You can’t miss the tall black wooden buildings. The net shops are unique to Hastings and developed as a response to lack of space. They are all listed buildings.
Don’t be fooled by the word ‘shop’ – these are not places to buy things. The word ‘shop’ here means work place, similar to the use of the word in ‘workshop’. They were essential to the fisherman as the buildings were used to store nets, ropes, canvas sails and fishing gear that would rot if left in the open and wet. Items were dried on the beach before storing.
Before 1835, a variety of wooden sheds had been built along the beach. Many of the older net shops were built from recycled timbers. Some were even disused boats turned upside down or stood upright on their stern.
At the start of the C19th, there was very limited space on the beach with only a thin strip of shingle in front of the cliffs. This lead to confrontations between the Corporation and fishermen as numbers of holiday makers grew and there was competition for space.
The situation reached crisis point in 1824 when there was a riot when Hastings Corporation tried to move some net shops and fish stalls between the bottom of High Street and the Cutter Inn to widen the sea front road. Seven fishermen and fish sellers ended up in court.
Another legal row broke out in 1833 over the increasing use of net shops for other commercial purposes. Several of the larger net shops had been let for other trading purposes as ground space became more valuable. This led to the corporation commissioning John Banks to survey the Stade (the landing area along the shore) to show exactly where all the different buildings were.
Each row of net shops had an identifying letter painted on a square board and each shop had its own number on a small oval white enamelled plaque. Number one was closest to the road. Rows were labelled from west to east Rows M-W were built from 1835 on wards with Row W behind what is now the Fisherman’s Museum
In 1834, the first sea defence groyne was built beneath the cliffs at Rock-a-Nore, to protect the old town from increasing flooding by the sea. A large amount of shingle pilled up on the west side of the groyne, increasing the amount of usable beach. The Corporation made the fishermen sign a ‘memorandum of agreement’ to use the land This gave each net shop a specified piece of ground for fishery purposes only and for which they would pay an annual rent. In 1835, the Corporation signed the first 12 agreements for a piece of ground measuring eight feet square to construct a new shop. This was let to the fishermen for a charge of 2/- rising to 5/- by 1846. It is still that rate today!
The new net shops had to be lined up in double rows with large gaps between then so boats could be hauled up close to the cliff using horse turned capstans.
The beach was liable to flooding during severe gales so designs were simple and easily repairable. Most stood on stones or stumps of wood allowing the sea to flow under them. Some were on wheels. At the end of the C19th, around 34 net shops had been washed away by storms.
The net shops were made of wood and the outsides were covered with tar. This was cheaply and readily available from the local gasworks until their closure in 1969 when a black paint called black tar varnish has been used. Tar made the buildings weather proof, but it also made them very combustible and many were destroyed by fires.
A big fire in 1846 burnt down about 20 net shops. Public subscription helped the fishermen cover their rebuilding costs. A second major fire in 1961 destroyed four shops and damaged one more.
It highlighted the deteriorating condition of many of the shops which were described as ‘untarred and falling to pieces through neglect’ . A restoration fund was set up to repay for replacements.
Seven new net shops were built to the traditional design. Construction was done by council workmen and tarring by the fishermen.
Designs are now standardised with most shops standing up to three storeys high. Fishermen needed three different types of net for herring, mackerel and trawls. Boats fished for herring in the early winter and mackerel in spring and early summer. The rest of the year they trawled for flat fish like sole and plaice. The different nets were kept on separate floors, hung up from hooks on the ceiling beams. Trawling gear was usually kept on the ground floor or in the cellar if there was one.
Head room was low, making it easier to lift and hang up nets. A ladder gave access to the upper floors. Each floor had its own door for gear to be brought in. Some had a projecting beam with a pulley block to haul up heavy loads.
One of the restored shops by the Fisherman’s Museum is open to show what the the inside of a typical shop might contain. There is also a model in the Fisherman’s Museum showin g how the different floors were used.
The fishing shops have become very much a characteristic part of Hastings. Beatrix Potter visited Hastings on Holiday and a net shop featured in the illustrations in ‘The Tale of Little Pig Robinson”. Net shops also featured in set of five paintings commissioned by BR in 1952 depicting the Cinque Ports.
They are very photogenic and there are more pictures “here.”:https://www.sloweurope.com/community/threads/hastings-and-its-fishing-heritage.6155/ Many of the newer buildings along the Stade have been designed to blend in with the net shops.