Brighton squalor — what the 1911 Museums Association delegates (probably) didn’t see.

Oxford Court, 1935
Oxford Court, 1935

We hope that those attending the 1911 Museums Association conference enjoyed their surroundings. Then, as now, very few public venues could boast of being part of a former royal estate. But these opulent buildings may have disguised the fact that the delegates were discussing the museological issues of the day in the midst of some of the worst poverty in the country.

Although Brighton’s success as a seaside resort was founded on its reputation as a place of health, its rapid growth lead to major housing problems and poor sanitation. From the 1750s, the central valley of Brighton running  north from the Old Steine was developed into fashionable housing for the wealthy, and the Royal Pavilion was just the most extreme example of this. This expansion lead to many local people, mostly fishermen and their families, being pushed to the margins of the town. Initially, their homes were made in small, squalid courtyards in the old part of the town, now known as The Lanes. Later, they were often pushed to the slopes of the valley, particularly in the Albion and  Carlton Hill areas, just northeast of the Pavilion.

The situation worsened rapidly once the railway connection with London was established in 1841. Over the next decade the population of Brighton grew by almost 50%, with an inevitable increase in overcrowding. In 1848, a local doctor, Dr William Kebbell,  remarked of Brighton that ‘in no town throughout the Kingdom do cleanliness and filth meet in such extremes as in this’. Dense pockets of housing grew up, with buildings often made of poor quality ‘bungaroosh’: a  composite building material of flint, broken bricks and other fragments, that is almost unique to Brighton.

Although out of sight for many visitors, these communities were only a few minutes away from the Pavilion estate. Prostitution was a common trade in these areas, and many of these prostitutes traded in New Road, on the western edge of the grounds of the Pavilion. But the worst area of deprivation was Oxford Court, just a few minutes north of the Pavilion.

Oxford Court, 1935

Often described as the ‘black spot’ of Brighton, Oxford Court suffered the problems typical of the small courts that could be found in the town. Infestations of bugs were common, but it suffered from additional vermin. The presence of an abattoir in this narrow and densely populated street ensured that rats were a regular problem. Backyard Brighton, a 1989 book by local publisher QueenSpark books,  contains several accounts of former residents who recall seeing cattle led past their windows. The sounds of slaughter could sometimes be heard throughout the night.  As one resident, Ernest Whittington, recalled:

‘The slaughter house was in use for most of the time. We could hear the bleating of sheep and the mooing of cattle, and the shots as the animals were killed – day and night for several days at a time.’

These problems remained long after the Museums Association delegates arrived in 1911, and were still prevalent in the 1930s. They were horrifically depicted in Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, the most famous fictional account of the town. Although the novel is widely remembered for its depictions of Brighton’s infamous race gangs, and the tawdry aspects of seaside life, local poverty played an important role in the book’s psychological landscape. This is made clear in one passage, where Pinky, the main protagonist, meets Rose at her home:

‘He found the house in Nelson Place… In the awful little passage which stank like a lavatory she ran quickly and passionately on…’

Park Street, 1959
Park Street, 1959

But by the time Greene’s novel was published in 1938, work had already begun in addressing these problems. The Greenwood Act 1930 provided local councils with funds to clear areas of poor quality housing. From 1935, whole areas were demolished and many local families moved to new estates in the east of Brighton, such as Whitehawk. While the housing they were offered was a great improvement, many resented the disruption to their lives and communities. Clearance work was disrupted by the Second World War and not completed until the early 1960s.

You can find photographs of many of these lost areas of Brighton on Historypin.

Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

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