A Very Short History of the People’s Palace (Part 2)

In the lead up to our Peoples Palace Open Day on 22 January 2011, we will be posting material relating to the often forgotten history of the Royal Pavilion as a civic building. This is the second of three posts outlining its history from 1850 to the present. You can find the first part here. You can also enter our Peoples Palace Quiz for a chance to win free admission and a cream tea for two at the Royal Pavilion.

Now that the palace had been purchased for the people of Brighton, the people of Brighton had to be admitted to the palace. On 28 June 1850, just a week after its acquisition, the grounds of the Pavilion were thrown open to the public. Oddly, the first person to enter the grounds does not seem to have been a local person at all, but the Secretary of the Bank of England. According to John George Bishop this was a ‘curious coincidence’: Lewis Slight was given the duty of opening the gates and the Secretary ‘chanced to be passing at the moment the gates were swung back’. Given that the Bank of England had supplied the loan for the purchase of the Pavilion it seems far more likely that this was a planned honour. If the story was circulated that this was a mere coincidence, this may reflect a concern that local people may have been affronted that such an honour would have been given to a banker from outside of the town.

The interior of the Pavilion was also briefly open to public view, and over 27,000 people came to view it in a six day period. Some of those visitors may have been shocked by what they saw. The town had only purchased the building, and it had been mostly stripped bare of its decoration and fittings. The Commission for Woods and Forests had been so rigorous in its work that even the copper bell wire had been removed.

Work soon commenced on restoring the grand rooms on the ground floor, and the Pavilion came into regular public use in January 1851. This was marked by an opening ball on 21 January, although only the dignitaries and notables of Sussex were invited to this. The people of Brighton had to wait for the first Inhabitants’ Ball, which was held a week later.

The Grand Re-opening Ball in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion, 1851. Oil painting by Aaron Penley
The Grand Re-opening Ball in the Music Room of the Royal Pavilion, 1851. Oil painting by Aaron Penley

In spite of the immediate restoration work, the Pavilion was still only a semblance of its former splendour. Extensive work continued throughout the following decades, betraying an odd ambivalence in the town’s intentions. Substantial alterations were made to make the building fit for new purposes: the south gate and neighbouring buildings were demolished less than a year after its purchase, and many of the rooms on the upper floor were structurally modified. Yet there remained a desire to recapture some of the palace’s former glory, and this can be seen in the appointment of Frances De Val as the first Custodian of the Pavilion.

De Val was a clear link with the Pavilion’s past. In his youth he had worked as an assistant to one of the decorators of the Pavilion, and he had also been contracted to assist with the dismantling of the fittings in the late 1840s. De Val had worked on the restoration of the building in 1850 but wished to take this work further. He was given the opportunity by a gas explosion on 12 May 1863. The explosion caused considerable damage to a corner of the Music Room, prompting the Council to close the building for repair. De Val used this time to investigate what had happened to the original furnishings of the Pavilion, and found that many of these decorative pieces had not been unpacked since their removal from the Pavilion. Queen Victoria agreed to loan these pieces to the town, and in December of that year, some of these furnishings returned.

Frances De Val, as depicted in the Banqueting Room
Frances De Val, as depicted in the Banqueting Room

As a token of appreciation for his achievements, De Val is commemorated in the Royal Pavilion’s Banqueting Room. As you head towards the exit of the room that leads into the Banqueting Room Gallery, you may spot a distinctly European man in Chinese dress. This is De Val.

Grand Designs

The Pavilion may have edged back to its regal splendour, but it lacked a royal. This exposed a fundamental problem: what does a civic authority do with a palace? The town already possessed a grand civic building in the form of the Town Hall. The Pavilion’s most obvious use was as the town’s assembly rooms, but its palatial appearance was often exploited. Although a reigning monarch would not return to Brighton until the twentieth century, a number of other princes and rulers came to visit the partially restored palace. The Belgian King came to visit in 1867, and was followed by the French Emperor Napoleon III in 1872, and the Emperor of Brazil in 1877. Perhaps directed to the building by the ‘orientalism’ of its design, a number of dignitaries were entertained from Africa and the eastern hemisphere. These include the Seyyid of Zanzibar (1875), the Chinese Embassy (1879), the Prime Minister of Hyderabad in India (1883), and the Shah of Persia (1889).

The Pavilion may have welcomed men of international importance, but these men were always reminded that this was a civic building. The vestibule was filled with a welter of worthies in the form of busts of local men. In recognition of his achievement in purchasing the building, a bust of Lewis Slight was placed in the Pavilion in 1865. He was joined by other figures such as Sir David Scott, a local magistrate whose bust can still be seen in the Body Gallery of Brighton Museum, and the strikingly heroic statue of Captain Pechell, the son of a Brighton MP who had been killed in the Crimean War. Visitors to this room must have wondered if the Pavilion was intended to become Brighton’s own Westminster Abbey.

