How Brighton’s pubs have changed over the years

The origins of Brighton lie in a small Saxon settlement known as Beorhthelm’s Tun, which translates as the Farm of Beorhthelm. Its centre was on a ridge once known as the Knab, now called Brighton Place and site of the Druids Head pub. The people would have brewed their own ale, sweet, unhopped, flavoured with herbs and spices and consumed in simple alehouses. A division between farming and fishing communities had occurred by at least the Norman Conquest, but in medieval times the latter had developed into a significant industry. After a charter was granted by Edward II in 1313 to what was by then called Brighthelmstone, or one of the many variants of that spelling, buyers and sellers plied their wares at fairs and markets and the town began to prosper. A large area called the Hempshares was set aside for the fishermen to grow the hemp from which their ropes and twine were made. In 1580 there were 400 able mariners who outnumbered the land men by nearly four to one. By 1829 there were still 300 fishermen. The old inns were then concentrated around gaps from the beach and in the neighbourhood of the old fish market. Many were used almost exclusively by fishermen. Indeed, it was their custom to gather at the Greyhound (now the Fishbowl) near the bottom of East Street to auction their daily catch.

The Greyhound had previously gone by the nautical name of the Anchor. It is the city’s only surviving pub that can claim a documented link back to the 1600s, which in Brighton is as old as it gets. Other existing pubs have stated an earlier date of establishment: the Cricketers, the Seven Stars and the Druids Head have all at some point made a case for the 1500s. The evidence for all these claims is circumstantial at best and must in any case refer to previous houses on the site. That the medieval town, largely of wood and thatch construction, was torched by French raiders in 1514 is less in dispute than the extent to which it was destroyed. Many foreshore dwellings were also lost to two great storms of the early 1700s and by constant coastal erosion, by which time the population had fallen by a third. Whatever the causes, architectural historians are firm in their judgement that Brighton does not have domestic or commercial buildings with fabric surviving from the sixteenth century or earlier. What is retained from the medieval period is the grid layout of the old town, with the coast bounded by West Street, North Street and East Street. The pubs in the area now known as The Lanes, were mostly licensed by the late 1700s, by which time the town had a new-found prosperity.

In 1800 the town had forty-one inns – one for every thirty houses and 178 residents. By 1831, the number of inns had more than doubled to eighty-nine but the population had increased over five-and-a-half fold to 40,634. Brighton, as it was officially known from 1810, had been transformed from a fishing community in decline to a pleasure ground for the famous and the fashionable. One attraction was seawater, or rather the growing belief in its supposed health-giving properties. In 1750 Dr Richard Russell, of nearby Lewes, published his Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands. It was originally in Latin and obviously aimed at learned society. Seawater bathhouses, Awsiter’s, Brill’s and Mahomed’s, soon sprang up in the town. Although long since demolished, their presence lives on in the names of two pubs in The Lanes: the Pump House and the Bath Arms. Another reason for the turnabout in the town’s fortunes was the Royal patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. Enormously popular in Brighton, ‘Prinny’ brought with him the libertine culture of excessiveness that characterises the city to this very day. It became necessary to both accommodate and amuse the influx of visitors and the Georgian inns fulfilled this function admirably. One of the largest hostelries was the Old Ship, still standing on the seafront and which gave its name to Ship Street. It then had seventy beds, stabling for 100 horses, plus a coffee room and wine vaults.

By 1851 Brighton had 65,569 residents and over 200 licensed premises. The town had become less attractive to fashionable society and lost its Royal patronage in 1845. What fundamentally changed its character was the coming of the railway, with the symbolic arrival of the first train from London on 21 September 1841. In the decade before the opening of the line, the population of the town increased by 15 per cent; the increase the decade after was 41 per cent. This growth consisted of a new, more democratic set of social classes – professionals, clerks, artisans, servants, shopkeepers and the second- or third-class day tripper. The railway was also directly responsible for new purpose-built hotels just outside the terminus, the Railway (now the Grand Central) and the Prince Albert. It equally encouraged a proliferation of plebeian pubs, many of which originated as basic beer retailers licensed under the 1830 Wellington Act. Trafalgar Street once had eleven pubs plus three unnamed beerhouses. The railway also bought a halt to the days of the old coaching inns, although some, notably the Royal Oak in St James’s Street, survived as hotels. In March 1892 Brighton had 572 hotels, public houses and beerhouses for a population of 115,400. The greatest concentration was in the poorer areas: Edward Street had twenty-six pubs. Yet the number had peaked and continuous contraction was to follow.

