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."
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."