RIGHT at the start of this exhibition, you are greeted with an information panel that reads: “The Edwardian national depression hit the once fashionable resort of Hastings harder than other towns...tourism went into decline and there was poor local investment and escalating unemployment.”
No doubt the centenary of Robert Tressell’s death was the original inspiration behind this exhibition - which takes its name from the pseudonym the author gave Hastings in his famous book The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists – but there are interesting parallels to be drawn between a town struggling against economic and social problems then and now.
Tressell himself is dealt with in an adjoining room which forms part of the museum’s permanent collection. Evocative photographs of the author and his contemporaries alongside early labour movement memorabilia, with an impressive but limited interactive guide to Tressell to link it together.
In the main room there is a glorious array of artefacts to immerse yourself in - from postcards, adverts and playbills, dolls and toys, clothes, kitchenware (including a bizarre old hot water bottle), a telephone, a gramophone and a wonderful weighing chair from the White Rock baths. There is a huge wall of pages from The Hastings and St Leonards Pictorial Advertiser which proves just how much some things do not change – there are grumbles about councillors, the way the pier is being handled and tales of dedicated public service as well as a palpable sense of community spirit and a certain joie de vivre most would accept this town still holds dear.
But the crushing grinding poverty of Tressell’s book is largely invisible - a school medical officer’s report hints at the health issues but elsewhere Tressell’s Hastings as rendered in his novel is hard to find. It may be unfair on a show that describes itself as “a snapshot” but I was left hungry for more - more detail, more context, more explanation.
A similar criticism can be levelled at the room dedicated to Harry Furniss’ magnificent etchings. In the layered detail and quality of the draughtmanship they echo Hogarth, but while some are easy to read others are impenetrable. Again it’s impressive, but ultimately a bit unsatisfying. Interest piqued, I was left fumbling for the meanings I knew I was missing.
Make no mistake this is still a very good show with plenty to offer, but I couldn’t shake the feeling that it could have been a really great show of the sort that Tressell and his great book really deserved.