Fairlight Sand Quarry

By Haydon Luke

Quarrying is an activity which has a long history in Fairlight. Sandstone quarries can be seen either side of the road leading up from Ore, and St Andrew’s Church itself was constructed from locally quarried stone. Farmers, too, have made extensive use of local stone to construct farm buildings throughout the district. Small quarries or stone pits are a common feature of the local landscape.

In the 1920s a particularly fine kind of sand was identified in the local rock not far from the Church, and later the exigencies of wartime led to it being exploited extensively by a mining company. Fifty years later, in the 1980s, the local residents were shocked to discover that a major oil company was proposing to do test drilling in the Fairlight area. In the event, both activities were short lived. However, both have left their mark on the landscape and are reminders of how easily the rural tranquillity of Fairlight could be compromised.

So where were these sites and how did it all come about? Few of those who use the Country Park car park off Lower Coastguard Lane, adjacent to the public toilets and across from the Coastguard Tea Room, are aware that they are standing on a former industrial site.

The picture below shows the extent of the site in 1965. Coastguard Lane is at the right with the corner of St Andrew’s Churchyard in the top right hand corner. The area where the main processing buildings can be seen is now the large car park by the public toilets. The main quarry is at the bottom of the picture and covered a large area which is now heavily overgrown. A second large area was opened up further to the south west of the main site towards Warren Cottage. Material was conveyed to the processing area near the church by small trucks on rails approximately half a metre in gauge pulled along by a constantly running overhead drag a bit like a ski button lift.

The sand quarry story seems to begin in the 1920s. In the period after the First World War, Hastings, in common with many big towns, had a problem finding work for the unemployed. There was a discussion in the local Employment Committee and the suggestion was made that because there was known to be a high quality source of white sand in the Fairlight quarries (the sandstone from which had previously been used for building) perhaps a glass-making industry could be established locally to produce glass for the optical industries. However, it was pointed out that, as well as a highly skilled work-force, glass making required large quantities of coal to fire the furnaces. Bringing in coal and training up the work force would be costly, so starting a Hastings glass industry from scratch was declared a non-runner. An alternative, however, might be to exploit the sand to supply the already established British glass manufacturers. The reserves of suitable sand in the Fairlight quarries were estimated at 15 million tons. (Source; HSLO, 11 September 1920).

Some time later, a small operation was set up in the quarry near Fairlight Church.  This picture, from the British Geological Survey and taken on 1 May 1926, shows the quarry in operation, with St Andrew’s Church unmistakably in the background.  The quarry was producing ‘glass-sand’ which at the time was used in making scouring-soap, and clay for bricks.   This is almost the same view as on page 5.  The Kelly’s Street Directory for 1928 has an entry listing British Sands Ltd., with a business address of Sandworks, Church Farm, Fairlight.

The quarry was still running in 1928 when the same newspaper carried the story of a “Quarry Worker’s Marvellous Escape.” The gist was that quarry worker, James Brann, had had a lucky escape from being killed by a falling boulder as he lay helpless beneath a mass of earth and rock which had subsided on him whilst he was working in the quarry. (HSLO, 21 April 1928). He suffered a broken leg and head wounds. Not much concern for Health and Safety at work in those days.

According to documents in the East Sussex Archives (SWA20/1/47 Fairlight Sand Quarry Project) the sand quarry story seems to gain momentum in 1933 when a local businessman, Captain R E Philp (who also had business interests in the housing developments in Fairlight Cove) sees a potentially money-making opportunity in the sand to be found in the ground to the south west of St Andrew’s Church. Up to this point 95% of the sand used in glass manufacture in the UK had been imported from Belgium. The Fairlight sand is suitable and of excellent quality and Captain Philp reasons that if he can extract it and transport it sufficiently cheaply then the domestic glass industry will be interested in obtaining it from him rather than from Belgium.

However, the Belgian sand industry enjoys subsidies and so to be viable the Fairlight sand will have to be extracted and transported as cheaply as possible. To this end Captain Philp conceives a cunning plan. On 1 March 1933 he writes to the Rother and Jury’s Gut Catchment Board (R&JGCB) with his proposal to send sand from the quarry he intends to open up at Fairlight out by sea from Rye Harbour. To keep costs down he proposes to transport the sand from Fairlight to the harbour “by means of an aerial ropeway, the establishment of a loading station, and the conveyance thence to destination by means of barges of not more than 500 tons capacity.” (Letter to R&JGCB from Capt. Robert E Philp, 01 March 1933).

