The present Hastings United club was originally founded as Rock-a-Nore in 1893, during a meeting held at the London Trader on 22 August. The team played in colours of blue and white and were nicknamed the ‘Tanfrocks’, club members were mostly fishermen and boatmen from the Old Town and the East Hill was used for home games.
The club entered the Carlisle Cup for the 1893-94 season after beating St Marys 7-1 in a qualifying game and won the competition in 1895, only their second season in existence; the club went on to win the competition for another two successive seasons, before focusing on the Hastings, Eastbourne & District League, which they became founder members of in 1896 and forming a reserve side to compete in the Carlisle Cup.
The Rocks formative years were successful and the club had built a respectable reputation, with William Lucas-Shadwell MP acting as club president around 1895. Despite the success on and off the pitch the club folded in 1899; it was around this period many teams had lost players and were struggling to field sides, due to men being called up for service in the Second Boer War. We can only assume the club decided to fold due to the enlistment of its players.
The club reformed in 1901 and it was reported in the Hastings & St Leonards Observer that most of the old players will be available, between 70-80 members have joined the club and that the East Hill will continue to be the Rocks home. The club won the Carlisle Cup a further three times, before entering the East Sussex League in 1904. At the same time their step up to the East Sussex League was reported, it was also announced that the club were given permission to play on the newly laid out Sports Ground, where they could make use of playing at an enclosed ground and take gate receipts. However their stay at the new ground only lasted one season before they returned to the East Hill, where they were still able to use for East Sussex League games, albeit relying on voluntary gate receipts; it was around this time the club started to use the Central Ground for cup games. The club won the 1907-08 league championship, but left the league that summer and returned to the District League, where they remained until the outbreak of World War One in 1914.
After the war, the club reformed in 1919 and made a return to local football. The Sussex Junior Cup was won in 1920, after beating Allen West 2-0 in a final played at Eastbourne, where the crowd was reported to be 3000, with around 800 from Hastings. The Rocks successful return saw them invited to become founder members of the Sussex County League, which they accepted. It was reported in May 1920 that the club were to be renamed Hastings Rock-a-Nore and were working with the Sports Association to find a suitable ground for senior football. The Pilot Field was purchased and the club played their first game here on 11 September on what was to later become the upper pitch, losing to Chichester in front of a crowd of 1000.
In April 1921 it was announced that the club were to change name to Hastings & St Leonards Football Club; the board felt that the name Rock-a-Nore hindered their ambition to become a successful senior club due to prejudice in the town, also a senior club bearing the name of both towns would increase their chances of attracting players and supporters. The decision was controversial as Rock-a-Nore were made up of members proud of their connection to the old town and many would go onto join the new Rock-a-Nore club, who came into being after Old Town Athletic changed their name a few weeks later. Soon after the name change, an amalgamation with All Saints FC was being discussed; however negotiations broke down after Hastings refused to include All Saints in the club name. An official merger was never reported, but several members of the All Saints club did join Hastings, a third club was said to also be involved but it was never revealed who.
The clubs new identity saw them nicknamed the Lilywhites and play in red and white striped shirts, changing the red and blue halves in 1923, probably in homage to the Hastings & St Leonards club who played throughout the 1890s. The clubs time playing in the Sussex County League was a frustrating one, finishing runners up twice and it was decided to join the Southern Amateur League in 1927. The club had attempted to join the Athenian League in 1924 but were unsuccessful; in May 1927 the club had applied for membership to the Southern Amateur League, but were unsuccessful. The committee then decided to apply once again for admission to the Athenian League, the Spartan League had also been considered but was dismissed in view of the lengthy journeys for away matches. It was quickly found out that the deadline for application to the Athenian League had already passed, so it looked likely that the club were to remain in the County League. However, in August 1927 it was announced that the club were to compete in the Southern Amateur League and play in Division Two; as a result of the club affiliating to the Southern Amateur League and Amateur Football Association, the two former professionals in the squad, Allen Wisden and Philcox, were ineligible.
