On 10-12 March, Hove Town Hall will host the 21st Sussex Beer & Cider Festival. The festival will feature beers from throughout Sussex, but early indications are that only one of these will be brewed in the city. Drinkers attending the festival might be surprised to learn that Brighton once hosted a thriving brewing industry. Breweries such as Kemp Town, Rock and Tamplins once dominated local drinking, but all had vanished by the 1970s.
This magic lantern slide bears evidence of one of those breweries: Smithers & Sons. Its name can be seen high on the wall above the Unicorn pub. Like many pubs, both then and now, the Unicorn was tied to a single brewer, but it may also have been Smithers’ show piece pub. They were certainly near one another: Smithers’ main premises were demolished in 1923 to make way for the Imperial Arcade; the Unicorn was just a short barrel roll away, on the corner of North Street and Windsor Street, in the spot now occupied by Krispy Kreme Doughnuts.
The photograph was probably taken in 1893, shortly before the pub was rebuilt. Perhaps it was commissioned by the brewery to mark the beginning of a new era? After it was taken, Smithers enjoyed considerable success, acquiring the Vallance and Catt brewery in 1913. Yet by the 1920s it was struggling, and was absorbed by Tamplins in 1929. Tamplins was the last of the major local brewers to survive, but it was bought by Watneys in the 1960s and eventually merged into one of the national groups that came to dominate the British beer industry.
Few traces now remain of Smithers or its rivals. But the local beer industry has left a significant legacy in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. Henry Willett, one of the founders of the museum, made much of his fortune through brewing: the West Street Brewery was a family firm, and later became the Vallance and Catt brewery acquired by Smithers. Willett, a keen collector with interests ranging from fossils to fine art, supported the museum’s earliest displays. Some of these collections were later donated to the museum, and remain on display today, both in the gallery that bears his name and elsewhere.
Curator of Photographs