Just think how the Fairlight landscape would have been affected had such a proposal materialised! The aerial ropeway, once constructed, would have low running costs and could operate if necessary around the clock. It would run from the quarry, roughly along the line of Warren Road, across the land Philp owns in Fairlight Cove and then down to Pett Level and across the Marsh. The plan of Rye Harbour he sends with his letters shows the ropeway line approaching to the south of Martello Tower No 28 (the one at the entrance to the holiday village by the access to what is now Rye Harbour Nature Reserve) and reaching a discharging bay into sand bins on the harbour side due east of the Martello tower. He estimates that the volume of sand to be exported would exceed 100,000 tonnes p.a.

In order to make his scheme viable Captain Philp needs to get the freight costs as low as possible and to that end he seeks to secure special low rates from the harbour board. Both the R&JGCB and the Harbour Committee are less than impressed with this and refuse to do a deal, despite the efforts of Captain Philp to persuade them that his scheme is in the national interest. Negotiations drag on and no progress is made. Finally, he has to admit that the scheme has faltered “owing to certain provisions in the Hastings Town planning Scheme, which materially affect the land under which this mineral lies.” (Explained by Philp in letter to R&JGCB June 24 1933). Also, by this time the Fire Hills have become a public amenity and the prospect of large scale mineral extraction with aerial ropeways is not likely to come about.

In the event, a much more limited level of quarrying takes place until the onset of war and then the loss of supplies from Belgium puts the sand extraction project into a different context.

Triumphantly announcing the launch of the later scheme put forward by a new company, the Fairlight Mining Company, in January 1939, The Hastings Observer emphasised the positive impact on employment – “Local Labour will be employed in the quarrying work and local men are to be trained for the working of the refining plant to be established at Doleham” – whilst playing down the environmental impact – “Practically nothing of the working will be visible from the cliff paths and no permanent buildings whatever are to be put up to mar the landscape, nor will any unsightly machinery be seen.” (HSLO, 14 January 1939).   The reality was a bit different – though far less damaging to the environment than Philp’s original scheme would have been.

So it was that later in 1939 some of the ground to the south west of St Andrew’s Church was leased out by the then landowner Major Carlisle-Sayer to the Fairlight Mining Company to be opened up for quarrying, and the crushing and refining plant was housed in buildings adjacent to Church Farm House. The sand rock extracted from the quarries in the area, when crushed and refined, provided a silica with a low iron content – the lowest in England according to Fairlight; Echoes of the Past. This made it suitable for the manufacture of very high quality glassware.

Thus, when imports from Belgium became impossible after the outbreak of war in 1939, the strategic importance of the Fairlight quarry rocketed. In the national emergency it was understandable that Hastings BC would approve giving the FMC limited rights to extract the sand, and the company and the landowner undertook to make the land into a public amenity afterwards. It is said that the glass made from the Fairlight sand was required for high quality optical items such as submarine periscopes, gun sights and binoculars as well as more general glass products.

Whatever the truth of that belief, at their peak the works employed over eighty men and six glass firms were supplied. A steady stream of lorries was needed to transport the sand to the railway sidings at Ore and this put pressure on what was then the only access – the narrow lane that runs between the churchyard and Church Farm House and out onto the Fairlight Road by the old school.

Controversy continued to haunt the sand quarry, however. It quickly became clear that better access was required for the succession of vehicles that were required to transport the sand. The Fairlight Mining Company consequently negotiated with the Hastings Council and the Church to create a new access – the road that later became Lower Coastguard Lane. Glebe Land was purchased from the Church in 1940 for £50 to improve the entrance from the Fairlight Road, and land from Church Farm was requisitioned to provide the road. The large area adjacent to the public toilets now used as car parking was the site of the processing plant.

