Crystal Square, St Leonards on Sea: an unsanitary place

Crystal Square in St Leonards survives only as a name of a car park close to the Kings Road. It used to be a courtyard surrounded by tiny houses, with an entry alley from South Street, to the south of the car park. This account of what, frankly, was a slum in based on several sources and does not pretend to be comprehensive. The number of houses, and how they are numbered, varies in the sources, and I have made no attempt to reconcile them !

The square is not in the 1851 census, but is mentioned in the Sussex Advertiser, 28 November 1854, when numbers 6 to 13 Crystal Square were included in an auction sale.

The 1861 census gives numbers 1 to 14, which housed 35 males and 74 females. The main occupations were as labourers or semi-skilled workmen. This does not tell us how much they paid in rent, or how small the houses were.

The first question was answered in the Hastings and St Leonards Observer, 8 January 1870. The second question was partially answered as to the number of rooms, but how small they were was only answered in a 1937 source.

Breeds were holding an auction at the nearby Warrior Gate Inn of six freehold properties on South Street. Five of these were on Crystal Square, numbers 1 to 5. Each had two rooms. They were let to Messrs. Charles Graham, Henry Harmer, William Coot, Robert Butler, and Henry Hope, at weekly rents of 3s. This was just under £8 annually. Normally, at the time, a simple terrace house would rent for about 8s weekly, so they must have been very cramped, as hinted at by the two rooms. For comparison, the sixth property for sale was 7-roomed 7 South Street, with yard and wc, one room in front used as a workshop let to William Horton at 2s 6d per week, the other portion to Alfred Cruttenden at 5s 6d per week.

I went to the 1871 census to see if I could find more details on the tenants. At 1 Crystal Square was Henry Hope, coachman, 62, wife Harriet, and a 24-year-old son, an engine driver. No. 2 housed Henry Harmer, an unemployed labpurer, wife Mary, and a 3-year-old son. Numbers 3 to 5, though, had different households.

However, by going back to the 1861 census I found Charles Graham at no. 1. He was an umbrella manufacturer, with a wife, both born Ireland, and three daughters. No. 3 housed William Coot, labourer, with wife and a daughter in law [stepdaughter]. So four of the five households were identified.

It is interesting that in the 1871 census at no. 4 was Henry Hope, 40, riding master, probably son of the coachman at no. 1. A riding master in Victorian times, outside of military circles, carried out various duties to do with horses available for hire, rather than teaching riding.

The 1871 census had houses numbered 1 to 16 for Crystal Square. There were 34 males and 33 women, so 67 in all. All except seven were born in either Sussex or Kent. Seven heads of households were labourers, while two were bricklayers. There was one each for coachman, fly driver (carriage driver), housekeeper, laundress, nurse, poulterer and riding master.

The Keep has a document from 1898, DH/C/14/50, which is a “Plan of single private drains at 7 and 7a, 8-10 South Street and 1-16 Crystal Square”. Intriguing.

I will skip over the other censuses until the last one available, 1921. Below is a transcription of the details. For some reason the numeration is all over the place. The number of rooms for each dwelling is given, so no. 6 had one room for a married couple and one room for the boarder. You were also supposed to supply your employer details. If out of work (as three residents were) this would be the last employer. Two worked for Mrs Wicksted, who operated the Warrior Square Laundry on Cross Street.

No. 3. 2 rooms. William Tubbs, head, 54, S, born Silverhill, invalided out of army

Nellie Eldridge, housekeeper, 47, M, born Bayswater, housekeeper

  1. 1 room. Caroline Clift, head, 47, M, born Hastings, laundress, out of work, (Up Wickstead Cross St)

Benjamin Charles Clift, husband, 51, M, born Hastings, fisherman, shrimper, own account, no fixed place

  1. 1 room. Emma Callahan, boarder, 45, M, born Hastings, charwoman, private, no fixed place
  2. 2 rooms. Frederick J. Balkham, head, 79, M, born Halton, none

Lucy Balkham, wife, 79, born Ashburnham, home duties

  1. 2 rooms. Jane Knight, head, 85, W, born Ireland Cork, old age pensioner, not working
  2. 2 rooms. George Richardson, head, 62, M, born Hastings, luggage porter, own account, at home

Eliza H. Richardson, wife, 61, M, born Bayswater or Hammersmith, home duties, at home

Mary Reilly, visitor, 24, S, born Ireland Calgarty, none

  1. 2 rooms. James Pascoe Cornick, head, 41, born Battle, motor coach conductor, Stewart’s Motor Transport Co., Magdalen Road, Hastings

Clarissa Ellen Pascoe Cornick, wife, 30, M, born High Brooms Tunbridge Wells, home duties

  1. 2 rooms. Louisa Smallwood, head, 60, W, born Brixton, charwoman, Miss Holman (independent), No. 1 Pevensey Mans., St Leonards

Edward Percy D. Smallwood, son, S, born St Leonards, general labourer, Lunsford Brick Works (out of work)

  1. 2 rooms. Harry Turner, 64, S, born Hastings, builders labourer, Mr Salter, 2 Kings Road, [work carried out] in the town
  2. 2 rooms. Susan Emma Axtell, 68, W, born Tunbridge, laundry work but out of work, Mrs Wickstead, Warrior Sq Laundry
  3. 2 rooms. Frederick John Stickell, head, 38, S, born Hastings, general labour, Hastings Corporation Water Works, Filsham, no fixed place

Charlotte Susan Bumstead, housekeeper, 45, S, born Hastings, general servant, no fixed place

  1. 2 rooms. Edward Clarence Packer, 60, M, born Dover, luggage porter, St Leonards W Sqre

Charlotte Davis, 48, W, born Hastings, housekeeper

  1. 2 rooms. Sophia Ash, head, 74, W, born Robertsbridge, pension

For me, the names and details make the wretched conditions all the more poignant.

The 30 January 1937 issue of the Hastings and St Leonards Observer finally makes the living conditions all too vivid. Details were given of a tour was for members of the Council’s Housing and Improvements Committee by Dr G.R. Bruce, the Medical Officer of Health, of four areas which he thought deserved demolition as slums. The other areas were Market Passage in St Leonards, and Zuriel Cottages and Waterloo Passage in Hastings. Together they had 38 dwelling houses, of which three were derelict or unoccupied. There were 37 families and 100 people. The Crystal Square area had 143 houses per acre, Market Passage 124 houses per acre, and Waterloo Passage 103 houses per acre.

Crystal Square was described as an interior, enclosed area to the east of South Street entered by a passage from this street. There were ten small brick houses, five on each side of a brick paved courtyard, 15 to 18 ft wide, and defective in places. Each house consisted of two small rooms, 8 ft by 12 ft, one above the other, without any proper sanitary conveniences. They were back to back on the south side because of a garage, and on the north side because of a workshop. Hence no through ventilation. There was rising damp, especially on the top floors. There were four w.c.s, all outside, two at each end of the courtyard. There were two water taps, one at each end. No sinks, only outside gully traps. There were no washing clothes facilities. Staircases were narrow, steep, dark, awkward, often no handrail, or defective treads. The houses were occupied by elderly people who would need to be rehoused.

There was no mention in the report of heating (there were presumably chimneys), electricity, or cooking facilities.

At some point the area was clearly torn down. The Keep has reference DH/B/83/410, dated 4 September 1948, for 6 to 16 Crystal Square. They had been “Purchased for £400 from Frank O Turner, 10 Stephens Road, Tunbridge Wells under the Housing Act 1936 by the Housing and Improvements Committee”. Sadly, this document cannot be seen as an annotation states that it was “missing on transfer”. A mixture of buildings is now on the site.

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