Church Street and the William IV Gate: a view from a curator’s window

Royal Pavilion curator Alexandra Loske takes a look out of her office window, and reflects on the historic changes that have taken place in Brighton’s Church Street.

My office is in the Old Court House, a sturdy Victorian building in Church Street, directly opposite the Brighton Dome and Corn Exchange. Church Street is one of the oldest streets in Brighton, leading up from the north-east corner of the Royal Pavilion Estate towards the parish church of St Nicholas of Myra. Although it is not a main thoroughfare through Brighton, it is a street teeming with urban business. I work with a constant soundtrack of singing, shouting, sirens and seagulls and general traffic noise drifting up to my desk. This is what I imagine the painter John Constable meant when he complained in 1824 that ‘the magnificence of the sea [at Brighton] is drowned in the din and tumult of stage coaches, gigs, flys, etc.’.

A Front View of the Prince of Wales’s Stables, before 1811
Exterior view of the north front of the stable complex towards Church Street, John Nash’s Views of the Royal Pavilion, which first appeared in 1826
Exterior view of the north front of the stable complex towards Church Street, John Nash’s Views of the Royal Pavilion, which first appeared in 1826

In the last few months I have been preparing a new exhibition which opened on 2 April at Brighton Museum. All the King’s Horses, as we cheekily decided to call it, tells the story of George IV’s passion for horses, dating back to the 1780s, when the royal stables were located to the south of the Pavilion, to the creation of the magnificent new Royal Stables and Riding House (now The Dome and Corn Exchange), created to designs by William Porden between 1803 and 1808. This is of course what I am looking at from my window.

The Church Street façade of the stables has changed dramatically since first built but has retained its oriental flair. Images of how it looked in the early years of the 1800s are rare, but the delightful small watercolour shown above give us an idea, and even shows that the finial of the dome was originally gilt. A more familiar image after Augustus Charles Pugin, published in 1826, shows fashionable Brighton society promenading in Church Street (right). In the 1820s the entire perimeter of the Royal Pavilion Estate was protected by the military, seen here on duty flanking the main entrance to the stables.

Drawing of a large gate and buildings at the end of a road
View of the North Gate House including part of the Pavilion Northern Property. Edward Fox, 1838

In 1832 King William IV added stables for his wife Queen Adelaide to the east, as well as the new North Gate, seen in a delicate drawing by Edward Fox from 1838, the year Victoria was crowned queen and first visited Brighton. A stage coach pulled by four horses can be seen coming down Church Street at considerable speed. Most mornings I approach the Royal Pavilion from the same angle Fox used in his drawing and recently tried to capture the same view.

Photo of large gate at the end of a road.
View towards the William IV Gate today.
Postcard showing Brighton Museum, a large buiilding with minarets on the roof
Church Street entrance of Brighton Public Library & Museums, c1910

The façade underwent its most dramatic change after the Royal Pavilion Estate went into municipal ownership in 1850. Between 1867 and 1873 the stables complex was converted into performance spaces, galleries, a museum and a public library. Further changes to the exterior and interior were made in 1901-2, and again in 1934, adding an Art Deco entrance to the west. There is a restlessness to my end of Church Street, but also a grandeur and confidence that I cherish. I am well aware that I have an office with a view of one of the most exciting 19th century buildings in the country. The traffic has certainly developed a different dimension. And of course Victoria is now looking at the scene herself, in the form of a statue of her by sculptor Carlo Nicoli, placed at the southern end of Victoria Gardens in 1897, to commemorate the Queen’s Diamond Jubilee.

Alexandra Loske, Art Historian and Curator

This post was originally published in Viva Brighton Magazine.

All the King’s Horses: The story of the Royal Stables and Riding School opened on 2 April and is on until 29 September 2019. Prints & Drawings Gallery, Brighton Museum. Free with admission.

3 Responses

  1. Deborah Parr

    Hello Alexandra,

    I am volunteer with the Dome Heritage Project and am wondering why, in the 1838 illustration of the William IV north gate, there seems to be a wall blocking part of Church Street which was opened up into the Steine around 1815. Would it have been for security or a toll road? Also, I notice that the sentry at the gate is wearing a helmet, whereas I have seen an illustration of two guarding the original south gate slightly earlier wearing bearskin caps.
    I would be grateful for your comments.

      • kevinbacon

        One of our curators followed up with this piece of information:

        I believe this is the retaining wall of the former infantry barracks (I don’t believe Church Street has ever been obstructed with a wall or toll gate):

        The infantry barracks occupied the plot of land edged by Church Street, Marlborough Place and North Road. They were used by the 1st Artillery Volunteers and the 1st Sussex Rifles, and, according to the mybrightonandhove.org.uk website, finally closed in 1870. The building was demolished and the site was used for a slipper bath and a county court building. It is now marked by the name Barrack Yard.

        The Mash Tun public house on Church Street was formerly The Volunteer, named to commemorate the units which used the infantry barracks. [NB: the pub sign is now on the far wall in The Waggon & Horses pub on the opposite corner)
        The Volunteers moved to the drill halls in Church Street and Gloucester Road.

        Source: http://drillhalls.org/Counties/Sussex/TownBrighton.htm

        Further reading:
        http://northlainehistory.info/military1.html

        Best,

        Kevin

        https://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/places/placestree/lewes-road/preston-barracks-lewes-road

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