History of Brighton

Brighthelmston was a fishing village in the 16th century, with 400 fishermen and sixty boats. By the early 17th century Brighton was the largest town in Sussex with a population of nearly 4,000 people.

The decline in the fishing industry during the 18th century resulted in large numbers leaving the town in search of work. Those that remained found life very difficult and by 1740 over three quarters of Brighton's households were too poor to pay rates. Daniel Defoe pointed out in his book, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724): "Brighthelmston (Brighton) is a poor fishing town, old built, and on the edge of the sea."

In the middle of the 18th century some doctors began to claim that diseases could be cured by bathing in sea-water. George III was the first monarch to believe this advice and he regularly visited Weymouth for a swim. His son, the future George IV, spent a great deal of time in Brighton and eventually built the Royal Pavilion in the town.

Rich people tended to imitate the behaviour of the royal family, and holidays by the sea became very fashionable. The number of people visiting these resorts increased further because of the claims made by some doctors, such as Richard Russell, that drinking sea-water would cure asthma, cancer, consumption, deafness and rheumatism.

Brighton soon became the most popular seaside resort in Britain, with over 2,000 people a week visiting the town. The cost of transport meant that it was extremely rare for most people living in towns to visit the coast. For example, the cost of a coach ticket from London to Brighton was more than most people could earn for two weeks work. However, the large number of rich people in the town enabled the Theatre Royal to be built in 1807.

Elizabeth Fry visited Brighton in 1824: "During her stay at Brighton, Mrs. Fry was often distressed by the multitude of applicants for relief. This was not confined to beggars by profession, who infested the streets, following carriages and foot passengers with clamorous importunity, but extended to the resident poor, many of whom had obtained the habit of asking assistance to the houses, not only of the inhabitants, but the visitors to the place. It was difficult for the former, but almost impossible for the latter, to discover the true state of the case, whether their poverty was real or assumed."

This view was supported by Dr. G. S. Jenks: "Owing to the imperfect and insufficient drainage of the town, the inhabitants are compelled to have recourse to numerous cess-pools as receptacles for superabundant water, and refuse of all kinds; and to save the inconvenience of frequently emptying them, they dig below the hard coombe rock till they come to the shingles, where all the liquid filth drains away. Nottingham Street is the well-known haunt of tramps and beggars; Egremont Street of the lowest prostitutes and thieves. In Nottingham Street there are eight or nine lodging-houses. Lodging keepers have commonly three of four houses, for each of which they pay 2s. 6d. per week. The following is a description of one of them. One room, common to the whole of the inmates, who amounted to 30, including the children, served both as kitchen and sitting-room. The room was crowded when I visited it in company with the chief police-officer, Mr. Solomons, with not less than 17 people covered with filth and rags."

James Wilson Carmichael, Brighton from the Sea (1840).
James Wilson Carmichael, Brighton from the Sea (1840).

After the success of the Liverpool & Manchester Railway, a group of businessmen decided to build a railway between London and Brighton. The first train entered Brighton Railway Station on 21st September 1841. At first, the railway company concentrated on bringing the rich to the coast. It was not long, however, before the company realised that by offering cheap third-class tickets, they could increase the numbers of people using their trains. In 1843 the London to Brighton Railway reduced the price of their third-class tickets to 3s. 6d. In the six months that followed this reduction in price, 360,000 people arrived in Brighton by train.

Large numbers of people now moved to the town to provide these visitors with food and entertainment. Between 1841 and 1871 the population of Brighton increased from 46,661 to 90,011, making it the fastest growing town in Britain.

In the 1870s the family of Evelyn Sharp would visit Brighton for a month every year. "Brighton in the seventies was not Hove. For us it was Kemp Town, with a background of bare Downs and a foreground of untidy shingle on which lay rowing boats and fishing smacks when they were not afloat-a beach strewn with bits of treasure cast up by the tide, and with fishing nets spread out to dry, and, when the tide was out, presenting a long stretch of rather black smooth sand on which to build castles. Over it all was that smell of the sea-or was it only of stale fish and decaying seaweed - which, with the smell of the magic-lantern and the circus, may be ranked among the subtle smells of Victorian childhood that never failed to thrill. And in this charming old Georgian seaside resort-resort is exactly the right word for it - we used to occupy rooms in a house with a shining black front of bow windows, in Lower Rock Gardens, looking sideways to the sea and frontwards to a wind-swept, sun-dried oval of enclosed garden that we thought as lovely as the rest of it."