The Southern Amateur League era was to be one of the most successful in the clubs history, after winning Division Two in their first season, the side were promoted to Division One which they went onto win in 1935, the same year the reserves won the Amateur Football Alliance Junior Cup and the average gate was 1735. Under the management of Jim Coleman, the former Hastings & St Leonards United and Brighton & Hove Albion professional, the club went onto win the league another three times, whilst also lifting the Amateur Football Alliance Senior Cup in 1938 and the Sussex Senior Cup in 1938 and 1939. In October 1933, the club saw its record attendance at the Pilot Field of 8000 for a game against Brighton & Hove Albion.
Due to the teams continued success and the strength of the league said to be getting weaker, the club had looked at joining a stronger amateur league. The Isthmian League was first considered, followed by the Athenian League, but geography was said to go against the club as they were outside the general radius of clubs in those leagues. The Spartan League was once again dismissed for the same reasons mentioned in 1927, lengthy journeys and so the club were set to play the 1939-40 season in the Southern Amateur League. The club advertised in the London and local press for a paid team manager and trainer in July and Billy Lambe, another former Hastings & St Leonards United player, was appointed for a one month trial in late August. However the outbreak of World War Two prevented the normal resumption of football, with the Southern Amateur League disbanding, so the club rejoined the Sussex County League and played in the Eastern Section, which they went onto win, but lost to Western Section champions Worthing.
In August 1940 it was reported that all organised football was to be abandoned and the Pilot Field was closed by the Parks and Gardens Committee. A war time club was founded in September 1941, who mostly played games against military sides for a season before disbanding. The club was reformed in October 1944 and like the war time club, played against military sides. After the war had ended the club returned to the Southern Amateur League finishing in second place and were also runners-up in the Sussex Senior Cup. In July 1947 the club successfully applied for membership to the Corinthian League, in which they played for one season.
On 8 May 1948, Hastings & St Leonards had just regained the Freeman-Thomas Charity Shield from Folkestone, beating them 2-0 in front of a crowd of about 3000. Little did they know, that this was to be the clubs last game at the Pilot Field; on 29 May a meeting was held over the formation of a new professional club, Hastings United and it was reported that “it is hoped some amicable arrangement can be made by which the two clubs could use the Pilot Field on alternate Saturdays.”. It was around this time Hastings & St Leonards were referred to as the amateurs, to distinguish them from the professional club, which has often seen the club confused with Hastings & St Leonards Amateurs, who were in existence before the First World War, in addition to Hastings & St Leonards FC and Hastings & St Leonards United.
The supporters and members of the committee were passionately against Hastings United using the Pilot Field and quotes from letters sent to the Hastings & St Leonards Observer include – “If professional football comes to the Pilot Field, it would mean the death of the Hastings & St Leonards FC as we know it” and “Do you want first-class amateur football, or do you want third-rate professional football?”. The possibility of Hastings & St Leonards going professional had first been discussed in 1930 and further more throughout the 1930s, but the club refused to turn professional; football fans from the town who wanted to watch a higher standard of football were known to travel to Brighton & Hove Albion and Tunbridge Wells Rangers games. It was argued that towns of a similar size who had professional clubs, such as Margate and Maidstone, relied on wealthy beneficiaries or appeal funds, so why would Hastings be any different? It was reported that the Amateurs initial offer to rent the Pilot Field was £300 for the season and Hastings United offered £600 plus maintenance, which equalled around £1250 in total; the Amateurs increased their offer to £500 and hoped loyalty would come into play when the Council decided who should use the ground. The Amateurs declined an offer of meeting with the professional club, the secretary felt that a ground share would not work and questioned what would happen if both clubs were drawn to play at home in the FA Cup, plus sorting out rearranged games in the latter stages of the season would not work.
At a meeting held on 31 July, Hastings Council accepted a bid made by Hastings United by 18-17 vote, to use the Pilot Field for £750 a year, inclusive of rates and maintenance. Despite this devastating blow Hastings & St Leonards still entered the Corinthian League and were due to play Hounslow away in their first fixture. Negotiations were held with the committee of the Central Cricket Ground, who announced on 21 August that they had accepted an offer to rent the ground to the football club, for a fee understood to be £1750; conditions included that Central Ground season ticket holders, of which there were about 500, were to be admitted to games for free and the club should take steps to adequately protect the cricket pitch. Despite this announcement, a week later it was reported that the football club could not accept the Central Ground committee’s terms and they were to hold an extraordinary general meeting, the fundraising appeal was to be suspended until after the meeting. The club announced mid-September that they had withdrawn from the Corinthian League and all cup competitions and that a survival fund had been started to help the club return to senior football in the near future; the 3rd XI continued competing in the Hastings League.
