Football has been played across the country since at least the 14th century, although these primitive and informal games will be unrecognisable to the game we play today. The modern game evolved from public schools and in Sussex this was no different, Lancing College formed its own code of football in 1856 and introduced the goalkeeper position. Lancing creating their own football rules was extremely common during this era, in the UK schools such as Rugby, Eton and Westminster developed their own rules.
We now start to see the split between rugby and football, schools such as Rugby and Marlborough preferring a form of the game where the ball could be carried and a ball dribbling game being preferred by the likes of Eton and Harrow. Even a third group including Westminster and Charterhouse where handling the ball was barred completely.
The Football Association was formed in 1863 and association rules were adopted by Lancing College and Brighton College in 1871 and 1873 respectively. The kicking game spread throughout the county during the 1870s and by the late 1870s schools in Hastings were advertising football as part of extra curricular activities offered at their establishment.
The first known recorded game of association football involving a Hastings team occurred on 12 November 1879, where Hastings & St Leonards Football Club lost 7-0 to New College from Eastbourne (now Eastbourne College). Hastings & St Leonards FC were formed in 1875 as part of the Hastings & St Leonards Amateur Athletic Club, though the club preferred the rugby game and struggled to field teams for association games.
Just like every other sport during the Victorian era, football remained an upper and middle class activity with participants having been privately educated. From the 1870s into the 1880s, the Hastings & St Leonards Observer regularly features reports of football matches taking place involving numerous schools in the area, including The Lindens, University School, St Leonards Collegiate, Highbury House and Mount Lodge. Short lived football clubs are also formed during this time, but it is unclear if these clubs played rugby or association rules.
The Lindens hosted the first known association game in the borough, where they hosted Eastbourne College at St Leonards Green on 11 November 1881, the result being a 3-3 draw. The Lindens was located a short distance down Upper Maze Hill, before becoming a care home and eventually apartments c2007.
The first known club from the borough to be formed exclusively as an association team were St Leonards Swifts, who were formed at a meeting held at the Clarence Hotel on 11 December 1889. The club were reported to have entered for the Sussex Junior and Senior Cups for that season, but would only survive three seasons.
The 1890s would see football become more popular within the working class population, with the upper and middle class business owners and clergy making it more accessible to the masses. Business owners saw sport as a good way to boost morale within the workforce, whilst the clergy took the view that a healthy body meant for a healthy mind and would keep young men out of trouble.
In England, works teams are formed at Newton Heath railway depot (Manchester United) and Thames Ironworks (West Ham United), whilst teams connected to the church were formed at St Mark’s (Manchester City) and St Mary’s (Southampton). Locally the post office and police fielded teams, as did the Hastings Observer and Hastings Tramways Company. The Boys Own Society and Boys Brigade, youth organisations run by the church, also formed football clubs. It also around this period clubs in rural areas are formed, such as Battle, Burwash, Hawkhurst and Rye, many of whom still exist to this day.
Given the demographics of Hastings & St Leonards, it is perhaps not surprising the areas most senior football club, Hastings United, was founded for the working class. On 22 August 1893, Rock-a-Nore were formed at a meeting held in the London Trader, with the majority of members being fishermen and boatmen from the Old Town. The club quickly become one of the strongest teams in the area and by 1920 were the most senior club in the district, having just won the Sussex Junior Cup. The club become founder members of the Sussex County League having just moved to the newly laid out Pilot Field. In 1921 the club changed name to Hastings & St Leonards FC, changing name once more to Hastings Town in 1976. In 2002 another name change to Hastings United ocurred, thus taking on the identity of the old professional club who had competed in the Southern League between 1948 and 1985.
Now that football was open to all classes, the game rapidly rose in popularity and took over Cricket as the most participated sport. It quickly become a common complaint amongst local football fans, that the Central Ground committee favoured cricket and were quiet strict as to when football could be played at the venue, despite that fact football was attracting much larger attendances. A game between Hastings Athletic and London Polytechnic was reported to have been watched by between 2000 to 3000 people.
The increase in popularity saw the Hastings & St Leonards Football Association formed in 1892, during a meeting held at the Bedford Hotel on 23 February. The newly formed organisation promptly went in search for a purpose built football venue to serve the borough whilst the Brighton FA aided them in writing the rules and code. After looking into various sites around the borough, the association agreed with the committee of the Central Ground use of their facilities between October and April, at a cost of half the gate money taken. The Green was to be used when the Central Ground was deemed unfit.
In the same year as its formation, the Hastings & St Leonards FA set up a cup competition for local teams name the Carlisle Cup. Up until this point, the only competitive football available to local teams since 1882 were the Sussex Senior and Junior Cups. The Carlisle Cup was formed as a league competition, which saw the South Saxons become the first winners of the competition. Despite the formation of competitive football, many clubs around the area opted to play friendly games against each other, though the number of clubs joining leagues did gradually increase over the following seasons.
