Views of 19th century Brighton & Hove — an historical background

A new display of prints and watercolours, Views of 19th century Brighton & Hove, has opened in Brighton Museum this week. To accompany the display, Dr Sue Berry, author of Georgian Brighton, introduces the historical background to these works, and how they record the rapid development of Brighton at that time.

Brighton emerges as a seaside resort

Perspective View of Brighthelmstone..., 1765
Perspective View of Brighthelmstone…, 1765

The little decaying town of Brighton was saved from further decline by the development of seaside tourism.  Visitors were sampling sea bathing here by the mid 1730s and, by the early 1750s, numbers were sufficient for Dr Richard Russell, one of the specialists of the period in the use of saline waters for the treatment of illnesses to build a house as consulting rooms and lodgings for patients. His house was sited on the end of a low lying area of cliff at the end of the Steine beside a convenient slope down which bathing machines could be hauled onto the beach during the late summer and autumn season. It is visible in the Lambert view of Brighton in 1765.

Messrs Shergold and Tilt from Lewes bought a house, named it the Castle and opened it as an inn, quickly adding an assembly room and other facilities due to the demand for entertainment. The building is featured in several of the prints and watercolours in the exhibition, starting with the Lambert of 1765. The Old Ship, owned and run by the Hicks family but in a far less public situation on the Cliff by Ship Street and, without a seafront road to give good access until the early 1820s, managed to compete from the 1760s when an assembly room was added by the Hicks family.

A fashionable town

Old Steine, Brighton, 1796
Old Steine, Brighton, 1796

By the time that George Prince of Wales became a fan of the resort in the mid 1780s, its reputation was well established. The Duke of Marlborough and Mr Percy Wyndham (brother of the Earl of Egremont) were among the visitors who had town houses (the latter in the Spornberg view of the Steine from the north). The development of Thomas Kemp’s lodging house into the Pavilion simply added to the number. Most of them were close to the Steine which acted as the social centre and promenade for visitors. That role helps to explain why so many terraced houses were built around its perimeter and along the East cliff.   The west side of the town, from which access to the Steine was inconveniently via North Street due to the lack of a seafront road, attracted villa development, partly due to the cheaper land.

Close to the Steine, the majority of houses were tall and narrow due to land costs because of its role as the centre of fashion. The majority of the social events were held either on it or in the assembly rooms, the theatre and other public pleasure buildings nearby .

Rapid expansion

The development of the coast road by 1820 helped to change what was built in the town because it linked the two sides and the centre together more conveniently. The demand for bigger houses also reflected a major change in the use of the resort by visitors. Regency Square, Brunswick and Kemp Towns, Richmond Terrace and Portland Place are examples of the new, bigger and more coherent projects.  More wanted to entertain at home, so public facilities such as assembly rooms declined and this was one reasons why the Castle Inn was shut. This enabled the Prince Regent to complete his purchase of the building and demolish it, saving the assembly room to convert to his private chapel, the Royal Chapel (not to be confused with the Chapel Royal in North Street).

Ireland's Royal Brighton Gardens
Ireland’s Royal Brighton Gardens

The change in taste also explains the development of purpose built hotels such as the Bedford and the Royal Albion and the conversion of groups of houses into hotels letting apartments. Brighton was also transformed by many other new projects such as the construction of the Chain Pier and the related work stabilising the eastern cliffs, the development of St Peter’s and many other places of worship, and street widening in the old town. Some projects, such as Brighton (now Queen’s) Park and Ireland’s Gardens never fulfilled the aspirations of their owners. Several grand schemes were never begun.

From the recession to the railway

The euphoria could only last so long and in Brighton a recession which started in the later 1820s and continued until after the opening of the railway to London also resulted in some projects never being finished as intended, such as Adelaide Crescent and Furze Hill (both by Decimus Burton).

The railway was opposed by many influential residents from the mid 1820s until the mid 1830s when residents recognised that communications had to be improved to help the town to revive. The opening of the London to Brighton line in 1841 did not immediately improve matters; the national economy had to improve enough for confidence in spending on leisure activities such as holidays to return. By the mid 1840s the town was quickly recovering. One sign of that was the return of over-ambitious projects, such as those shown in the exhibition.

Public dispensary, 1849
Public dispensary, 1849

Architectural styles changed.  Housing schemes such as Park Crescent (on part of Ireland’s Gardens) and Clifton were designed in variants of the Italianate style pioneered by architects such as Charles Barry who used it for St Andrews in Waterloo Street in the mid 1820s. The ‘Regency’ style became unfashionable. For public buildings such as the new Infirmary, Gothic was a popular style.

Many of the prints indicate that there were crowded streets behind the elegant facades along main roads and remind us that most of the resort’s population lived in small homes which we would regard as overcrowded. It is in some of these areas, so well recorded by photographers in the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, that served as the centres from which, periodically, infectious diseases spread into areas inhabited by visitors and threatened the reputation of the resort. They also show the importance of the main thoroughfares for high class housing which overlooked either the gardens or the sea. Georgian, Regency and Victorian society regarded the care of the publicly owned gardens and the coast road as keys to the image and prosperity of the resort. A good image, as projected by so many of these prints and watercolours, was essential to towns then as much as it is today. That is a  key message of so many of these intriguing depictions of how the Brighton and Hove emerged. The majority show the townscape at its best.

Dr Sue Berry

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