As a young man, Edward Carpenter lived in Brighton: "The scenery and surroundings of Brighton are also bare and chilly enough; and trees, whose friendly covert I have always loved, do not exist there; but the place has two nature-elements in it - and these two singularly wild and untampered - the Sea and the Downs. We lived within two hundred yards of the sea, and its voice was in our ears night and day. On terrific stormy nights it was a grisly joy to go down to the water's edge at 10 or 11 p.m. - pitch darkness - feeling one's way with feet or hands, over the stony beach, hardly able to stand for the wind - and to watch the white breakers suddenly leap out of the gulf close upon one, the booming of the wind, like distant guns, and the occasional light of some vessel labouring for its life in the surge."

© , September 1997 - April 2014

Primary Sources

(1) Daniel Defoe, A Tour Through the Whole Island of Great Britain (1724)

Brighthelmston (Brighton) is a poor fishing town, old built, and on the edge of the sea. From hence, still keeping the coast close to the left, we come to Shoreham, a sea-faring town, and chiefly inhabited by ship-carpenters, ship-chandlers, and all the several trades depending upon the building and fitting up of ships, which is their chief business. Here in the compass of about six miles are three borough towns, sending Members to Parliament: Shoreham, Bramber and Steyning. Shoreham and Steyning are tolerable little market-towns; but Bramber (a little ruin of an old castle excepted) hardly deserves the name of a town, having not above fifteen or sixteen families in it.

(2) In 1848 two of Elizabeth Fry's daughters collected together her papers and published them as The Memoir of the Life of Elizabeth Fry. The book included an account of a visit by Elizabeth Fry to Brighton in 1824.

During her stay at Brighton, Mrs. Fry was often distressed by the multitude of applicants for relief. This was not confined to beggars by profession, who infested the streets, following carriages and foot passengers with clamorous importunity, but extended to the resident poor, many of whom had obtained the habit of asking assistance to the houses, not only of the inhabitants, but the visitors to the place. It was difficult for the former, but almost impossible for the latter, to discover the true state of the case, whether their poverty was real or assumed. Mrs. Fry established the Brighton District Society. The object of the Society were stated to be, "The encouragement of industry and frugality among the poor, by visits at their own inhabitations; the relief of real distress, whether arising from sickness or other causes; and the prevention.

(3) Dr. G. S. Jenks, Report on the Sanitary Condition of Brighton (1839)

Owing to the imperfect and insufficient drainage of the town, the inhabitants are compelled to have recourse to numerous cess-pools as receptacles for superabundant water, and refuse of all kinds; and to save the inconvenience of frequently emptying them, they dig below the hard coombe rock till they come to the shingles, where all the liquid filth drains away. The consequence is inevitable; the springs in the lower part of the town must be contaminated.

Nottingham Street is the well-known haunt of tramps and beggars; Egremont Street of the lowest prostitutes and thieves. In Nottingham Street there are eight or nine lodging-houses. Lodging keepers have commonly three of four houses, for each of which they pay 2s. 6d. per week. The following is a description of one of them. One room, common to the whole of the inmates, who amounted to 30, including the children, served both as kitchen and sitting-room. The room was crowded when I visited it in company with the chief police-officer, Mr. Solomons, with not less than 17 people covered with filth and rags. In the largest of the sleeping rooms, 16 feet by 10 feet, by 7 feet high, there were six beds, five on bedsteads and one of the floor, to accommodate twelve people of both sexes, besides children. Each person paid 3d. per night.

(4) J. G. Bishop, Brighton As It Is (1860)

The houses of the poor in Brighton, which are situated in narrow streets and courts, are for the most part ill-ventilated, badly drained, if at all. The numbers which are huddled together in them render decency and decorum next to impossible. Many of them being built with inferior bricks and mortar made of sea-sand are wretchedly damp so that even the walls are covered with lichens, and the miserable tenants, unable to endure the depression of spirits which is the necessary result, try to drown their uneasy sensations in the neighbouring beer shops.

