A brief history of Brighton past and present

Origins of Brighton

There was no major Roman settlement in what is now Brighton although some traces of a villa have been found, as have some stone and bronze age implements suggesting an earlier occupation. It is known that a small Saxon settlement was established in the area and a small village started to build up based round the fishing industry. One of the first pieces of documented evidence about the area was the Domesday Book, a Norman survey of the lands they now controlled following the Norman conquest, and this identified what was then known as Brighthelmstone (or Bristelmestune) as a village with 400 residents.

Middle Ages

There has been a religious structure on the site of the current St. Nicholas’s Church since Saxon times, although the current building was built in the twelfth century and was renovated in the thirteenth century. In 1312 King Edward II granted the right to hold a market to the then village, securing its position as a market town. Hove at this time was an established village having had its own church which had been built in the twelfth century, but there were fewer than one hundred residents, and even by the time of the 1801 census this number hadn’t increased.

In 1514 much of Brighton was destroyed by French invaders, and it was attacked again in 1545. The French threat was of continual concern to the town authorities and by the end of the sixteenth century walls and gates were constructed in a bid to ensure strong fortifications would help defend against any future attacks.

Development of Brighton

By the mid seventeenth century Brighton was becoming a much larger settlement, the largest in Sussex, but it was still predominantly based around the fishing industry. Towards the end of the century the town had started to decline slightly, the population fell and many of the residents were suffering financially. The fortunes of Brighton were about to change as by the mid eighteenth century the town was benefitting from the new interest in drinking and bathing in sea-water for health reasons. The doctor who was particularly responsible for this new thinking was Dr Richard Russell of nearby Lewes who had set up a practice in the town in 1753 and who had published books on the benefits of sea-water. By 1769 the first salt water baths were built in the town which attracted many more visitors to the town keen to experience the fresh air and bathe in the waters.

In 1783 the Prince of Wales, later George IV, first visited Brighton to see a relative and found the town suited his temperament. The Royal Pavilion was built in the city by the Prince of Wales in the 1780s as a Georgian mansion and the prestige of the town was significantly enhanced by these Royal links. The Royal Pavilion is today one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, although it wasn’t until 1815 that John Nash undertook the expansion of the Royal Pavilion into the grand affair which is now one of Brighton’s best known landmarks.

In 1823 the Chain Pier opened, which encouraged more passengers on the then increasingly popular Dieppe-Brighton line although this service was to end in 1847 when the ferry on the English side moved to Newhaven. In the late 1830s the local newspaper suggested that the town “has all the advantages of sea port towns, without any of their disadvantages. She is at once the seat of Royalty and fashion, and the southern emporium of commerce and trade”. In 1832 William Cobbett wrote that “Brighton certainly surpasses in beauty all other towns in the world” and many new homes were built in the town to cater for the increased demand to live in such as a fashionable resort.

The Railway

Another one of the greatest influences on the development of Brighton was the advent of the railway, on which work started in 1839, which reached the town in 1840 with regular services starting in 1841. The planning hadn’t been easy, there had been arguments for several years on whether there should be a direct line from Brighton to London or whether it should go via Shoreham. The decision was eventually taken to build a direct line for reasons of efficiency, but a branch line was built which connected the town to Shoreham and other coastal towns.

The railway allowed Londoners to visit the town to enjoy the sea and also to try and catch a sight of Queen Victoria and to ‘take the waters’. In just one week of 1850 over 73,000 passengers were carried by the railways and the new transport connection helped the population grow from under 50,000 in 1840 to over 90,000 people in 1870, a far cry from the 1760 Brighton population of just 2,000. Queen Victoria wasn’t though enamoured by Brighton in the same way as George IV and she preferred the residence of Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The Royal Pavilion was sold to the Town Corporation in 1850 and is now accessible as a museum.

First World War

Brighton was fortunate to escape much of the damage suffered by other cities in the First World War and many people came from London in a bid to avoid zeppelin raids. The town was important though for its work in treating injured soldiers and between 1914 and 1916 the Royal Pavilion was used to house Indian soldiers who needed medical treatment, and from 1916 it was used to help those who had lost limbs in the conflict.

Following the end of the First World War there was an increased demand for a better quality of housing, which led to an extensive slum clearance programme in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of the work was over-due and had been debated since the late nineteenth century, but the demolitions of property also had the unfortunate result of leading to the demise of many of Brighton’s old buildings. One example of this change which took place in the 1930s was the opening of the Brighton Municipal Market in 1937 which was built on properties which were demolished during the slum clearance.

Second World War

Although Brighton had remained relatively immune from air attacks in the First World War, Brighton was an obvious target for the Germans, both as a potential landing area and also as a bombing target. The sea-front was closed in July 1940 and the piers had gaps made in the decking to prevent them being used for landing, and 30,000 people from the town were evacuated.

There were a series of air raids throughout the conflict, with 198 people killed in total. The first air raid took place on 15th July 1940 when bombs were dropped on the Kemp Town area, on 14th September 1940 the Odeon cinema was bombed which killed 6 and injured 49 and on 25th May 1943 a large bombing raid killed 24 and injured 127. Hundreds of houses were destroyed or badly damaged and both the railway and local industry were heavily hit by the bombings. A war memorial marking those who lost their lives in both wars is located in the northern part of Old Steine Gardens.

Modern and Cosmopolitan Brighton

The end of the Second World War led to a drive to modernise the town, but there was a concern that much of Brighton’s heritage would be lost. In 1945 the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove was formed with the aim of protecting the Regency terraces and squares. The campaign was successful and the plan to replace Brunswick Square, Brunswick Terrace and Adelaide Crescent by high-rise tower blocks was scrapped. Brighton became an increasingly popular seaside destination for day-trippers and holiday makers in the 1950s and 1960s, although it is also known for the ‘Battle of Brighton’ which took place in May 1964 between the ‘mods’ and the ‘rockers’. The mods got their name from their modern style of dress and were seen as middle-class whilst the rockers were known for their leather jackets and motor-bikes, and the conflict between them took place on Brighton beach, destroying hundreds of deckchairs and smashing tens of windows. The iconic 1979 film Quadrophenia was set in the 1960s and depicted the mods and rockers conflicts on Brighton beach.

In 1984 Brighton received worldwide attention following the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel which nearly killed the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The attack saw the hotel badly damaged and five people were killed, with 31 injured. Despite this Brighton and Hove continued to be popular with visitors and didn’t suffer from the decline that affected some other seaside towns and cities. The town got a reputation as a cosmopolitan and welcoming location with a tolerance and acceptance of minority groups. After a long campaign it was announced in 1997 that as part of the planned millennium celebrations that Brighton and Hove had been offered city status by Queen Elizabeth II.

Although Brighton and Hove are two very different places they have combined to offer a popular location to visit and live. The bohemian and cosmopolitan environment has meant that the people living here have created a unique place which is proud of its green credentials, being the location for the country’s only ever Green Member of Parliament, and its welcome for visitors and residents of any age, gender, sexuality or colour.

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