Whether you believe in them or not, ghost stories abound at this time of year, and one of Brighton’s most dramatic concerns the spectre of Henry Solomon, the town’s first chief of police. He was murdered in March 1844 and his spirit is said to haunt the old cells – now the Old Police Cells Museum– in the basement of Brighton Town Hall.
Solomon was involved with Brighton’s Police Force from its early days. Born in 1794, he moved to Brighton in 1821. A watchmaker by trade, he opted for a life of municipal service and held a number of positions in the town, Inspector of Nuisances and Inspector of Gas Lights among them. He married the daughter of Emanuel Hyam Cohen, head of one of Brighton’s most prominent Jewish families and, in 1838, became the town’s first chief constable.
Solomon’s death was brutal, unexpected and apparently without motive. The catalyst was the arrest, on 14 March 1844, of petty criminal John Lawrence, who had been spotted attempting to steal a roll of carpet from a shop in St James’s Street. Lawrence was taken to the police station, located in the newly built Town Hall, where Solomon began to question him. Reports suggest that Lawrence became agitated during this process and that Solomon asked him to sit by the fire for a few moments to gather his thoughts. Lawrence impulsively grabbed a poker from the hearth and struck Solomon over the head with it, causing, according to the Brighton Gazette, ‘a mortal fracture, rupture and wound’. Although there were three other officials in the room at the time, it seems no one was able to restrain him.
The chief constable was treated by doctors at the scene, before being taken to his home in Prince’s Street, near the Royal Pavilion. He died the following morning. Local papers described the incident in graphic detail, including the moment Solomon ‘fell bleeding to the floor’. There was even speculation that he may have survived had he been wearing a top hat.
Solomon’s standing in Brighton was such that thousands turned out to join the funeral procession that took him to the Jewish Burial Ground in Florence Place. A fund was set up to provide support for his wife and nine children: over £1,000 was raised, of which £500 was given by the Brighton Town Commissioners and £50 by Queen Victoria herself. Meanwhile, Lawrence was found guilty of murder and, on 6 April, executed in Horsham in front of a large crowd.
Find out more about the history of Brighton’s Police Force
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre