Source: Visit Brighton
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The earliest settlement in the Brighton and Hove area was a Neolithic (from 2700 BC) encampment and earthwork at Whitehawk. When it was excavated in 1933, both human and animal bones were found among the kitchen waste, suggesting evidence for cannibalism. Skeletons and other finds from this dig can be seen in Brighton Museum. Coldean, in the north of the city, had a Bronze Age settlement, and another camp at Hollingbury Castle was established during the 3rd and 2nd centuries B.C.
The Romans settled in this part of Sussex but left few traces of their occupation. Excavations in the 1870s found remains which may have been a small villa, temple or cemetery on Preston Road just south of Preston Park; burial urns, pottery fragments, coins, and an iron lamp were also discovered. The Anglo-Saxons were the first settlers to the area now called central Brighton, where the Downs meet the sea, at the mouth of the (now underground) River Wellsbourne – roughly where Pool Valley and the Old Steine are today. There are no traces of their early church; St. Nicholas’ Church, built on the same site, dates from the 14th century.
At the time of the Domesday Book (1086), the population of Brighton was around 400, and the fishing industry was already well-established. The town was divided between three manors, Brighthelmstone-Lewes, Brighthelmstone-Michelham and Brighthelmstone-Atlingworth - the last, containing the church, being the most important. Each was valued at £12 and the town paid an annual rent to Ralph de Chesney of 4000 herrings!
Brighton was bounded by West, North, and East Streets, and the sea, and developed as both a farming and fishing community. Near to Ship Street was an area known as the Hempshares, where hemp was grown for making ropes and nets. Hove began as a small village with houses clustered on either side of Hove Street, and is first mentioned in historical records in 1288.
Edward II granted a charter to the town of Bristelmestune (later Brighthelmstone) in 1313, allowing a market to be held each Thursday, and a fair lasting three days at the feast of St. Bartholomew (24 August). Life was hard here in medieval times, and in the 14th century the parish was unable to pay taxes on the grounds of poverty and crop failure.
Originally a Saxon farmhouse on the edge of the South Downs, Hove’s oldest secular building, Hangleton Manor, dates mostly from the 15th century and was held by a succession of Norman noblemen. Largely re-built in the 16th century, its panelling, floor tiles, oak carvings, and Tudor plaster ceiling all date from this period. This typical Sussex flint building is now Grade II listed.
Because of its location, the area around Brighthelmstone was susceptible to sea damage and coastal attack. It was particularly vulnerable to French raids during the 16th century; in 1514, the French attacked and burned the town, with only the parish church of St. Nicholas surviving. The wreck of a ship from this time lies offshore at Black Rock. The cost of defending Tudor Brighton fell mostly on the fishermen, resulting in disputes with the farming community over who should bear the costs of the town’s defences and upkeep of the church.
Plagues and epidemics swept the area in the late 16th to early 17th centuries. By 1600, the boundaries of the old town (East, North, and West Streets, Market Place and the Steine), as well as the Hempshares, were all established and Brighton had become one of the most important towns in Sussex. By the 1640s, the population reached 4,000, and the town became famous when Charles II stayed here after escaping the Battle of Worcester in1651. He crossed the country disguised as a servant, and spent his last night on English soil at the George Inn, at the bottom of West Street (later renamed The King's Head, and demolished in 1933.) This event is marked annually in May with the Royal Escape boat race, from the sea off Brighton Pier to Fécamp, Normandy.
By the early 18th century, Brighton fell into decline. By 1740, it is estimated that nearly ¾ of the population were too poor to pay taxes, and were eligible for charitable relief.
In 1750, Dr. Richard Russell recommended the use of sea water to treat glandular diseases. His book and seawater treatments proved so popular and profitable that he moved to Brighton and built a house on the site of today’s Royal Albion Hotel. Almost overnight, Brighton became the fashionable seaside retreat of London high society. The craze for sea-bathing was catered for by Martha Gunn and her ‘dippers’ – women who assisted female bathers to take a dip in the sea while protecting their modesty! From 1767, the Old Ship Inn Assembly Rooms held popular dances and card games, and people also flocked to the Theatre Royal, which opened in 1807. In 1814, the renowned Indian surgeon and travel writer Sake Dean Mohamed opened the UK’s first therapeutic massage and seawater baths close to the Old Steine. By 1792, many of The Lanes had been re-built upon their medieval foundations.
The Prince of Wales made his first visit to Brighton in 1783, and decided to stay. He bought a small farmhouse, and commissioned Henry Holland to design a modest, classical building on the same site. He became the Prince Regent in 1811, then George IV in 1820. The Royal Pavilion, as it looks today, was designed by John Nash between 1815-22, built over and around Holland's original structure. The Prince’s presence attracted increasingly more fashionable crowds, and Brighton’s importance and prosperity grew rapidly. Away from London, he could continue his affair with Mrs. Fitzherbert, and entertain his friends and mistresses in the most decadent style, assisted by famous French chef Marie-Antoine Carême.
