Brighton Carnival

“Brighton is the only place in England where a carnival will ever become an institution.” – Brighton Carnival Programme, 1923

As a Design History student at the University of Brighton, I’ve been well acquainted with Brighton Pavilion and Museums over the last year or so. However, following a university project earlier this summer, I learnt how useful the museum and its staff can be to furthering research by amateurs and students like myself. And in turn, how local knowledge can shed new light on objects perched behind the museum glass.

The Brighton Carnival on Madeira Drive
The Brighton Carnival on Madeira Drive

Using the local history section Exploring Brighton, our project involved taking an existing exhibit and creating new material (such as a leaflet or video) that brought the object to life for a contemporary local audience. In pairs, we roamed the collection, and from the Celebrating in Brighton display we chose our exhibit: a thinly worn pamphlet and large poster each with the words ‘Brighton Carnival – June 13 – 16, 1923’ emblazoned across them. I was immediately drawn to the idea that our present-day celebrations (Pride, Lewes Bonfire, Jubilee parties, and Brighton Festival) all had their links to past events and people, and immediately began to wonder how these might have looked and felt between the wars on Brighton’s promenades. Would they share the lively, boisterous and imaginative community spirit that we recognise in today’s celebrations? The slick ‘20s dancing girl on the pamphlet seemed a world away. Who went to Brighton Carnival, was it a success, and why had it faded from popular memory?

We began our research at the Brighton History Centre – currently being relocated to The Keep in Moulsecoomb, and the first port of call for reams of local history information and sources. A helpful member of staff at the museum told us we could find an original copy of the 1923 Programme in the History Centre archives. As well as the archives, we used an extensive range of local history books to find out anything we could about Brighton Carnival. We began to ask, why do such sources exist? The nature of carnival tends to mythologize a certain time and space, and once it is over it is collectively remembered through stories, music, images and objects. We found photography and film to be a huge help in piecing together the original atmosphere of the 1923 Brighton Carnival; I was amazed at the amount of digitised information that was available – despite all our searches in books and archives, some of the most valuable resources were online through organisations such as The Regency Society, the Design Archives South East, My Brighton and Hove, and British Pathe which provided photos, film footage, personal memories and press coverage of the event – not only in 1923, but also in the following years when Brighton Carnival ran again.

The wealth of digital information led us to a simple solution; we would make a website. This allowed us to use the best of our research, from books and stories to photo and film. Yet we also hoped to embrace a new online audience, where the history of Brighton Carnival could be easily accessed by all ages and abilities. By referencing all our sources, the idea was to encourage users to follow our signposts on their own journey of discovery.

The first Carnival was held in 1922; put together by local government and businesses to encourage tourism in the area. It ran successfully until the Second World War, then was later reinstated during the 1960s and 70s, until its final year in 1991. During that time the Brighton Carnival featured such diverse events as beauty pageants, Morris dancers in Pavilion Gardens, firework displays, ballroom dancing in Queens Park, brass band marches, decorated floats competitions, and tons of fancy dress. The Carnival captured Brighton in its early years of self-expression, when hard work and plenty of imagination helped to touch ordinary people.

If this has inspired you to find out more about the Brighton Carnival, and see links to film footage and photographs of the events, visit our website. But be sure not to miss the original 1920s poster girl, dancing proud on the wall inside Brighton Museum.

Rosie Clarke

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