(5) Edward Carpenter, My Days and Dreams, (1916)

The scenery and surroundings of Brighton are also bare and chilly enough; and trees, whose friendly covert I have always loved, do not exist there; but the place has two nature-elements in it - and these two singularly wild and untampered - the Sea and the Downs. We lived within two hundred yards of the sea, and its voice was in our ears night and day. On terrific stormy nights it was a grisly joy to go down to the water's edge at 10 or 11 p.m. - pitch darkness - feeling one's way with feet or hands, over the stony beach, hardly able to stand for the wind - and to watch the white breakers suddenly leap out of the gulf close upon one, the booming of the wind, like distant guns, and the occasional light of some vessel labouring for its life in the surge.

(6) Evelyn Sharp Unfinished Adventure (1933)

I have also a faint recollection of a house with a garden, at Luton, where Cecil used to give me rides in a wheelbarrow; but it soon became more convenient to separate the older and younger sections of the family when we went holiday-making, and for some years I and the two little boys, who did " lessons " every day with a sister and were therefore independent of school terms, were sent away earlier in the summer with Nurse and spent a wonderful month in Paradise by the sea, which was Brighton. Everything about that month by the sea was perfect. It began with the packing-up, though why we took such quantities of luggage with us it is impossible to say. In addition to a massive dressbasket, as the thing was called, filled to the brim with garments, there was Nurse's own box as well as the nursemaid's ; and besides all that, the perambulator was packed stiff with spades and pails and other necessaries of life by the sea, and finally, there was the bath. I do not know whether we took the nursery bath-a thing rather like a coffin in shape-because the lodging-house bath was under suspicion, or because it offered another receptacle for clothes ; but we did take it, stuffed to repletion and running over, so that, when sewn into a covering of brown sacking, it resembled an enormous meat pie. The language of the cabmen and porters who had to handle that bath was eloquent, but to us it was the sign and symbol of our entry into Paradise ; and when it was hoisted on to the top of the four-wheeler, and the driver was told to follow us who filled the brougham to Victoria station, we knew that anticipations were realised and the great annual event was once more coming off.

Brighton in the seventies was not Hove. For us it was Kemp Town, with a background of bare Downs and a foreground of untidy shingle on which lay rowing boats and fishing smacks when they were not afloat-a beach strewn with bits of treasure cast up by the tide, and with fishing nets spread out to dry, and, when the tide was out, presenting a long stretch of rather black smooth sand on which to build castles. Over it all was that smell of the sea-or was it only of stale fish and decaying seaweed - which, with the smell of the magic-lantern and the circus, may be ranked among the subtle smells of Victorian childhood that never failed to thrill; and with the recollection of that smell comes another of a symphony of sound, made up of nigger minstrels, and hawkers calling shrimps and lobsters "All alive-o!" and donkey boys shouting at their patient animals, and the crunching wheels of goat-chaises, in which we were never allowed to ride because the other children who had already occupied them might be recovering from measles or scarlet fever;-and all of it happening in hot summer sunshine under a cloudless blue sky, for one peculiarity of the Brighton holiday, as it lives in my mind, was that it never rained there. And in this charming old Georgian seaside resort-resort is exactly the right word for it - we used to occupy rooms in a house with a shining black front of bow windows, in Lower Rock Gardens, looking sideways to the sea and frontwards to a wind-swept, sun-dried oval of enclosed garden that we thought as lovely as the rest of it.

There were red-letter days in that wonderful month, and one of them was the day we went for a donkey ride on the Downs. On other days we gazed in anticipation at the row of gentle beasts tied up to the railings of the parade - Esplanade was a word unknown to our vocabulary - and took them our crusts to eat, and had to resist the blandishments of their owners, who promised us all sorts of speed records that were never realised. For when the great day came and we wound our way up steep little St. James's Street and out on the bare highway, the imperturbability of those donkeys under the rain of blows and storm of yells to which they were subjected by their owners, in addition to our own private method of filling a tin box with pebbles and rattling it in their ears, affords me some consolation, as I look back, for our brutality to the poor creatures ; for I like to hope that custom had staled the effect of these persuasions and that they really did not care a button how much they were urged forward, knowing that they would only break into a jogging gallop when it suited them and not an instant before. I remember my regrets at not being able to ride astride like a boy, but felt compensated to some extent by Nurse's permission to have first choice of steed, so that I managed to secure the one thin brown donkey that had a little youth and spirit left in him.