A Very Short History of the People’s Palace (Part 1)

In the lead up to our People’s 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 first of three posts outlining its history from 1850 to the present. You can also enter our People’s Palace Quiz for a chance to win free admission and a cream tea for two at the Royal Pavilion.

Fall from Favour

Queen Victoria Arriving at Brighton, 1843 (FA000133)
Queen Victoria Arriving at Brighton, 1843 (FA000133)

Queen Victoria made her last visit to the Royal Pavilion in 1845.  Although it’s often assumed that Victoria disliked the building, it may be more accurate to state that she had outgrown it. The location of the Pavilion may have suited a young prince who wished to be close to the entertainments and society offered by Brighton, but it became oppressive for a young queen with a growing family. During her last visit to Brighton, Victoria wrote a letter to her aunt, the Duchess of Gloucester, in which she complained that ‘the people are very indiscreet and troublesome here really, which make this place quite a prison’. But there were also less personal reasons for her discomfort in the Pavilion. This was a time in which the Queen was rebranding the monarchy and trying to distance herself from her unpopular Hanoverian uncles, Kings George IV and William IV. The strange and opulent Pavilion was, in many respects, a symbol of the more decadent behaviour of her predecessors.

The Entrance to the Royal Palace Brighton, 19th century. (BH440171)
The Entrance to the Royal Palace Brighton, 19th century. (BH440171)

It did not take long for suspicions to be raised about the fate of the building. In late 1845, Queen Victoria and her husband Prince Albert purchased Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, and work soon commenced on expanding the building. Larger, and in a more secluded location, this was a clear replacement for the holiday palace at Brighton. The following year, work began on dismantling the Pavilion. By the end of 1847, the remaining servants, many of whom had served in the palace for 20 or 30 years, were dismissed. 147 van loads of material were removed to Buckingham Palace, Kensington Palace, and Windsor Castle. According to one of the earliest historians of the Pavilion, John George Bishop, ‘the interior was so demolished it looked more like a Barracks than a Pavilion.’

In 1849 the Commissioners of Woods and Forests raised a bill to sell or demolish the Pavilion. Initially, demolition seemed the most likely outcome. George IV had regarded the Pavilion as a product of his unique vision, and had not expected the building to survive long after his death. And who would want to buy such a building? The Pavilion was regarded by many as vulgar and tasteless. This had been memorably expressed over 25 years earlier by William Cobbett.  Having dubbed it ‘The Kremlin’, Cobbett wrote a violent description of the recently completed palace in 1822:

‘Take a square box, the sides of which are three feet and a half, and the height a foot and a half. Take a large Norfolk-turnip, cut off the green of the leaves, leave the stalks nine inches long, tie these round with a string three inches from the top, and put the turnip on the middle of the top of the box. Then take four turnips of half the size, treat them in the same way, and put them on the corners of the box. Then take a considerable number of bulbs of the crown-imperial, the narcissus, the hyacinth, the tulip, the crocus, and others; let the leaves of each have sprouted to about an inch, more or less according to the size of the bulb; put all these, pretty promiscuously, but pretty thickly, on the top of the box. Then stand off and look at your architecture. There! That’s “a Kremlin !”‘

A political radical, Cobbett’s scorn for the Pavilion was fuelled by political motivations, but many would have sympathised with his description. The building had many detractors in Cobbett’s time, and many more by the 1840s. Unfashionable, and lacking royal favour, who would acquire such a building?

An Artful Acquisition

Portrait of Lewis Slight, 19th century (FA001117)
Portrait of Lewis Slight, 19th century (FA001117)

The  purchase of the Pavilion for the people of Brighton is largely due to the efforts of one man: Lewis Slight, Clerk to the Commissioners of Brighton. The Town Commissioners were the local authority of the day: a group of 112 wealthy men elected by local rate payers. In 1846 the Commissioners had set up a committee to consider options for preventing the sale or disposal of the Pavilion, but while the Crown had not formally stated its plans for the palace, it could do little more than watch the Pavilion being emptied. When the bill for the sale of the Pavilion was presented in the House of Commons on 21 June 1849,the Commissioners were horrified by its implications. The bill proposed to:

‘…sell or otherwise dispose of or to pull down the same, and to sell the Materials thereof, and to sell demise, or otherwise dispose of the land and hereditaments aforesaid comprising the site of the said Royal Pavilion and the lawns and Grounds thereof and to apply the residue of all money received in and towards the expenses incurred or to be incurred of repairing, improving and enlarging Her Majesty’s Palace Called Buckingham Palace.’

A town meeting was held in Brighton, and 7,406 signatures were raised in a local petition. This delayed the Bill and allowed fresh negotiations between the town and the Crown to begin. These were lead on behalf of Brighton by Lewis Slight, who was instrumental in persuading the lead Commissioner of Woods and Forests, Lord Carlisle, that the Pavilion ought to be sold to the town. On 17 July, Slight signed an agreement to purchase the Pavilion for £53,000. This is equivalent to £4.5 million pounds in today’s money.

Although an enormous sum, Slight seems to have pulled off a remarkable deal by convincing Carlisle to support the town’s purchase. Although the Pavilion may have been an unpopular building, it occupied a prime piece of land in a thriving seaside resort. It is likely that the government could have obtained a higher price for the Pavilion; it was widely rumoured at the time that the local building firm Cubitt was prepared to offer £100,000 for the estate.

But Slight’s efforts were not appreciated by all of the town. A number of Town Commissioners objected to the purchase, and, in particular, Slight’s handling of it. In early December, a draft bill authorising the purchase was rejected and a demand was made that the sale should be reconsidered. Slight, however, announced that he had already signed a contract for the sale, and rejected the decision with remarkable coolness. In presenting his contract to the Commissioners, Slight asserted:

‘I have great pleasure and pride in submitting to you this agreement, because whatever may be the decision of the inhabitants at the meeting, they cannot deprive me of the pleasure which I feel in placing the property within your reach.’

Displaying his contempt for his opponents, Slight struck out from the draft bill all the names of those Commissioners who opposed the purchase of the Pavilion, and replaced them with his own.

In spite of this opposition, the purchase was approved by a popular vote shortly before Christmas. A loan of £60,000 was obtained from the Bank of England, and, the following year, on 19 June 1850, the Pavilion became the property of the people of Brighton.

The only problem now was to find something to do with it.

You can read more about the History of the People’s Palace in Part 2.
Kevin Bacon
Digital Development Officer

2 Responses

  1. Cindy

    great post. I visited the Pavilion some years ago and am most grateful to the said honorable gentleman for having saved it for us to enjoy 🙂 It’s gorgeous, totally outlandish and most out of the ordinary, but what a sight to behold when chancing upon it unexpectedly.
    I cant imagine why Queen Vic did not enjoy it more.

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