Sidney Little 1885 – 1961
‘A paradise of concrete and chrome’ is how one commentator of the time described what Borough Engineer, Sidney Little had created in Hastings and St Leonards.
Folklore says that the 41-year-old Cumbrian was one of 47 men who had applied for the job of Borough Engineer when it was advertised in 1926. Hastings and St Leonards had endured tough times in the early 1920s when people who had previously been visitors here started to take their holidays elsewhere. The council at that time was short of cash and had to make do and mend.
As well as being short of money the council had seen a series of Borough Engineers either retiring or unable to cope with the pressure of the job and that left the borough in what one observer of the time described as ‘one hell of a state’.
When the decision was taken to advertise for yet another Borough Engineer adverts were placed in newspapers and magazines across the country. Of the 47 applicants who applied for the post, it is reported that one shone out above all the rest and that was Sidney Little.
In preparation Mr Little arrived in the town the day before his interview was due to take place. That gave him time to walk around Hastings and St Leonards making notes about what he saw. Reports suggest he was dismayed by what he found, he viewed Hastings and St Leonards as sleepy Victorian seaside towns that had yet to embrace the 20th century. In his interview he was by all accounts blunt and to the point, telling the interview panel that if appointed he would bring the town bang up-to-date.
Once he got the job, he set out with a steely determination to do just that.
While many of his schemes, like the bathing pool, were glamorous and eye-catching he was also responsible for more mundane but equally important schemes. Top of that list was his design and construction of the Darwell Reservoir that holds millions of gallons of water and still services Hastings and the surrounding area. He improved the water supply to Hastings in other ways too by building tunnelled aqueducts up to 200ft deep and two other reservoirs.
He even created an airport at Pebsham although it only lasted 11 years and was never used for commercial flights. In 1933 as a result of a lot of the work Mr Little had overseen Hastings was described as the 1066 town with the 1966 outlook.
During the war years he was seconded to the Admiralty and his skills were put to good use as he oversaw the building of the Mulberry harbours so successfully used in the D-day invasion in 1944.
Having been originally appointed as borough engineer in 1925 he would later also take on the responsibility as the borough’s water engineer. He designed and implemented plans that would see the local council spend what in today’s terms would be close to £200 million in a ten year period. He embraced new technologies and new building materials – he was a great fan of reinforced concrete.
Mr Little remained in charge in Hastings until he retired in 1950 and he was made a freeman of the town in 1960 just a year before his death in 1961.
So much of the Hastings and St Leonards we take for granted, so much of the landscape of the town that makes it what it is, is down to the foresight and ingenuity of Sidney Little who was given a relatively free hand by his council masters in the early years of his tenure. After the war, however, the council was not so free and many of the ideas and plans he came up with, including a scheme to build a road beneath the cliffs to the east of the town, were turned down. He believed that use of his beloved reinforced concrete in construction of the road could have gone some way to preventing coastal erosion.
Britain’s first Underground car park
Britain’s first underground car park was constructed as part of the new development. It was opened in December 1931. At the time it removed the eyesore of cars parked along the front and it is still there today.
There are also some rather futuristic concrete shelters dotted along the front. It was for these developments, among others that Little earned the title of ‘Concrete King’. He was later to put his skills to use in the service of the nation when he was involved in the construction of the Mulberry floating harbour used in the D-Day landings in 1944.
In the early thirties, the Town’s tramways were ripped up to make way for a completely new promenade built in reinforced concrete. The new front was a ‘double decker’ with both upper and lower walkways.
The lower walkway was built in a very functionalist style, but was relieved by decoration made from pieces of different coloured broken glass set into the concrete. The glass came from a large quantity of broken bottles that Little discovered on a rubbish tip. That walk way is, of course, what became known as ‘Bottle Alley’. The effect is striking and it still looks remarkably modern given that is was built in the thirties. You could be forgiven for thinking that it was built in the ‘sixties.
But many see Sidney Little’s greatest achievement as the outdoor swimming pool or lido. As early as 1927, a campaign started in Hastings and St Leonards for a new outdoor pool, and a scheme was finally approved in 1931 with Mr Little being commissioned to do the construction.
He was well versed in modern building techniques and chose to build the pool in reinforced concrete. The pool was built on a massive scale – 330ft by 90ft making it nearly as big as Blackpool’s. At the centre of the pool was an impressive array of diving boards up to ten metres all constructed from blocks of concrete.