In the 1950s the noise from the processing plant was so bad that it was disturbing lessons at the Village School only a short distance away. The Headteacher reported to the Managers (4 October 1950) “that the noise from the works at the Sand Pit was so great that it disturbed the school work”. The Managers wrote to Mr Hooley, Chairman of Cookes Sand Pit Quarries Ltd., about the noise but received no reply. Nine months later, in July 1951, the Managers wrote to the Chief Education Officer asking advice about the noise of blasting from the Sand Pit Quarry.

In the event, the quarry did not prove to have a very long life once the war was over. Various operating companies came and went, and people recall that by the 1960s the site was derelict and abandoned. This photograph, from the Fairlight archive, shows the buildings in course of demolition in the 1960s.

In 1963 the land held by the Fairlight Sand Quarry Company was registered to Hastings Corporation (later becoming part of the Country Park) and on 5 July 1966 the Fairlight Sand and Development Company Limited was finally struck off the register at Companies House having been wound up some time before.  The last entry for a quarry company at Fairlight in the street directory is in 1960/61.

The picture at left was taken in January 1967 by the IGS (now British Geological Survey) and shows the side of the old sand quarry and the depth of the ground excavated by the sand extraction. This view is looking NE at the basal Wadhurst Clay sandstone seen behind the human figure. The upper grassy slope is in shales and siltstones, and grass and shrubs have already reclaimed more than a foothold.  The area is now (2014) very heavily overgrown with vegetation and it is hard to grasp the full extent of the quarry workings.  Compare this picture with the one from 1926 earlier in this article.

This map from 1970 shows the extent of the sand workings at the end of their active life.

Drawing in papers at The Keep, ESRO DH/B 83/785/2/1-4 File 1 – Fairlight Place Farm including Fairlight Sand Quarry

The quarry area did not entirely drop from public view after sand working ceased. In the summer of 1969 Fairlight residents in Coastguard Lane and vicinity were shocked to find they were about to endure 10 weeks of round-the-clock drilling close to the Church, Church Farm House and the tea rooms. The Institute of Geological Science (IGS) which had been carrying out surveys in the district between Bexhill and Rye for some 4 years was about to mount an investigation into the rock formation between Cliff End and Hastings.

Although the purpose was chiefly to explore the exact nature of the strata beneath the sandstone, there was even the possibility that the boring might discover oil or natural gas. Had that been the case, Fairlight’s story might have been very different. With fracking moving up the national agenda who knows what might happen in the future?

Back in 1969 residents were naturally concerned about noise, vibration and the possibility of mishaps. A public meeting was hastily convened at the Church Café. At the meeting on 30 July Dr Shephard-Thorn, representing the IGS, was on the spot to explain the way the investigation would work. Ever vigilant, the Fairlight Residents’ Association took up the fight and wrote to the various authorities concerned. Their efforts bore some fruit and the IGS contractors were limited to 12 hour days and no Sunday working.

And finally a twist of fate caused them to be grateful that the IGS was working in the quarry. The residents of Coastguard Lane had campaigned for the demolition of the dilapidated quarry buildings during the 60s without success until winter storms in November 1969 caused severe damage and put the instruments of the IGS at risk. Because of the general damage to property and the danger to the Geological Survey, the owners of the quarry were forced into acting.

The Hastings Observer of 15 November 1969 reported houses “showered with debris” and said that “the Church Café and bungalow next door were worst affected by the collapsing roof. Pieces of timber and asbestos were flung into the café’s garden, narrowly missing customers who were outside.”

Debris, some including pieces of timber up to 15 feet long, were deposited on other properties including Church Farm House and into the churchyard itself.

The buildings were eventually demolished by Cole and Jennings & Co., Ltd., of Camber, the company who leased the quarry from Hastings Corporation after the Fairlight Sand Quarries Company ceased operations. Finally the site was cleared and the area became a car park for the Country Park when that was created by Hastings in 1970. So, with the exception of an on-going dispute (which still continues) about responsibility for the poor state of Coastguard Lane, the outcome was satisfactory for all.

The drilling by the IGS continued into the spring of 1970. The borehole was more than a mile deep, almost 1,800 metres from the surface, but the results yielded few surprises. The subsequent report mentioned slight traces of natural gas but not to the extent that would merit exploitation. Residents could rest easy again – until the American oil men arrived in the 1980s!

By Haydon Luke

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