When he died in 1830, George IV was succeeded by his brother William IV, who was also very fond of Brighton. William and Queen Adelaide visited often, and Adelaide in particular became popular with the town’s people. She gifted some plates to St. George's Chapel, Kemp Town, and is remembered in the names of Adelaide Crescent, Hove, and Queen's Park in Brighton.
Brighton expanded further in the 1820s, with the development of the Kemp Town Estate to the east and, in 1824, the construction of Brunswick Town to the west, a self-contained estate separated from the rest of Hove by open fields, paving the way for the development of modern Hove. Designed by Amon Wilds and Charles Busby, Brunswick Square and Terrace are now among the finest examples of Regency design in England.
Queen Victoria did not share her two uncles' enthusiasm for Brighton. She disliked the lack of privacy offered by the Royal Pavilion, and its proximity to surrounding buildings. People could see in through the windows, and get close to the Queen when she walked in the grounds. She sold the building to the Brighton Corporation (early Town Council) in 1850 for £53,000, but not before removing all of the furniture, fixtures and fittings to Windsor Castle. These have mostly been returned, on permanent loan from HM the Queen.
The Railway reached Brighton in 1841, and the day-trippers soon followed. By 1860, numbers reached 250,000 a year. Rail links brought heavy industry, and the locomotive works at Brighton Station provided local employment for many years. Some of the London, Brighton and South Coast Railway's most famous engines - including the Stroudley "Terriers" - were built here. Brighton attracted engineers and inventors such as Eugenius Birch, and Magnus Volk, whose seafront railway was the first to run on electricity in Britain. He was also commissioned to electrify the Pavilion in 1883, and was famous for his popular Daddy Long-Legs machine. This was a carriage on stilts above the sea, running along an underwater railway between Black Rock and Rottingdean. Cinematography pioneers George Albert Smith and William Friese-Greene were also based here. A dedicated exhibition in Hove Museum celebrates the city’s links to early cinema and photography.
Brighton opened the first purpose-built pleasure pier in the British Isles, the Chain Pier, in 1823, to provide a terminus for cross-channel steam-packet boats. Destroyed by a terrible storm in 1896, it was eventually dismantled and replaced by the Palace Pier. This new pier was designed by Richard St. George, and opened in 1899. Entertainments included theatre, music, dancing, swimming, diving, and bicycle polo, as well as aerial and under-water stunts. It was controversially re-named Brighton Pier in 2000.
The West Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch, was opened in 1866 adjoining the seafront promenade facing Regency Square. It had a landing station for boats, access for bathers, and held aquatic displays and competitions organised by Brighton Swimming Club. A bandstand, orchestra stand and dancehall were added later; the1893 pavilion, converted to the West Pier Theatre in 1903, can still be seen in skeletal form today. The Pier was allowed to fall into disrepair, and closed in 1975. Much of the structure was destroyed by a combination of fires and storm damage in the early 2000s. Plans have been approved for the construction of a 360-degree observation tower and platform at the beach-end of the site.
Some of Brighton’s most famous landmarks were also built during this period, such as the Aquarium (1872), the Volk’s Railway (1883), and the Clock Tower (1888), while the Old Steine and Hove’s Avenues were also laid out. The first telephone exchange opened in 1882, and the Royal Pavilion became one of the first buildings to be lit by electricity a year later.
Meanwhile, the North Laine grew to become Brighton’s light industrial and manufacturing heart. Its reputation for radical politics and free-thinking developed throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, witnessed by the number of non-conformist religions and radical movements based in the town. The Friends’ Meeting House was purpose-built for the city’s Quaker community in 1805, and in 1819, the city’s Unitarian congregation bought part of the Pavilion Gardens (now New Road) from the Prince Regent to build their own church. Brighton elected the country’s first blind MP Henry Fawcett (who campaigned for votes for women, and free education), in 1865. Social reformers and political figures like Eleanor Marx, Harriet Martineau, and Charles Stuart Parnell all lived in Brighton during this time, while Tom Paine lived in nearby Lewes.
Brighton expanded rapidly in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, as wealthy landowners raced to buy land and develop suburban housing estates. Edwardian Brighton is now best represented by Preston Manor, the home of the Stanford family from 1894-1932. They owned and developed land in and beyond the town centre, including Preston village, and The Drive in Hove, and gave their name to Stanford Avenue and the Stanford Schools.
Britain’s first cinema - the Duke of York at Preston Circus - opened in 1910, and is still the nation’s oldest working cinema. Trams ran in Brighton from 1901 to 1939, and some tracks can still be seen beneath the road surfaces at the Old Steine. The first motor buses were introduced in 1904.
During World War I, the Dome and the Royal Pavilion were used as a Military Hospital for Indian soldiers wounded on the battlefields of France and Belgium. A dedicated exhibition in the Royal Pavilion commemorates them, as does the Chattri War Memorial at Patcham, unveiled in 1921, as a cremation site for Sikh and Hindu soldiers. In the same year, the Indian Gate, which sits at the south entrance of the Royal Pavilion, was gifted to the people of Brighton by his highness the Maharajah of Patiala, on behalf of the Indian people, to thank them for their care.
