The Burtons’ St Leonards Society originated in 1967. It was formed to protect the town of St Leonards from falling victim to the prevailing attitude in the 1960’s that old buildings were passé and should be demolished wholesale to be replaced by concrete and glass tower blocks.
In 1969 the society succeeded in making the town of Burtons’ St Leonards a conservation area of special significance. Since that time work has been undertaken to protect what is good, to encourage quality architecture where development is allowed and to provide information to the public through exhibitions at South Lodge (West), Maze Hill, St Leonards on Sea, TN38 0BA and to lead guided walks and give talks.
Burtons’ St Leonards is a unique example of a purpose built seaside resort built in the late regency period and extended during the reign of Queen Victoria.
The town was the brainchild of James Burton (1761-1837), who was a very successful London builder and developer. He is responsible for much of Bloomsbury and Regents Park. In 1827 James decided that a purpose built seaside resort should be built on the south coast. The town was to cater for the needs of wealthy clientele. It was to be a spa town fulfilling the medical opinion of the day that breathing sea air and taking salt water baths was very good for the health. In 1827 he purchased a tract of barren land to the west of Hastings and set to work.
By 1832 the core of his town was built centred around a hotel, bath house and assembly rooms. The architecture on the seafront was classical in design and centred round the symmetrical axis of the hotel. Further inland villas were built in a landscape led environment of residential gardens that fitted into the contours of a valley called the Old Woman’s Tapshaw. The town had a northern entrance that included a toll house and an eastern entrance that separated it from Hastings.
James Burton was careful to supply service areas for his rich visitors. These included substantial mews to house horses and carriages, a laundry area and a market area. Shops were built on the seafront to supply household needs. There was a library situated near the bathhouse.
When James died in 1837 his famous son, Decimus Burton, continued to build substantially adding to the town. Decimus is responsible for designing the Wellington Arch, The Palm House in Kew Gardens, Cornwall Terrace in London, Calverley Park in Tunbridge Wells and Fleetwood in Lancashire.
Visitors to the town included Princess Victoria in 1834 when aged sixteen. Many European royals stayed at the St Leonard’s Hotel, later renamed the Royal Victoria Hotel. The hotel remains open for business.
James Burton is buried in a pyramid tomb in the churchyard to the north of the parish church of St Leonards.
We are very fortunate that so much of the original town survives for visitors to enjoy including St Leonards Gardens that are much loved by the community and used for drama productions and community events.