Anyone who saw the BBC’s fascinating Secret History of our Streets series earlier this year will know just how much we can learn about the past from the buildings and neighbourhoods around us. That series focused on London, but the stories it told – of urbanisation and social change, of community and family, of poverty and squalor and the attempts to eradicate it – can be found in all cities. Brighton is no exception. Here, then, is the first of an occasional series of posts on the history of some of our streets, starting with Pimlico, Pym’s Gardens and Orange Row.
The growth of Brighton in the 18th and early 19th centuries was driven by three key factors: the popularity of sea bathing and the town’s reputation as a health resort; its proximity to London, and the patronage of the Duke of Cumberland and, later, the Prince Regent. The influx of affluent visitors who moved into the grand seafront properties created a demand for services, and the people who provided these also needed somewhere to live. This led to the development of workers’ housing in different parts of Brighton, including the North Laine.
Once a large arable field (the word laine derives from an Anglo-Saxon term for ‘loan’ or ‘lease’, as the land was let in small portions to tenant farmers), the North Laine was developed street by street in the early 1800s, with a boom in the 1840s coinciding with the coming of the railway to Brighton. Pimlico and Orange Row were found between Church Street and North Road, with Pym’s Gardens sandwiched between them. It was an area of narrow alleys and courtyards, and small, cramped houses built without proper drainage or ventilation. Consider this description of the neighbourhood, which appeared in Edward Cresy’s report to the General Board of Health in 1849: ‘Many of the houses are wretchedly damp, being constructed of inferior bricks, and mortar made of sea sand. No methods are adopted for getting rid of even the pluvial waters, and the walls are covered with lichens; so that, added to the want of drainage, a constant decomposition of vegetable matter is going on.’ It’s difficult to imagine what life must have been like in these tiny houses. A glance at the 1841 census tells us that their occupants were mainly labourers, unskilled workers or fishing families, a far cry from the inhabitants of the town’s fashionable crescents and squares. The unsanitary conditions were obviously not ideal for a resort that prided itself on the quality of its sea air, and the implications for public health were clear. ‘The causes of sickness,’ Cresy wrote, ‘may be traced in the quantity of sulphuretted hydrogen, which arises from the excrementitious matters retained in the several cesspools throughout the town. This deadly poison pervades all the narrow breathing places which are found at the backs of the continued rows of buildings.’
In the late 1860s and early 1870s, the buildings in Pimlico and Pym’s Gardens were demolished as part of Brighton’s first slum clearance aimed specifically at improving housing conditions. Tichborne Street was created on the site but the new houses were larger and too expensive for some of the existing inhabitants, who were forced to move to other overcrowded areas. The alternative was multi-occupancy or tenement housing: the 1891 census shows that 3 Tichborne Street, for example, was shared by one family of seven, plus a visitor; a couple and their son; and a young, unmarried housemaid and her daughter – thirteen people, from three different families, in a house with seven rooms. A few doors down, number 7 was even more crowded, with 17 people – ranging in age from a young baby to a widow receiving parish relief – living under one roof.
Gradually the profile of the streets began to change. According to the 1911 census, Tichborne Street’s residents included a baker, a tailor, a jeweller, a dressmaker, a telephone inspector, a journalist and at least one person with private means, while in 1916, there was a cork merchant, a furniture dealer, a cabinet maker and a piano store in Orange Row. Parts of Tichborne Street were redeveloped again in the 1970s and, at around this time, the North Laine was designated a conservation area. This has ensured the survival of the charming streets and Victorian buildings that give the area such character today.
Kate Elms, Brighton History Centre