Jenkins 21
. According to the Hastings Observer, ‘The 1st Cinque Ports Rifle Volunteers’ new Drill Shed in Middle-street is a splendid piece of architecture.’
According to the newspaper, the premises were built from red kiln bricks, with Bath stone dressings. The accommodation was generous. The drill hall on the ground floor was 72 feet long by 45 feet wide, and paved with wood block flooring. There was also an armoury and toilets on this floor and the whole area was used by the Hastings authority as the ‘public Shelter Hall’.
On the first floor were the rooms for orderlies, men and sergeants, officers’ toilets, a spare room and a canteen.
Unfortunately, it appears that no separate building fund accounts had been kept and all transactions had been channelled through a Company Fund Account along with the annual capitation grant. A memoir published in the Cinque Ports Gazette, December, 1932, recalls the dismay felt by the Hastings Rifles when the drill hall was handed to a new [Territorial] County Association in 1908. The men protested, arguing that they had worked very hard and made sacrifices to own the Middle Street Drill Hall, but eventually the War Office opined that it could not be proved that no public funds had been used in building the hall, so it would have to be handed over.
However, the author states that it was earmarked for the use of the 5th (Cinque Ports) Battalion The Royal Sussex Regiment for as long as this unit existed.
Evidence exists of the drill hall in use by other groups in the community before and after the Great War. The local newspapers reported a huge Christmas feast provided at the Drill Hall by the Empire Theatre for 600 poor people on 30th December, 1902, followed by a concert and distribution of gifts.
‘New Year Distress
A dinner for the poor was organised by Mr F R Griffiths, manager of the Hippodrome ... at the Drill Hall in Middle Street on Tuesday 29 December. Over 600 of the poorest people were present, some of whom had not enjoyed a substantial meal that winter. Thousands were served on the three following days with hot soup. A lot of hungry-looking children were to be seen with jugs and cans anxiously waiting for the kitchen to open.’ (Mail 22)
‘Treats to the Poor
The Empire Theatre laid on a “colossal” Christmas dinner for the poor, just after noon on Tuesday 30 December. Over 600 people crowded into the Drill Hall in Middle Street. “The menu consisted of roast beef, roast mutton, cabbage, sprouts, carrots, turnips, potatoes and plum pudding to be washed down by ginger beer, lemonade and beer.” After this there was a “first-rate musical programme”. Then there was a break, when each person could take a quarter pound packet of tea, a half-ounce packet of tobacco and some snuff. Cups of tea and mince pies were served. At the end, the organiser...was cheered. Without him it would not have taken place and many people would not have had Christmas dinners. On 1st Mr Griffiths arranged for over a thousand quarts to soup to be given out from the Hall. “It was a sight that will not soon be forgotten to see the faces of the eager youngsters who crowded round the hall, some with bedroom water jugs, others with garden cans.” ’ (Chronicle 23 )
The drill hall was used eclectically for public purposes. The first Hastings Dog Show took place at the drill hall in 190424
, a free tea for Tram Workers in 1905 25
, it was sometimes used for Scouts presentations and one photograph shows the Hastings Police parading there before an inspection in 1927 26
. It even withstood a serious flood in October, 1906, when the sea waves reached as far into the town as the drill hall. 27
The 1932 memoir mentions the rumours persisting at the time of writing that the Drill Hall at Middle Street was to be sold. The author implies that it was not a popular plan. Sadly, for the former members of the Rifle Corps, the rumours were true.
The drill hall was sold to a wholesale fruit business as a warehouse on 21st September, 1933. 28
It has been demolished and the Priory Meadow shopping centre is on the site.
On October 26th, 1892, the former naval volunteers’ shed at Rock-a-Nore was given to the 2nd Cinque Ports Artillery Volunteers as the new headquarters for the Hastings battery. It was not a large building, but it was more convenient than mustering in St Leonards. 29
This lasted for four years, until replaced by a larger drill hall, also built by Peter Jenkins 30
. Building started in 1895. The new Rock-a-Nore Drill Hall for the 2nd Position Battery of the 2nd Cinque Ports Auxiliary Volunteers opened on Thursday, 27th February, 1896.
‘The hall was full of volunteers, both artillery and riflemen. The battery started at St Leonards with the then No 3 Company. It was then sent to Hastings as a half-battery in an old shed belonging to the Admiralty, with no weaponry. They then had two 40-pounders lent to them, later four. Then they gained some recruits, then an instructor was sent down twice a week, then officers. It was opened by Colonel Taylor. There was a turnout of 60-70 at their drills. At this time, there were also in the town the 1st Position Battery, at Hatherley Road, and the 1st Cinque Ports Rifle Volunteer Corps (A and F Companies) in the Drill Hall in Middle Street.’ 31
Steve Peak of the Hastings Chronicle tells us that the Rock-a-Nore drill hall was a large and prominent building. It was used by the military in the 2nd World War, when Hastings seafront became a military exclusion zone, with all sorts of defences, guns etc. The hall existed, in a bad state, until the mid-1980s, when it was demolished and replaced by the present sealife aquarium.
(Additional information: see 32
There is a reference in Kelly, 1899 to an Orderly room in Fairlight road for the ‘Cinque Ports 2nd Artillery Volunteers, Eastern Division Royal Artillery (No. 6 Battery).’
- Hastings Chronicle archive, May 5th, 1859
- Hastings News, 7th June, 1861
- Hastings News, 23rd August, 1861
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary: ‘Cricket Ground for Sale’, Hastings News, 23rd December, 1870
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings News, 21st August, 1871
- Hastings Mail, 20th June, 1903
- Hastings News, 23rd June, 1871
- Hastings Chronicle archive, 6th August 1872
- Hastings Chronicle archive, May 6th 1901
- Hastings News, 15th June, 1900
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings News, 14th June,1901
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings News, 31st January, 1873
- File - Drill Hall, 55, Middle Street - ref. DH/C/6/1/403 - date: 5 Apr 1861 – Contents: Coach House
- File - Drill Hall, 55, Middle Street - ref. DH/C/6/1/5698 - date: 1 Feb 1895 - Contents: Drill shed
- Information supported by a caption on a painting in Redoubt Military Museum, Eastbourne – thanks to Chris Harley.
- Obituary of Peter Jenkins, Hastings News, 30th June, 1899
- Hastings News, 1st November, 1895
- Hastings News, 21st February, 1896: ‘Brilliant Electric Display’
- (on page 13)
- Hastings Observer, 26th October, 1895
- Hastings Observer, 26th November, 1895
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings Mail, 2nd January, 1904
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings Chronicle, 3rd January, 1903
- Hastings Chronicle archive, 23rd November 1904
- Hastings Chronicle archive, 18th February 1905
Hastings Observer, 24th September, 1927
- Hastings Chronicle archive, October 2nd, 1906
- Hastings Chronicle archive, October 26th, 1892
- Hastings Chronicle archive summary of Hastings News, 21st February, 1896.
- East Sussex Record Office File - Territorial Association H.Q., Rock-a-Nore Road - ref. DH/C/6/1/5726 - date: 7 Jun 1895 Contents: Drill Hall (The discrepancy between the date of the drill hall and the advent of the TA seems to be a filing designation.)
Special thanks to Steve Peak for permitting us to ransack the Hastings Chronicle archives website, http://www.hastingschronicle.com and make use of the stories therein.
We are also very grateful to a local contributor who prefers to remain anonymous.