Two Brighton celebrities called John

9 February marks the anniversaries of the deaths of two well known Brighton figures: John ‘Smoaker’ Miles and John Standing. Aside from the shared first name, these Johns also share the distinction of being working class men who became local celebrities.

John ‘Smoaker’ Miles was a local ‘bather’ who capitalised on the fashion for sea dipping in the second half of the eighteenth century. Like his female contemporary, Martha Gunn, Miles operated a number of bathing machines on the seafront. Regular readers of this blog will be familiar with Thomas Rowlandson’s aquatint showing several of Miles’ bathing machines; these are identified as such in this 19th century print based on Rowlandson’s original.

John 'Smoaker' Miles' bathing machines on Brighton Beach. Aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790 (FA205960)
John ‘Smoaker’ Miles’ bathing machines on Brighton Beach. Aquatint by Thomas Rowlandson, 1790 (FA205960)
Portrait of John 'Smoaker' Miles by John Russell, 1790s (FA100842)
Portrait of John ‘Smoaker’ Miles by John Russell, 1790s (FA100842)

Miles became a bathing attendant to George, Prince of Wales, and the men established a firm friendship. He was a regular visitor to the Pavilion, and is reputed to have once walked to London to pay his respects to the Prince after a bout of illness.

Miles died on 9 February 1794 and is buried in the graveyard of St Nicholas’ Church. In his honour, the Prince established the Smoaker Stakes at Brighton Racecourse in 1804. His memory is marked today by his portrait which hangs in the Royal Pavilion.

Less is known of John Standing, the ‘Brighton Matchmaker’. A local tradesman, several portraits of him exist, such as this print held by the Bodleian Library. The print may well derive from a drawing in our collections, ascribed to John Bruce. A profile portrait, the matchmaker appears a little less decrepit in the drawing than in the print. The drawing bears handwritten lines of verse that form the opening stanza of the three that can be read in the print:

The Celebrated Matchman of Brighton

There was an old woman

In Rosemary Lane

She cuts ’em and dips ’em

And I door [sic] the same

Hand drawn portrait of John Standing, the Brighton match maker, 1829
Hand drawn portrait of John Standing, the Brighton match maker, 1829

Standing died on 9 February 1833, and the print appears to have been circulated in the last years of his life. Although the precise reasons for his fame are obscure, he is an early example of a tradition of celebrity trades persons in Brighton, such as Brandy Balls and Blind Harry.

Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

2 Responses

  1. Good post, love Brighton history, should be taught at local school’s…

  2. John Miles was my 6x gt grandfather. His wife, Abigail Gunn, was the sister of Martha Gunn’s husband, Stephen Gunn. They certainly kept the dipping and bathing in the family!

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