Prehistory In the shadow of the Brighton Racecourse grandstand is the earliest evidence of life in what we now call Brighton: Whitehawk Camp is a Neolithic site, from around 3500 BC. And those ancient denizens were enjoying the sea air once more when a stone long barrow (a cross between a monument and a tomb) found at Waldegrave Road was used as hardcore to build nearby Balfour Road, and workmen kept finding human remains poking through the foundations. (I’ll rise above the temptation to say they were lending a helping hand).
Roughly 3000 years later, the Iron Age hillfort, Hollingbury Castle, was built, which estate agents of the time would no doubt have described as “enjoying panoramic views of the Downs to the north and the sea to the south.”
Roman and Medieval Next to enjoy a stay in the city were the Romans, and remains of a Roman villa were found on the southern edge of Preston Park in the 1930s, when a garage was being built. Facing the dilemma of garage or Roman villa, the owner compromised: he built the garage and displayed Roman statues and brooches behind the till. Beat that for a USP, Shell.
Eventually though, as we all know, the Romans shat their pants and legged it. And into this void, flooded the Angles, Saxons and Jutes in the 5th Century AD, and the small Saxon village of Beorthelm’s Tun (meaning Beorthelm’s farm or village) was founded, made up of farmers, living above a cliff, and fisherman, living at the foot of it.
By the time of the Domesday Book in 1086, the name had changed to Bristelmestune. And the etymology of the city’s name includes numerous further changes, from Brichtelmeston (1198), Brighthelmeston (1493), a reference to Brighthamstead (1545), Brighthemston (1610) and Brighthelmston (1816). The name Brighton was first recorded in 1660, but only came into common use in the early 19th century.
Meanwhile, back in 1313, King Edward II granted (let’s just call it) Brighton a charter allowing residents to hold markets as well as an annual fair to celebrate St Bartholomew in August. This led to Brighton becoming a busy market town, and the opening of the first few vegan cafés.
Early Modern Fast forward 200 years and things get exciting – by which I mean, violent. One June night in 1514, in an act of wilful non-social-distancing, some French raiders, led by the fearful Prior John, ransacked the town, looting all they could, and burning almost every building to the ground. When reinforcements arrived, a shower of arrows was fired at the invaders, with one beauty nailing PJ right in the eye. However, he was as tough as any Englishman thinks he is after three pints and survived, albeit by doing what the French are famous for, fleeing back to France.
There was a surprise consequence of the attack, besides an increased disinclination towards the French; the first map of Brighton. The map was used when rebuilding the city in the same layout, including the Lanes which, back then, were pathways between allotments where fishermen grew hemp for ropes and nets (and, let’s be honest, recreation): the area was even called Hempshares.
Although the pesky French had another bash at attacking in 1545, this time warning beacons were lit and villagers from nearby sprang to the town’s defence. This rendered the French attack about as effective as that of any given Jose Mourinho side, and they promptly pulled off their signature move and fled home.
In the 17th century the town’s fishing industry declined, in large due to England having a continual series of squabbles (wars, if you want to get technical) with Holland and our old friends, France. Brightonians of the 17th century were richly compensated though, by the opening of a bowling green on the Steine in 1665. (Ok, maybe not richly). The town’s declining fortunes were compounded with two devastating storms in 1703 and 1705 which decimated much of the infrastructure, and is even thought to have ruined several hipsters’ painstakingly preened hairdos.
Georgian and Victorian Brighton’s recovery, and subsequent flourishment as a resort town, came from an unlikely source. Dr Richard Russell wrote an improbably popular book in Latin called A Dissertation Concerning the Use of Sea-Water in Diseases of the Glands. In this rip-roaring page turner, Russell suggested that a number of diseases could be cured by swimming in (and also guzzling down) sea water, and set up a practice where the Royal Albion Hotel is now found.
In 1783, suffering from swollen glands, the Prince of Wales came to test the curative powers of the sea, fell in love with the place, and started building his spectacular pavilion in 1787. The masses soon followed, and Brighton was transformed into the world’s most fashionable coastal resort in the process.
