The Images of Brighton gallery and the Exploring Brighton gallery are the local
history galleries in Brighton Museum & Art Gallery. The galleries should be viewed in association with each other as they represent two very different sides of the city.
Images of Brighton looks at those aspects of the city that people traditionally associate with Brighton. Many see Brighton as a tourist resort, others think of it as a city of freedom of expression and ideas.
From Brighton’s importance as a fishing town in medieval times, through its re-invention as a health resort in the 1700s and centre for holidaying in the late 1800s, to its reputation today as a tolerant and fashionable city by the sea, the gallery examines how Brighton has gained its forward-thinking reputation.
By juxtaposing the past with the present and by the choice of subject areas that are on display in the gallery, we seek to confirm people’s perceptions of Brighton. By contrast, Exploring Brighton, looks away from the seafront and reveals that Brighton is a much more complex city than many visitors and residents may recognise.
‘I’m going out tonight if it blows the stars out the sky!’ Catching Stories, QueenSpark Books
Brighton was once the most important fishing town in Sussex. Four out of five men were fishermen. Brighton’s fleet fished as far away as Yarmouth and Scarborough.
Throughout the 1600s, its cargo boats carried coal from Newcastle to London.
Fishing families lived under the cliffs on Brighton’s seafront in an area stretching over half a mile from the Steine to Hove. This land was gradually eroded. In 1705, a ferocious storm buried the houses in pebbles15 feet deep (4.5 metres).
As Brighton became fashionable, fishing suffered. Regency aristocrats banned the fishermen from drying nets on the Steine. Victorian day-trippers drove up prices on the seafront. The railway brought fish from the North Sea that was cheaper than the local catch. In the 1960s, Brighton Corporation banned the fish market on the beach, moving it inland.
Today, fishermen can again sell seafood on the beach, opposite the Fishing Museum by Brighton Pier.
‘The senior Priestess of the Bath, Martha Gunn, is daily employed in pickling beauties in Neptune’s brine, which she recommends as the best preservative for female charms hitherto discovered.’ Brighton Herald,1807
Brighton’s fame as a health resort began in the 1750s when Dr Richard Russell of Lewes claimed that drinking and bathing in seawater could cure many illnesses.
Bathing was seen as medicine rather than pleasure and dippers and bathers were paid to plunge visitors roughly into the sea.
Russell’s ideas became popular, but physician John Awsiter realised that sea bathing was too rigorous an experience for many. So, in 1769, he built hot and cold indoor seawater health baths in Pool Valley. Brighton’s most famous baths were built by Sake Deen Mahomed, who was born in India and moved to Brighton in 1786. He set up the first ‘Turkish’ baths in the country and offered indoor bathing, steam rooms and massage, then known as shampooing, as medical cures.
In 1825, Brighton’s fame as a health resort led Dr Struve of Dresden in Germany to build an artificial spring in Queens Park. He copied healing waters from other famous resorts by adding mineral salts to ordinary water. Brighton’s healthy image encouraged fashionable visitors to come to the town and in turn brought wealth and prosperity.
‘The Steine is thronged towards the close of day with company, and on Sunday evening exhibits vanity-fair in perfection.’ Excursion to Brighton During the Month of July, 1818
At the end of the 1700s, London’s high society flocked to Brighton. At first, they
came for seawater cures. Later, they came to ‘see and be seen’, particularly after the arrival of the Prince of Wales (who became King George IV).
New visitors introduced themselves to the Master of Ceremonies, who organised the town’s grand social occasions. They signalled their arrival in visitors’ books, which were kept in circulating libraries.
Circulating libraries were like private clubs, where people met, played games, listened to music, or read books. Another favourite pastime was to promenade along the seafront or on the Steine (specially fenced for the purpose). In the evening, society gathered at Assembly Rooms for grand balls and receptions.
In 1841 the railway arrived bringing day-trippers. To avoid the crowds, the fashionable season moved to the winter. By the early 1900s, Brighton was best known as a popular resort. However, the city retained its trendy status and today still attracts the chic and fashionable.
‘The beauty of Brighton is indeed confined to its buildings.’ A Visit to Brighton, The Mirror, 1826
The term ‘Regency’ relates to the period when the future King George IV was the
Prince Regent from 1811-1820. However, architecturally, most buildings in Brighton built in the Regency style were built after 1820.
Brighton-based architects Busby & Wilds were responsible for many of the town’s Regency buildings. During the 1820s, they worked with Thomas Read Kemp MP, who owned land in east Brighton, to produce a self-supporting estate called Kemp Town. However, people considered it to be too far from the town centre and fashionable society. Indeed, seven years after they were built, only 34 of 106 houses completed were occupied.
Decorated with columns, ironwork balconies, bow fronts and ‘stucco’ plaster, the grand buildings of Brighton’s crescents, squares and terraces have left lasting impressions for many visitors over the last 200 years. Now, many Regency buildings have been converted into flats or bedsits and have fallen into decline, but some still display the splendour and grandeur of the 1820s.
In 1871, a new law compelled employers to give staff days off work. Thanks to the railway, fashionable Brighton was an obvious destination for a day trip. As well asthe piers, attractions included an aquarium and two electric railways.
The Chain Pier was built in 1823 for boarding ferries and fashionable promenading. The West Pier was built next, and became a venue for shows and entertainers. Palace Pier, opened in 1899, was solely designed for day-trippers. Penny-in-the-slot machines and funfair rides gradually replaced human entertainers.
