Stylish, flamboyant and fun, Brighton has evolved over hundreds of years from a tiny fishing community into a vibrant, modern ‘city by the sea’. Today, Brighton is identified with many things – its festival, universities and fine Regency architecture among them – but its status as a fashionable seaside resort, along with its fascinating history, is perhaps its greatest attraction.
Early visitors to Brighton were motivated not by leisure or pleasure but by their health and wellbeing. Seawater cures were popular by the mid 18th century and Brighton’s proximity to London made it a good alternative to spa towns such as Bath. Lewes-based Dr Richard Russell moved his practice to Brighton in the 1750s, famously recommending that his patients not only swim in the sea, but also drink the salty water. Other physicians offered similar advice, prompting an influx of wealthy visitors to the town.
A Dip in the Sea
Public bathing was highly regulated, of course, and bathing machines were a familiar sight on Brighton’s beaches in the 18th and 19th centuries. These enclosed wooden carts were wheeled right into the sea so that bathers, having changed in private, could step into the water without exposing themselves in any way. Some swimmers employed a ‘dipper’ or ‘bather’ to help them into the water and provide further invigoration by plunging them up and down. Separate beaches were established for men and women and, in line with this segregation, male ‘bathers’ assisted men while female ‘dippers’ – of whom the most famous was Martha Gunn – attended to women.
Seawater swimming baths were also popular with Brighton’s aristocracy, since they provided the therapeutic benefits of the sea along with greater seclusion and protection from the elements. Few people swam for the sheer fun of it in the Georgian era; the healing powers of the water were the driving force.
Fashionable Society and the New Daytrippers
The Prince of Wales first visited Brighton in 1783 and was instantly seduced by its charms. The royal connection enhanced the town’s reputation as a sophisticated resort, despite the raffish behaviour of the prince’s circle of friends. Life in fashionable society in the late 18th and early 19th centuries was all about seeing and being seen, and this led to the creation of elegant public spaces and promenades in which to take the sea air. The 1820s in Brighton saw the development of Kemp Town’s imposing crescents, the construction of the Chain Pier and the opening of seafront carriage drives such as King’s Road, all to meet the needs of wealthy tourists.
However, it wasn’t just the rich who made their way to this part of the coast. The arrival of the railway linking London to Brighton in the mid 19th century brought an entirely different class of visitor. Thanks to the shortened journey time and affordable fares, working people were able to enjoy a day at the beach for the first time. Families packed into third-class carriages and descended on the town in their thousands, eager to enjoy the sights and sounds of the seaside. Punch and Judy shows, acrobatic displays and ice-cream stalls, not to mention paddling and picnicking on the pebbles, were all things that appealed to the new daytrippers.
The beau monde, on the other hand, were less enthusiastic about rubbing shoulders with the lower classes, so the fashionable ‘season’ shifted to the cooler months. Luxury hotels, including The Grand, were built on the seafront to accommodate guests searching for winter sunshine, while the newly opened West Pier allowed them to take the sea air.
Changes Through the 20th Century
By the mid 19th century, swimming had become a popular pastime. Brighton Swimming Club, founded in 1860, provided ‘aquatic entertainment’, ranging from swimming races and water polo matches to diving displays, all of which could be viewed from the pier. Many of the club’s traditions have survived, including the annual Christmas morning swim, which has been taking place for more than 100 years.
The end of the Victorian era coincided with a gradual relaxation of the more formal codes of behaviour. Mixed bathing was finally sanctioned in Brighton in 1901, giving greater freedom for couples and families to enjoy a day at the beach together. Swimwear became less restrictive – and a whole lot more stylish – while the 19th century obsession with retaining a pale complexion became a thing of the past. Instead, holidaymakers sunned themselves on the terraces of the Aquarium and the Palace Pier, at the outdoor pool at Black Rock, and the Art Deco lido at Saltdean. Beauty pageants, such as the Bathing Belle competition, reflected the carnival atmosphere of the period, while photographs taken during the 1920s and 1930s capture the sense of fun and frivolity. In contrast, Graham Greene’s Brighton Rock, which was published in 1938, depicted a darker side to life.
Brighton’s beaches were closed during the war and, in the years that followed, the effects of rationing and of financial hardship were clearly felt by the town and its inhabitants. An air of optimism returned in the 1950s, as people flocked to the piers and beaches once more – in 1957, 95,000 people were reported to have visited the Palace Pier during the August Bank Holiday weekend. This was the age of helter skelters and slot machines, rock shops and paddle steamers. The introduction of the Promettes – chic, uniformed young women who were employed to answer questions and provide assistance to weekend visitors – was one of the more memorable initiatives of the 1950s. Described in one local paper as ‘walking information bureaux with sex appeal’, they added a touch of glamour to the promenade.
But the holiday industry was changing and, in the 1960s and 1970s, the English seaside faced competition from package deals to the Mediterranean. Coastal resorts were forced to reinvent themselves in order to survive, and Brighton was no exception. Key developments that have come to define the town include the establishment of Sussex University in the early 1960s, the annual Brighton Festival, which first took place in 1967, and the Marina, a controversial idea that came to fruition in the 1970s. Since then, Brighton – along with Hove – has been awarded city status and, while much has changed, much has remained the same. People are drawn by its unique character, and there is still a sense, as you step off the train and head down the hill to the beach, that this is a place where anything might happen.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre