"Politician, Councillor, Chairman of Guardians, Alderman, Archaeologist, Mayor, Justice of the Peace - in whatever capacity we take him, we find him always holding by his golden principle of working when there was work to be done though the soul were in it, and it were impossible to discharge a duty too zealously."
When the town honoured him in 1874, after he had not been re-elected to the Council where he had uninterruptedly sat for thirty-three years, Thomas Ross (2) said : “In my early days I thought over the course of life I ought to pursue, and I came to the decision that I must be attentive to my business, and that all my leisure time ought to be devoted to the promotion of the interests of my native town. I have, I hope, followed out that course, and you, my fellow townspeople, have sent me as your representative to the Council for a long and unbroken period of upwards of thirty years. You have also made me Mayor five times — the greatest honour in your power to bestow."
For fifty years he had been engaged in the political struggles of his borough, and "he is at the present moment as ardent a Liberal as when, in all the enthusiasm of youth, he nailed his political colours to the mast and flaunted them defiantly in the face of the enemy. He has never known fear, and compromises were not in his line".
Thomas Ross (2) was educated at a fisher boys school where pupils came and went as they liked. He was then sent to a finishing academy at Beckley and after six months the scholastic training was assumed to be complete. He then returned to Hastings and was apprenticed to a house painter, decorator, and grainer, Mr Waghorne, where he probably acquired his knowledge of drawing, which enabled him to become an efficient draughtsman and a fair artist. After finishing his apprenticeship, Thomas began working for himself.
He opened a shop at 6 Castle Street in 1830 selling pictures, stationery and "fancy articles" from where, in 1835, ROSS’S HASTINGS AND ST LEONARDS GUIDE saw the light. In his guide he has much of interest to tell. Noticeable features of "Ross's Guide" are the marked evidences of the growth of the Old Town. Several pages are devoted to the description of the places of worship for, as becomes a good Churchman of the old school, Mr Ross gives these the first place." The 1835 guide was printed by W. Ransom, 60, George Street, with one view of the avenue in Old London Road, from his own drawing, and a plan of the Environs of Hastings. His guide frequently augmented, as the town progressed, ran into thirteen editions.
Mr. Ross was once in partnership with the late Mr Thomas Mann, as printsellers, at Claremont, where The " Black Cat " Tea Rooms now are.
Thomas became an Antiquarian, and carried out extensive excavations on the East Hill and at the ruins of Bulverhythe Church. There is evidence of an old cemetery (13th century) on the East Hill;
He uncovered a wall and said "I cut trenches across the Hill within the wall, and came upon a cist or coffin of Caen stone. Also several bodies, very perfect, on layers of charcoal, and some iron rivets and large headed nails. I am sorry to say I was disappointed not having found anything to throw light upon the probable date of the wall".
He went on to purchase the lease of other premises in Castle Street. "The young tradesman throve in his new abode as he throve in all his business undertakings; and he married from here, on the 16th of March 1843, the daughter of Mr. Bird, a London builder, who lived for upwards of thirty years as the faithful companion of his domestic life. Here was born his son Thomas". See week 34.
The woman he married was in fact Elizabeth Bird, one of the ten children of William Bird, my 3 x great grandfather who had built quite a large chunk of Lambeth.
His business must have been pretty successful as "two or three years subsequently he was enabled to finally retire from the business, and to accord to the promotion of the objects of his party and the prosperity of the borough the extensive leisure time which fortune had placed at his disposal".
However, in 1841 they were looking for someone to fill a vacancy which had occured on the council and "a most unbending Tory, perhaps the most conspicuous man among the local Conservative party, suggested that Mr. Ross should be requested to permit himself to be nominated for the vacancy; and this being agreed to on all sides, the candidate was returned without opposition. This arrangement was probably looked upon as throwing a sprat to catch mackerel".
It seems the Conservatives wanted Thomas (2), a Liberal, on the Council as they thought it would have "the effect upon Mr. Ross's political hostility of a little soothing syrup, in the shape of an unquestioned election. But, whatever the reason of the uncontested return of the Liberal, it is clear that his conduct in the Council afforded his opponents so little satisfaction that they resolved, if possible, to oust him from the place to which they were partly the means of electing him".
When it came to the time to put himself up for re-election he found himself opposed by a Conservative nominee who was a well known surgeon. The contest was an exciting and a close one which Thomas (2) won by just six votes !
Having been re-elected by the townspeople, Thomas (2) was "more independent in his conduct and more outspoken in his views than ever. And this boldness was not without its weight on the minds of the burgesses generally, and the humbler voters especially, for in 1846 a subscription, limited to threepence each, was started by the latter, and a silver cigar case, worked in a Scotch plaid, and inscribed with the donors' sense of the recipient's "straightforward conduct in the Town Council," was presented to their champion".
He was involved in various notable public improvements over the next quarter century :
- Prime mover in the purchase of the land for the Cemetery
- Most active agitator in demanding a comprehensive system of drainage for both Hastings and St. Leonards
- The chief promoter of the erection of the Albert Memorial, of which he laid the foundation stone
- The originator of the scheme for the acquisition of the Public Gardens and Park - known as Alexandra Park.
- The introducer of the Fitzroy signals and Russian gun into the town
- Earnest student of archaeology, holding the post of local secretary to the County Society for twenty-eight years
- Most active worker in building and other local societies
- Most zealous of Magistrates
"Mr. Ross, though still the right side of seventy, and possessing physical and mental vigour which suggests fifty rather than the approach of three score years and ten, has left his name indelibly written in the history of his native town. Nor will his name be confined to Hastings, for in the modern history of the Cinque Ports he has registered his sign manual so that it cannot easily be erased".
"That same inflexibility of purpose has been as strongly marked in his struggle for the priority of Hastings amongst the sister Ports. Indeed, it is in the capacity of the local antiquarian and authority on Cinque Ports' precedence and privileges that Mr. Ross will be best known to the future local historian."
As the writer of the article I've been quoting so rightly observed, "if I were a believer in the direct transmission of hereditary qualities I should say that Mr. Ross had received from his mother (featured in Week 28) that firmness of purpose and love of work which are such marked features of his character".
Thomas (2) died on 30th August 1881, his wife having died six years previously. He was living with his son, Thomas (3) (week 34) and family at Tudor House in Hastings when he died.
St. Helen's Road, once part of a farm, will be remembered by the first house built there by the late Alderman Thomas Ross, one of the historians of Hastings, and called Ross's Folly. He was thought mad to retire to this spot, but lived to see it peopled, and was, with the late Mr. H. M. Baker, one of the first Churchwardens of Blacklands Church, where Canon Alfred Hodges laboured for over 30 years.
An article in 1898, long after Thomas' death, explains the circumstances of his death :
The announcement of the meeting at the Sussex Archaeological Society in the vicinity of Hastings will recall to some a melancholy event connected with the meeting of the association in our neighbourhood seventeen years ago. I refer to the death of Alderman Ross, five times Mayor of the Premier Cinque Port, who unfortunately caught, on the occasion of the outing, a chill, which led to fatal results. Alderman Ross was well versed in archaeological lore, and did much towards upholding Hastings’ claim to be the first of the Cinque ports."
Quotations from "Hastings of Bygone Days - and the present" by Henry Cousins (1920) are in green.