In the 7 May 1949 edition of the Hastings & St Leonards Observer, it was reported that the club were still on the quest to find a new ground…
”The Parks and Gardens Committee have suggested to the Education Committee the letting of the ground at South Saxons to the Hastings and St Leonards Amateur Football Club for one season. This decision followed the receipt of a letter from the club; asking if the Corporation could offer them any ground upon which the playing of senior amateur football was possible”
However in the following weeks edition, it was reported that the sites and buildings committee recommended that neither the football club nor rugby club were to be allowed use of South Saxons. During an EGM held on 27 June the recommendation of disbanding the club was rejected and it was decided to carry on playing in the Hastings League the following season. During the meeting the disappointment of local support was also discussed, with most support seemingly coming from outside the town; by now the supporters club had disbanded with many football fans in the town happy to show their support to Hastings United.
The club made the step up to the East Sussex League ahead of the 1950-51 season and by now were playing their home games on the Pilot Field upper pitch. In 1952 the club became founder members of the Sussex County League Division Two, alongside other local clubs Rye United, Sidley United and Hastings Rangers; however this was probably a step up too far for the side, who finished bottom for three successive seasons. The next twenty seasons in the Division were to be uneventful for the club, whose best finish was second place for the 1959-60 season.
In 1976 the club changed name to Hastings Town, which kick started a period of significant change for the club; Town won the Sussex County League Division Two in 1979-80, whilst around this time upgraded their facilities at the Firs and ground shared with Hastings Rangers for this duration. The club also changed from red and white striped shirts to an all white kit around the period. The club went onto become one of the strongest sides in Division One of the County League throughout the majority of their time in the competition, until 1985 where they joined the Southern League, taking the spot left by Hastings United following their demise. The folding of United also saw Town negotiate a long term lease of the Pilot Field and moved back to the venue they’d been forced off thirty-seven years ago.
The club signed a number of United players ahead of the 1985-86 season and hoped to win promotion to the Southern League Premier Division, however the club were only able to finish third, fourth and twelfth in the successive seasons. Peter Sillett took over as manager ahead of the 1988-89 season and built up a side that eventually won promotion in 1991-92 as Southern Division champions; this championship winning season was to be the start of a successful decade for the club. The Southern League Cup was won in 1995 after beating Leek Town on aggregate and the Sussex Senior Cup in 1996 after beating rivals Crawley Town 1-0 in the final.
Ahead of the 1997-98 season local lottery winner Mark Gardiner, who was previously involved with St Leonards Stamcroft, became chairman and held ambitions to get the club into the Football League in five years and made a generous playing budget available to manager Garry Wilson. However, the club languished in the bottom half of the table and Wilson was sacked following a defeat to Bath City in the FA Trophy. Dean and Terry White took over as joint-managers and were able to steer the side to a fourteenth place finish and won the Sussex Senior Cup for the second time in three seasons. The following season Town finished in fifth place, but off the pitch the club were in disarray; Gardiner had left the club which saw the club unable to pay the high wage bill and ended up in administration; it was also possible the club could find themselves back in the County League having had their request to withdraw their resignation from the Southern League, which had initially been made with the intention of joining the Isthmian League, refused by the League committee.
With Town in trouble and St Leonards seemingly on a downward spiral it was suggested to merge the two clubs, but this proposal never developed. When all seemed doomed a consortium led by Mick Maplesden took over the club and with finances looking more stable the Southern League allowed the club back, albeit in the Eastern Division. Following another two frustrating seasons failing to win promotion back to the Premier Division, it was a case of third time lucky in 2001-02, when the club won the league two points ahead of nearest rivals Grantham Town.
At the last game of the 2001-02 season it was announced the club were to change name to Hastings United and thus take on the identity of the former club. The club started life in the Southern League Premier Division strongly and went onto reach the first round of the FA Cup, a run which included thrashing Conference side Kettering Town 5-0 before losing 1-0 away to Stevenage Borough. However the sides form in the league had dipped and the club were relegated back to the Eastern Division. The summer ahead of the 2003-04 saw a mass exodus of the playing squad following the departure of manager George Wakeling; that summer also saw Dave Walters take over as chairman who faced the task of finding a manager who could quickly build a squad of players capable of competing in the Southern League.