Brighton inventor Marcus Volk built the first public electric railway in Britain along the front (it still operates today). He also created the short-lived ‘Daddy-Long-Legs’, a carriage on stilts powered by an overhead electric cable that ran on undersea rails.
In 2000, Brighton Pier (once Palace Pier) was Britain’s second most popular leisure facility. Ironically, the derelict West Pier is the only Grade I listed pier in the country.
Coming to Brighton
Many early travellers came to Brighton to cross the Channel. The journey from London could take days. Brighton has no natural harbour, so passengers were rowed to their boats.
In 1762 a same-day service to London by horse-drawn carriage began. Improved
roads and Brighton’s rising fame as a fashionable resort meant that by 1822 dozens of carriages were arriving daily. Stock-traders even commuted from Brighton, spending two and a half hours a day in the capital.
In the 1840s the railway started bringing five times as many passengers to the resort. Some felt this lowered the tone of the town. However, the train that became the Brighton Belle was one of the most luxurious in the world.
In 1896 54motorcars set out from London to Brighton to celebrate a law permitting them to travel at 14 miles per hour. 13 cars completed the journey. Today, the event is celebrated annually by the famous Veteran and Vintage Car Run.
Mods and Rockers
The 1964 clash between Mods and Rockers on Brighton Beach is legendary. It inspired the film Quadrophenia and on Bank Holidays the seafront is still lined with scooters and motorbikes.
Mods dressed sharply. They rode scooters and cared about their appearance. Their name was based on ‘Modern Jazz’. Rockers, on the other hand, liked 1950s rock ‘n’ roll. They wore leather jackets and rode motorbikes.
On a hot Bank Holiday in 1964, thousands of Mods and Rockers poured into Brighton. Hundreds slept on the beach. Saturday was peaceful, a few stones were thrown, but Sunday brought fierce fighting. Gangs of youths cornered each other. Windows were smashed. The police moved in reinforcements.
Some people say that the media whipped up the conflict between Mods and Rockers. Wild newspaper reports attracted people who were looking for a fight. ‘They were just gangs of kids’ one Mod claimed. ‘No real Mod wanted to roll about in the dirt.’
Brighton is renowned for its club and party scene. In Regency times, aristocrats danced at Brighton’s grand balls. The Victorians enjoyed ballrooms in hotels and the Aquarium. The ‘dance craze’ swept the town in the 1920s and 1930s. Today, Brighton is the clubbing capital of the south.
Famous Brighton clubs included the Zap Club, the Concorde and the Escape
Club. The Paradox Club was once Sherry’s, the famous 1930s dance hall. In the 1980s and 1990s, the Concorde gave a start to performers who became national names. In the late 1990s and early 2000s, DJ Fatboy Slim became Brighton’s most famous musical celebrity. He even decided to sponsor Brighton and Hove Albion Football Club through his record label.
As well as Brighton’s clubs, people have held impromptu parties in squats, warehouses, on the Downs, and beside the cliffs. The scene started with reggae ‘blues’ parties during the early 1980s. One of the first outdoor events took place by Shoreham Power Station. Anarchic and open to all, such parties express an alternative political culture.
Lesbian and gay Brighton
In 1988 The Sun newspaper reported with shocked surprise that Brighton was the gay capital of Europe. This exaggerated report was not news to the thousands of lesbians, gay men and bisexuals who lived here.
Early records suggest that men were already coming to Brighton to have sexual relationships with other men in the 1830s. By the 1930s the town’s reputation had secretly spread far and wide. Queer visitors could enjoy the ‘Men Only’ beach in Hove, a lesbian bar known as Pigotts on St James’s Street and several other gay bars.
During the rest of the 20th century increasing numbers of gay people came to live in Brighton, finding it a more tolerant place than their own home towns.
Now lesbians, gay men, bisexuals and transgender people make up the largest minority of the local population and the annual Pride festival is one of the city’s major attractions.
Source: Brighton Ourstory Project
Employment in tourism
Teenage boys offered rides in goat-carts in the 1830s. Six glamorous young women helped tourists on the seafront as ‘promettes’ in the 1950s. Brighton still has a Punch and Judy professor (as the puppeteer is known in the trade), and shop-keepers still sell Brighton Rock, invented in the 1870s.
Brighton’s early tourists were not always impressed. ‘I assure you we live here almost underground’ one visitor wrote in 1736, complaining about low ceilings, but hotels and boarding houses thrived, offering seasonal work for low wages.
The piers employed toll-keepers from 1823 until 1984. Entertainers performed in ‘end-of-the-pier’ shows. Caterers and funfair attendants offered ‘teas at popular prices’ and ‘fabulous quality cuddly toys’. From silhouette cutters to deckchair attendants, the tourism industry has offered a diverse range of work.
Brighton’s sense of freedom is one of its attractions. But why does it have a reputation as a place for a ‘dirty weekend’?
Brighton became known for sexual adventures in Regency times. George IV had a string of mistresses, particularly older women. The presence of the army camp in Brighton added to the town’s romantic possibilities. Prostitutes were readily available. There were about 300 in Brighton by Victorian times. The scenes on the beach were said to ‘beggar all description’. (Today, local people are outraged by sex adverts in phone boxes.)
In the 1950s, Brighton was convenient for real or staged affairs. To obtain grounds for divorce, some husbands hired a room and a woman, and paid the chambermaid to witness the adultery.
Nowadays, thanks to ‘kiss me quick’ hats, Carry On films and the nudist beach, the city is still associated with innocent naughtiness