Some sections of Victorian society exhibited a strong moralistic streak that exhorted abstinence from the demon drink. Temperance organisations proved to be adept at political lobbying, with successive legislation being passed to curtail opening hours. Magistrates were also given more power to refuse the renewal of licenses and the number of pubs subsequently decreased. Faced with fewer outlets, the common brewers began securing their market share of tied houses by purchasing more of them to rebuild in majestic and opulent style. The additional capital required for such a venture was raised through flotation on the stock market. The bubble burst in 1899, but not before it gave rise to what has been called the golden age of pub building. This is how Tamplins, Brighton’s biggest brewery, came to make expensive alterations to many of its pubs in the late 1890s, particularly to those it purchased from the West Street Brewery following a further share issue. Individual proprietors also turned to local architects to redesign their pubs in sumptuous style, with majestic mahogany bars, cut and etched glass and sweeping island counters. The Seven Stars in Ship Street, the Lion in St James’s Street and the Quadrant in North Street Quadrant were all altered in such fashion in this final decade of the nineteenth century.

A phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s was the improved public house, based on a philosophy of ‘fewer, bigger, better’. There was to be no return however to Victorian flamboyance: solid Brewers’ Tudor and elegant neo-Georgian were among the preferred styles. The latter was taken up by the Kemp Town Brewery, whereas the Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries favoured the use of green faience tiling. Both these local breweries were evangelists for the improved public house. In this period they rebuilt or newly built sixty-nine and forty-nine pubs, respectively (27 per cent and 17 per cent of their tied-house stock). Four examples from each brewery are visited in this book. The movement for modernised pubs was motivated by a reformist zeal that was forward-looking and progressive. The intention was to do away with disreputable ‘drink-shops’ that had few amenities and no ancillary activities to discourage perpendicular drinking by a predominantly male clientele. The improved pub aimed to promote cultural respectability by appealing to a wider class base and creating a comfortable environment welcoming to women and families. A Ladies’ Parlour and a Children’s Room were, for instance, provided in the mock-Tudor King & Queen, Marlborough Place, rebuilt 1931–36 by Clayton & Black.

If the 1930s were reforming then the 1960s were futuristic. Under the banner of ‘slum clearance’, tower blocks replaced traditional terraces. Whole swathes of Brighton streets with their corner pubs were lost to the wrecking ball, particularly to the northeast from Edward Street and west of London Road. Others were demolished for the construction of the Churchill Square shopping centre. Existing pubs also underwent changes. In a relatively affluent society less concerned with traditional class distinctions, the internal compartmentalisation of pubs into separate Public, Private and Saloon Bars appeared increasingly anachronistic. Both the King & Queen and the Golden Fleece (now the Market Inn) had their three bars knocked into one at the end of the 1960s. The décor altered, too. The industry came to be dominated by a handful of big national brewers: the ‘choice’ in Brighton was mostly between Charrington, Courage, Watneys or Whitbread. These created a corporate, branded identity for all their pubs, eroding their individuality. At the same time, young people had both income and leisure time at their disposal and were targeted by brewery marketing executives who thought mild beer and matchwood interiors to be hopelessly outmoded. Lager, keg bitter, Campari and Babycham became the order of the day. Wall-to-wall-carpeted pubs with chromium, plastic and Formica fittings became the newfangled places to drink.

The past thirty years have seen something of a reversal of such trends. First, there is a concern with conservation and heritage. In 1999, several Brighton pubs of architectural significance received Grade-II building listing protection or had amendments made to their listings. During the same period, the Campaign for Real Ale has identified local pubs with heritage interiors of national and regional importance. In 2015, the city council placed fourteen Brighton pubs on its new Local List of Heritage Assets. Second, the importance of locality has been emphasised. This is linked to the resurgence of real ale and the astonishing growth of microbreweries. Brighton had lost all its old local breweries to a process of acquisition by the 1960s. The city now boasts four micros that have opened in the last four years. Third, the industry has been deregulated. If this has led to pubs being owned mostly by non-brewing companies, then most of these Pubcos, such as Drink In Brighton stock locally-brewed beers. The market is also highly segmented, with bars, licensed cafés and gastro pubs all catering for different type of customers with variegated tastes. In many cases these drinking places inhabit imposing and historic buildings once used for other purposes, such as chapels, banks and newspaper offices. Brighton has certainly retained its Regency raffishness but has adapted to suit the changed conditions of the twenty-first century.

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