The following years were to be fairly unsettled for the club, which would see a high turnover of management staff and players. Steve Lovell was appointed manager in the summer of 2003 and the former Crystal Palace, Millwall and Gillingham player was able to build a youthful squad within weeks and avoid relegation. Ahead of the 2004-05 season United were placed in Division One of the Isthmian League following a restructure of the non-league pyramid; Lovell resigned in November 2004 and was replaced by Neville Southall. Under the former Wales international the club found themselves in the top half of the table during the 2005-06 season, despite this Southall resigned midway through the season following discussions with the chairman. Nigel Kane and Pat Brown took charge and by the 2006-07 season Kane was manager, with his brother Norman as his assistant. Following a poor start to the season, the side went on a remarkable run which saw them finish in the play-off spots and ended up beating Dover Athletic and Tooting & Mitcham United to win promotion to the Isthmian League Premier Division.
The side struggled following their promotion ahead of the 2007-08 season and Kane was replaced by Tony Dolby and his assistant Mike Rutherford, who were able to keep the club out the relegation places. However, Dolby and Rutherford suddenly departed and John Lambert was promoted from reserve team manager, tasked with building a squad and replacing several key players who had left that summer. Lambert and his assistant Wayne Farrier built a squad of mostly young local players and it was felt doing well considering the resources they had available, despite this the management staff were suddenly sacked and Dolby and Rutherford returned to the club. The management staff built up a strong squad ahead of the 2009-10 season and finished in seventh place, however left once again after the season had concluded. Another manager was appointed and this time it was Jason Hopkinson, who like Lambert, built a young squad, including several ex-Lewes youth team players who Hopkinson had previously managed, however the team struggled in front of goal and Hopkinson departed after only a few months in charge.
Hopkinsons replacement was Sean Ray, who was made player-manager. Ray would go onto lead the club to it’s best ever performance in the FA Cup where the side reached the third round, losing 3-1 to Middlesbrough at the Riverside Stadium. The second round replay against Harrogate Town which saw United win on penalties was played in front of a sell-out crowd at the Pilot Field and was televised live on ESPN. However the team stuggled in the league and just like the 2002-03 side round themselves relegated at the end of the season.
With the club relegated to the Isthmian League South Division, Sean Ray left and was replaced by the successful former Crawley Town and Horsham manager John Maggs, however Maggs tenure was short lived who resigned following disappointing performances and was replaced by Terry White. White was able to lead the club to the play-offs before losing to Folkestone Invicta in the semi-final; the former St Leonards boss departed midway through the following season and was replaced by Dominic di Paolo, who himself only lasted two months before being replaced by Nigel Kane.
Dave Walters stepped down as Chairman in April 2015 after selling his shares to Dave Ormerod. The new board appointed Garry Wilson as manager, with the ambition of winning promotion, however the club finished outside the play-off places and Wilson resigned at the end of the season. Darren Hare took over ahead of the 2016-17 season, with former Chelsea and Swansea player Steve Watt as his assistant, the club finished in the play-off places, but this time losing out to Dorking Wanderers in the semi-final. Following the failure to win promotion Hare and his management team left and former Brighton & Hove Albion player Adam Hinshelwood became manager.
Ahead of the 2017-18 season, it was announced the club were to focus on bringing through young players through the youth system and Hinshelwood was in a full-time position that would enable him to keep progress on the under-18 and development squads. However it was announced Hinshelwood was to join Worthing, citing family issues and travel as the reasons for his departure and Chris Agutter, Hinshelwoods assistant, was appointed as his replacement. Following the same philosophy, Agutter and his coaching staff lead the team to an eight place finish; the following season saw them lose out to Ashford United in the semi-final of the play-offs. The 2019-20 season saw the club leading the table by three points and with games in hand over their nearest rivals Ashford United, but the season was abandoned due to the outbreak of Covid-19. The 2020-21 season commenced and the team were once again sitting top of the table and undefeated, however another Covid-19 lockdown saw the season halted and at the time of writing we’re looking at the likelihood of another season abandonment.