And did those feet… Pelham Crescent, Hastings

Imogen Lycett Green on old Sussex.

On a wild November day, when foaming white horses gallop up the beach hellbent on crashing into Hastings seafront, Pelham Crescent shrinks back into the cliff face, lowering its lashes, gathering its skirts. This delicately wrought architectural marvel, with its bow windows and curved balconies (as good as Cadiz!) was built by celebrated 19thcentury architect Joseph Kay between 1824 and 1828 for Thomas Pelham, 2nd Earl of Chichester. Pelham owned Hastings Castle above it and cut back the sandstone cliff to make room for a terrace bearing his family name.

Kay incorporated both a church – St. Mary-in-the-Castle –and a shopping arcade into the design of the crescent. The church was a private chapel, consecrated for public use, and built, unusually, in a D-shape, so the preacher was closer to his congregation. It is now boarded up, its pews – once catering for 1,500 worshippers – layered with dust. At the time it was much admired: ‘The church is top-lit and has an Ionic prostyle portico, while beneath the terrace in front of the whole composition is an ingenious structure intended for shops and services.’ [Oxford Dictionary of Architecture].

But why such a monumental church in the middle of a crescent? Perhaps the secret to the survival of the aristocracy through the centuries was the mystique of grandeur they cultivated. They dressed, decorated and built to impress, so that nobody dared question their right to rule. These days, the aristocracy keeps a low profile, but back then, they were the Beckhams and Kardashians of their day, and everyone knew who they were.

According to English Heritage, the mid-19th-century ‘saw the greatest burst of church building since the Middle Ages’, buoyed by the 1818 Act for Building New Churches. Changing demographics and altering religious affiliations had sewn a thread of doubt into the established faith. It was the aristocracy, so directly connected with the monarchy, who sought to reinforce the Divine Right of Kings.

They held onto commerce, too. The arcade was the first of its kind out of London, modelled on Burlington Arcade in Piccadilly, with a glass roof and 28 shops under the arches. There were jewellers and vintners and leather shops, concerts on Saturdays and, most importantly for the upperclass Victorian holiday makers, here to bathe both in the sea and in society, there was a Viennese-style coffee house.

Many eminent Georgians and Victorians would most likely have congregated in that classy venue. Pre-Raphaelite poet and painter (and infamous lover of flame-haired women) Dante Gabriel Rossetti, for example, who was brought to Hastings as a child on account of his bronchitis, and returned there frequently in his adulthood, notably to visit his muse and model Lizzie Siddal, who he eventually married in St Clement’s church, in Hastings Old Town in 1860. Barbara Bodichon, illegitimate daughter of radical Liberal Thomas Leigh Smith MP, an artist and education reformer, and cofounder of Girton College, Cambridge, who lived in 9, Pelham Crescent from 1836-1953. Her good friend Mary Ann Evans, otherwise known as the novelist George Eliot, a frequent visitor to the seaside town. The architect George Devey (15, Pelham Crescent), who lodged in Pelham Crescent with his grandmother and a cousin, when he wasn’t travelling the country building re-constructed country houses in the neoTudor style for the Rothschild Family. Or Charles Dickens, who set up the Guild for Artists & Writers with Devey’s uncle Augustus Egg, and, in November 1861, read passages from A Christmas Carol and Pickwick Papers in a well-attended performance at Hastings Old Music Hall.

After Barbara Bodichon and George Devey, there is a third blue plaque on Pelham Crescent, at number 7. This was erected for Muriel Matters, an Australian-born actress and suffragette. She was famously the first woman to ‘speak’ in parliament, arrested in 1908 and imprisoned for a month after she called out from behind the metal grill – to which she chained herself – where women were allowed to watch the MPs debating: ‘We have listened behind this insulting grille too long!’

Undeterred, the following year she hired an airship painted with the words ‘Votes for Women’ and flew over central London, scattering leaflets. After many more acts of protest (and running as a Labour candidate for Hastings in the 1924 election) Matters retired to Pelham Crescent in 1949. There are contemporary reports of her skinny dipping off Pelham Beach. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she died of pneumonia, in November 1969.

Where a captured Russian cannon once faced over the sea to France, there is now a car park. The artistic and literary heroes of their day, the activists and architects are long dead, their chatter drowned out by ringing tills, for, in a pattern so characteristic of our time, after religion and culture are gone, the shopping centre survives. Though now in tatters, its 25 houses divided into flats, some let out on Airbnb, others dilapidated, their doors peeling, the nonetheless still perfect curve of Pelham Crescent reminds us of a different time. The church no longer sings with hymns, but oh, if rescued, what a fine concert hall or theatre it would make.