The East Sussex League was formed in 1896 and Hastings & St Leonards FC were invited to become founder members, winning the league in its inaugural season. Hastings would go onto win the league a further three times before leaving to join the South Eastern League in 1904. The 1902-03 season saw St Leonards crowned East Sussex League champions, the club was formed in 1898 and the ‘West Enders’ quickly become fierce rivals to the Hastings club. The ‘Greenbacks’, as they were known as, become the first club in the area to turn professional in 1905, at the same time as changing name to St Leonards United. The two rival teams merged a year later, after it was decided to be for the best of both clubs and the borough, to have one club playing professionally. The club was named Hastings & St Leonards United and competed in the Southern League, South Eastern League and United League, playing against teams from Arsenal, Tottenham Hotspurs and West Ham United.
The aim of the boroughs senior club was to win promotion to the Southern League First Division, which at the time rivalled the Football League First Division. During their short existence the club welcome Portsmouth to the Central Ground in the FA Cup, whilst travelling to Norwich City and Blackpool in the same competition. Despite the ambition of the club, attendances simply weren’t high enough, with the club continually losing money. The team won Division 2B in 1909-10, but lost heavily to Stoke City, Division 2A winners, in a play-off game. The failure to win promotion, insufficient support and financial losses saw the club wound up in the summer of 1910.
The demise of the professional club saw St Leonards Amateurs become the areas most senior club, who won the East Sussex League in 1911-12 and 1912-13 and were the first club from the borough to win the Sussex Senior Cup in 1912. The club changed name to Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs in 1913, the same year they joined the Athenian League. The club played their home games at the Sports Ground, former home of St Leonards United. The Sports Ground was laid out and opened in 1904, following years of searching by the Hastings FA to find their own ground. The land on the Brisco Estate was purchased by Hastings Council in 1902, with the football pitch being laid out in time for the 1904-05 season.
The outbreak of World War One put a stop to competitive football around the country. There are reports of military games being played in the area, including the 7th South Wales Borderers vs. 11th Royal Welsh Fusiliers playing the first recorded game of football at Hickmans Field, now known as the Oval. It is also during this period that it was not too uncommon to see obituaries for local footballers who had been killed in action; the most notable being the death of Bert Beney, the star player of Hastings & St Leonards FC and Hastings & St Leonards United, who also went onto play for Arsenal and Grimsby, who died in Belgium on 20 April 1915.
Whilst multiple clubs never reformed following the war, including Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs, a good number of new clubs were being formed in the years following the conflict. However a lack of public football pitches quickly became an issue, the council had always intended to turn the Sports Ground and surrounding area into pleasure grounds, which was later named White Rock Gardens. Football matches had not been played on the Central Ground since the demise of Hastings & St Leonards United. A new ground had been proposed before the war, but the conflict interrupted any progress. Multiple clubs were fighting for use of use of the three pitches on the East Hill, whilst others rented from or relied on the generosity of local farmers and land owners.
A large sloping meadow located at Elphinstone Road, had initially been proposed as a suitable site for football in 1900 and may possibly have been the site of a handful of games as far back as 1894. Purchased by the Hastings Board of Guardians in 1887, the site was proposed for the new location of the Hastings Workhouse to replace the one located at Frederick Road (later St Helens Hospital), however these plans were dropped following objections from wealthy neighbours. The site was at looked again in 1920, alongside Horntye which had just been purchased by the Hastings Corporation, as the potential new site of a top class sports ground to serve the borough. The Elphinstone Road site, known as the Pilot Field, was chosen as it could be made ready in time for the coming season.
The first tenants of the newly laid out ground were Rock-a-Nore, who by now were the most senior club in the area. The Rocks played their first game at the Pilot Field on 11 September, losing to Chichester in front of a crowd of at least 1000. Rock-a-Nore changed name to Hastings & St Leonards in 1921 and were fairly inconsistent in the County League, twice finishing as runners up before leaving to join the Southern Amateur League in 1927. It is during this era the club enjoyed its most successful spell, winning Division Two in their first season and then going onto win Division One four times. The club also won the Sussex Senior Cup twice and the Amateur Football Alliance Senior Cup. The period also saw Hastings Council open up more recreation grounds around the borough, in line with other local authorities around the country during this time. Grounds at Bexhill Road, Harrow Lane and the BOS were laid out throughout the 1920s.
World War Two interrupted football once more and Hastings & St Leonards’ successful spell on the pitch. Local leagues ran on a reduced and regionalised format for the 1939-40 season before ceasing altogether for the duration of the war. Local clubs would still arrange matches, mostly against military sides before competitive football made a return following the conflict. Hastings & St Leonards would go onto rejoin the Southern Amateur League before joining the Corinthian League in 1946.