The Vestibule of the Royal Pavilion, c1910
The Vestibule of the Royal Pavilion, c1910

The Pavilion was also used to house Brighton’s loftier ambitions. The first public library was established here in 1866 following the donation of 7000 books from the Royal Literary and Scientific Institution. The first incarnation of Brighton Museum opened here in 1861. Its first curator, Benjamin Lomax, was soon replaced by the rather dismal Sir Charles Dick.  Dissatisfaction with Dick’s running of the museum lead to its moving into its present home in the Dome in 1873, but a Supplementary Museum opened in the Pavilion in 1877. Accounts of the Supplementary Museum suggest that it was used to hold objects and paintings of local interest, and some of those exhibits that were considered to be in sympathy with the Pavilion’s exotic design, such as Archdeacon Gray’s collection of artefacts from China.

That’s Entertainment

These loftier ambitions do not account for the whole of the Pavilion’s use. It was soon used as a venue for entertainments of varying quality. The building had opened to the public with a grand ball, and balls and other musical events remained a popular use of the Pavilion for the next sixty years. These were often private ticketed events, but they were also organised on behalf of the Mayor of Brighton for charitable purposes. A children’s ball seems to have been a regular feature in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Celebrated writers such as William Makepeace Thackeray and Oscar Wilde gave readings and lectures here, but not all these entertainments were as cerebral. John George Bishop claims that the ‘first private fashionable entertainment was given in the Pavilion by Mrs Peacock, a lady then residing at 111, Marine Parade’, but sadly neglects to explain precisely what Mrs Peacock offered in the way of entertainment. But it is clear that a number of bazaars, fetes, hair dressing competitions and sports events took place in the Pavilion during this period. One of the more peculiar entertainments was a series of public seances conducted by an American medium, Annie Eva Fay, in the King’s Apartments in 1874. In contrast, the rights of living women were explored in the performance of a play supporting women’s suffrage that took place in the Banqueting Room in 1909.

The variety of uses to which the Pavilion was put during this period is fascinating, but the building often appears to be struggling for a purpose at this time. Although hardly a white elephant, by the turn of the century it was lacking a clear identity. This suddenly changed in the early months of World War One.

A Symbol of the State

Shortly after war was declared in August 1914, the busts of worthies were removed from the vestibule, and the statue of Captain Pechell relocated to Brighton Museum. It is not clear why these monuments were moved at this time, but there may have been some expectation that the building would be called into use for the war effort. Few at that time would have imagined the use to which it would be put.

In November 1914 a request was made for the Pavilion to be used as a military hospital for Indian Corps troops wounded on the Western Front. Witihin a week the entire Pavilion estate was transformed into a state of the art hospital. Extensive preparations were also made to cater for the religious and caste differences of the Hindus, Sikhs and Muslims who would be treated there. The Pavilion hospital opened in December 1914, and during the next fourteen months over 4000 men were cared for in its converted wards.

The Music Room as a hospital ward for Indian soldiers, 1915
The Music Room as a hospital ward for Indian soldiers, 1915

The Pavilion was one of three Indian military hospitals in Brighton, but it became by far the most famous. It was extensively photographed by the British military authorities, and images and newspaper reports were widely circulated. The Pavilion hospital was heavily promoted in India as a sign of Imperial benevolence. At a time when Britain desperately needed to retain the loyalty of India, the Pavilion hospital became a valuable propaganda tool.

The Indian military hospital closed in January 1916, as most Indian troops had been transferred from Europe to the Middle East. In March that year, the empty hospital briefly reopened for public view, and thousands of local people paid to visit the building.

The Pavilion reopened as a hospital in the summer of 1916, but was now used for limbless British men. This hospital had a very different purpose to that which had cared for Indian troops. Aside from their propaganda value, the Pavilion Indian military hospitals were designed to treat the men and either send them back to the front or return them home as invalids. The British men who arrived at the hospital in the later years of the war had lost arms or legs and were clearly not going to return to the battlefield. The hospital for limbless men focused on rehabilitation. A workshop was constructed on the north of the Pavilion estate, where the men could learn practical skills, such as carpentry and engineering. The workshop, named after Queen Mary, bore the slogan ‘Hope Welcomes All Who Enter Here!’ Far more than just a hospital, the Pavilion became an example of the early government projects which mark the beginnings of the welfare state in Britain.

The Queen Mary's Workshop, c1917
The Queen Mary’s Workshop, c1917

In the autumn of 1920 the military authorities returned the Pavilion to the town. Its years of war use had taken their toll on the condition of the building. But, much as the gas explosion of 1863 had lead to a new period of restoration, the munitions of World War One would indirectly open up a new chapter in the Pavilion’s history.
Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

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