After the war, Brighton was still a popular holiday destination, and Art Deco landmarks such as the Lidos at Black Rock (1936) and Saltdean (1937), and Shoreham Airport were opened: scheduled passenger flights began to the Isle of Wight, Croydon, Deauville and Jersey. Popular cinema flourished, and Art Deco picture houses were opened across Brighton to huge crowds. Brighton Dome was redesigned in the Art Deco style, and opened as Brighton’s principal concert, conference and entertainment venue in 1935. The state-of-the-art Modernist block of flats at Embassy Court was built in 1936.
But life for many people was not so glamourous. The 1920s also saw Brighton growing in size: in 1921, it was the most densely populated county borough outside London’s West Ham. The first large council estates were built at Moulsecoomb and Queen’s Park in this decade. Whitehawk and Carlton Hill followed in the 1930s, as did mass-unemployment relief projects like the construction of the Black Rock to Rottingdean sea wall, and town centre slum clearances, replacing old fishermen’s cottages with wider streets, larger shops, and flats. The 1930s and ‘40s saw Brighton develop a seedy underworld, peopled by criminal gangs and rife with protection rackets and vice - described in novels like Brighton Rock (Graham Greene, 1938) and Hangover Square (Patrick Hamilton, 1939).
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 saw sections of the Piers removed to prevent enemy landings, while beaches were mined and closed to the public. Fishermen and traders were removed from the seafront. Many local children (and evacuees from elsewhere) were evacuated as Brighton was targeted by regular bombing raids. There were 56 raids in all and over 5,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.
As Britain recovered from the shortages and ravages of war, Brighton became a popular seaside destination again, attracting holiday and home crowds to its dance halls, cinemas, and theatres. The student population grew rapidly when the University of Sussex, designed by Basil Spence, opened in 1962, and it soon gained a reputation for radical student activism and involvement in Brighton culture. Local colleges, including those specialising in art, teacher training, and technology, eventually became City College and Brighton College of Technology, which gained University status in 1992. Brighton’s gay population also grew, and held the first Gay Pride march in 1973, which became an annual event from 1991.
Brighton also famously hosted the weekend and Bank Holiday clashes between the scooter-riding Mods, and the leather-clad Rockers, two working-class sub-cultures which flourished in the early-mid ‘60s. Each had their own distinct music scene, clubs, and pubs, and flocked to the seaside towns to fight their turf-wars. These were depicted in the 1970s film Quadrophenia, which still draws fans of the film, as well as of Mod culture, here today. Since September 1994, motorcyclists have made the annual commemorative Reunion run to Brighton from the Ace Café, the historic North London hangout of the Rockers, which closed in 1969. Brighton’s music scene attracted large crowds, and big names like Gene Vincent, The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and Jimi Hendrix. The Brighton Dome famously hosted the Eurovision Song Contest win for ABBA in 1974.
Churchill Square was developed in the mid-‘60s as more town centre houses were cleared. The West Pier, under private ownership, fell into disrepair, and was closed to the public in 1975. The Brighton Centre opened as a state-of-the-art conference venue in 1977, with the Brighton Marina at Black Rock following in 1978. Spread over a 127 acre site with over 2000 berths, this was - and still is - the largest marina complex in Europe, and needed its own Act of Parliament.
While Hove remained a wealthy and more genteel area, Brighton (like most British towns and cities) was hit by the 1980s recession. In 1984 Thatcher’s Conservative Government was the target of an IRA bomb during their conference at the Grand Hotel. The Great Storm of 1987 brought down many large trees on the Old Steine, and caused extensive damage across the town. Brighton’s fortunes began to revive in the 1990s. Huge investment transformed the seafront and other run-down areas. The Royal Pavilion underwent a £10 million restoration in 1991. The two previously separate towns and Borough Councils merged in 1997 to become Brighton & Hove, and gained City status in 2000.
2002 saw the completion of some major renovation projects at the Brighton Dome, the Aquarium Terraces, and the Brighton Marina waterfront. The new Cultural Quarter was also created in the same year, with the £10 million restoration of Brighton Museum and Art Gallery, and construction of the state-of-the-art Jubilee Library (winner of the Observer Ethical Award). In 2011, Brighton & Hove Albion Football Club – the Seagulls - moved to the new AMEX Stadium at Falmer; this followed 14 years at the Withdean, a local athletics track which had served as their home after the contentious sale of the Hove Goldstone ground.
Current projects include plans to build a 360-degree observation tower at the land’s end of the West Pier, to re-develop The Level and the approach to Brighton Station. Work has started on a new, purpose-built food market on London Road, with the aim of improving the area as a whole. Brighton has also recently been awarded its own television channel.
Brighton continues to host England’s biggest arts Festival in May, as well as a range of events all year round, including Comedy, Film, and Food & Drink Festivals, Artists’ Open Houses, Pride, and the Burning of the Clocks. The city’s lively music and club scenes also boast a range of music festivals including Great Escape and Digital. Brighton attracts students and visitors from across the world, and is famous for its cosmopolitan vibe and atmosphere of tolerance. It has become a centre for the creative, media, and digital industries, and is in the forefront of innovation and design.