The summer of 1948 saw the reintroduction of professional football to the area, after Hastings United were formed and entered the Southern League. Unfortunately for the old amateur club, this led to them being kicked off the Pilot Field and unable to find another site in the borough suitable for hosting their level of football. They were forced to resign from the Corinthian League and continued with their old third team competing in the Hastings League. The club joined the East Sussex League in 1950 before becoming founder members of Division Two of the Sussex County League in 1952, alongside Hastings Rangers, Sidley United and Rye United.
Hastings United remained members of the Southern League throughout their entire existence, enjoying some memorable runs in the FA Cup during that time. The club faced the likes of Gillingham, Ipswich Town and Sheffield Wednesday, whilst their home tie against Norwich City on 9 January 1954 attracted a record crowd of 12,527. United were partially named and modelled after Hastings & St Leonards United and like their predecessors, were not shy in spending money in pursuance of success and competing at a higher standard. However the club was frequently plagued by financial woes, with last few years of their existence seeing them struggling to pay off debts amassed over the years and the club was wound up in 1985. Hastings & St Leonards, the old amateur club now known as Hastings Town, moved back to the Pilot Field that year and took Uniteds spot in the Southern League.
It was around this period STAMCO were on the rise through the local leagues. Founded as a works team for the local firm in 1971, the club entered the Eastbourne & Hastings League that year. The club progressed through the divisions before joining the Southern Counties Combination 1982 and then Division Three of the Sussex County League in 1988, finishing as runners up in their first season.
The 1990s was a golden era for football in Hastings & St Leonards. Hastings Town won the Southern League Southern Division in 1991-92, whilst the following season saw STAMCO finish as runners up in the Sussex County League Division Two, thus earning promotion to Division One. To ensure promotion, STAMCO moved from their home ground at Pannel Lane in Pett and settled at the Firs, the old Pilot Field upper pitch and Hastings Towns’ old ground. The club put the necessary work into the ground to reach ground grading requirements and went onto reach the fifth round of the 1994-95 FA Vase, the same season Hastings Town won the Southern League Cup. The 1995-96 season saw STAMCO promoted once more following another second place finish and Hastings Town win the Sussex Senior Cup. Ahead of the 1996-97 season STAMCO changed name to St Leonards Stamcroft due to Southern League rules and would go onto win the Sussex Senior Cup, whilst also achieving another second place finished and thus promotion to the Southern League Premier Division.
The 1997-98 season saw the two town clubs competing in the same league for first time, but with St Leonards finishing bottom of the table. Hastings’ third win over their neighbours this season earned them the Hastings Senior Cup and would go onto win the Sussex Senior Cup a few weeks later. Hastings would go onto reach the Sussex Senior Cup final for another two successive seasons, losing both whilst also losing out in the final of the Southern League Cup.
Into the new millennium, Hastings Town were back competing in the Southern Division of the Southern League after backtracking on their resignation from the league with intention to join the Isthmian League, a move which effectively relegated the club. They managed to win promotion back to Premier Division in 2001-02, but were immediately relegated back the following season. Immediately after the 2001-02 season, it was announced Hastings Town were to change name to Hastings United and take on the identity of the club that folded in 1985.
The last few seasons of St Leonards’ existence was a struggle for the club, who were forced to massively reduce their playing budget; their expenditure over the years caught up with them and they wound up midway through the 2004-05 season. Hastings struggled to replicate their form witnessed throughout the 90s, the mass exodus of management and players following the 2002-03 season forced the club to rebuild. The club were transferred to the Isthmian League following a reshuffle of the non-league pyramid due to the formation of the Conference North/South Divisions. Hastings won promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division following a play-off win in 2007 and went onto an FA Cup in 2012-13, where they were eventually knocked out away to Middlesbrough in the third round.
In recent years Hastings United have looked into moving to a new ground, with aging facilities at the Pilot Field becoming more expensive to maintain. Former club chairman Dave Walters had initially proposed a move to Tile Kiln in 2007, which would have been funded by the sale of the Pilot Field and surrounding land to developers, however the idea never developed any further. In November 2016, Hastings United together with Sport England and the trustees of the Horntye Park, announced plans to build a new sports complex situated at Bexhill Road Recreation Ground. The ground would’ve been home to the football club, Hastings & St Leonards Priory Cricket Club and South Saxons Hockey Club and funded by the sale of both the Pilot Field and Horntye Park; however plans were dropped after the housing developer pulled out of the scheme. In 2018 the club announced its intention to go back to idea originally proposed by Dave Walters and build a new ground at Tile Kiln and planning was submitted in 2020.
The past few seasons has also seen football interrupted by the COVID-19 pandemic, which saw the 2019-20 season abandoned for competitions below the National League. However Sidley United were still awarded the Mid Sussex League Championship trophy after the division was decided on points per game. The 2020-21 season once again saw the curtailment of non-league football, with the Isthmian League season once again being abandoned entirely, with Hastings United sitting top of the South East Division as they were in 2019-20. Other local competitions arranged supplementary competitions, with Hollington United being crowned Mid Sussex League Champions.