So followed perhaps the most defining period of Brighton’s history, enjoying as it did, the patronage of the man who would become King George IV (and eventually Fatty-Fatty Cake-Face) for the next forty years, until his death in 1830. When his poor old man started trying to shake hands with a tree thinking it was the King of Prussia, it was decided perhaps he shouldn’t be in charge of the most powerful country in the world (which feels like a lesson the Americans should’ve learned before deciding a straw-haired, racist egomaniac should take the nation’s reins – although, the same could be said for our own country right now), and the Prince of Wales became Prince Regent, from 1811-1820. With his extra pocket-money assured, in 1815 he commissioned his friend and architect John Nash to redesign his pavilion into the Iced Gem-topped palace it is today.
This kickstarted a great number of building projects: in 1822 The Level was laid out, and also in the 1820s the Kemp Town Estate to the east of Brighton and Brunswick Town to the west were built by the tireless (and, sadly, eventually bankrupt) architect Charles Busby. Also in that decade, Brighton’s love affair with piers began, with the Chain Pier being built in 1823 to the east of where the Palace Pier now proudly stands.
After centuries of ships having to moor off shore, they suddenly had something they could safely dock at. This opened the way for tourist boats carrying passengers to France in 1824. And the town’s popularity further increased with the opening of a railway line between Brighton and London in 1841, allowing tourists to come down for the day, enjoy the sea air, and gawp at Queen Victoria who was now on the throne and often found in the Royal Pavilion (before she flogged it to the town for 50Gs in 1850, having upped sticks and built Osborne House on the Isle of Wight).
Although the Chain Pier proved extremely popular (so much so, the West Pier was built in 1866), it eventually fell into disuse and disrepair. Plans to build the Palace Pier to replace it included the stipulation that its builders would dismantle the Chain Pier. In a rare moment of heaven-sent serendipity, the builders were saved such a giant ball ache by a storm in December 1896, which completely destroyed the Chain Pier. The Place Pier opened in 1899, and remains the only pier in the country on which I’ve lost my godson (don’t tell his dad).
Throughout the Victorian period and beyond, the population rapidly grew, and public amenities correspondingly improved. The Brighton Workhouse was built in 1867 (and subsequently became Brighton General Hospital), the aquarium in 1872 and Preston Park opened in 1874. The famous Clock Tower was added in commemoration of Queen Vic’s golden jubilee, in 1888, and in 1907 the Electric Bioscope, the first permanent cinema in Brighton, was opened at 129B Western Road.
World Wars Brighton played a vital role in WWI, not from a tactical point of view, but from a medical one. The Pavilion was famously repurposed as a hospital, treating over 4,300 Indian soldiers between December 1914 and February 1916. From April of that year it began looking after limbless soldiers, helping over 6,000 convalesce. Beyond that, over 30,000 patients were brought down from London on special ambulance trains, providing vital help in alleviating the overburdened hospitals of the capital.
As war raged on across the channel, an eerie account from June 1916, describes how people playing cricket on Brighton College playing fields stopped play when they heard the gunfire from one of the bloodiest battles in human history, the Battle of the Somme.
Precisely 2,600 men and women from Brighton died in military service in WWI. A memorial to them was unveiled in 1922 in the Steine. Unveiled a year before was the Chattri, a monument to those Indian soldiers who fought for the British Empire, and this stands on the South Downs, at the point where many were cremated.
At the outset of WWII in 1939, it was thought Brighton would escape the German bombs as it wasn’t an industrial town. Consequently, many London schoolchildren were evacuated here. However, in a rare (ahem) example of a Tory government being spectacularly wrong, Brighton was bombed, suffering 56 raids which killed 198 people and injured hundreds more. As a result, evacuees were sent home, and the town prepared itself for defence, laying mines and barbed wire on the beaches, and even removing sections of decking from the piers to prevent German boats using them as landing stages.
The town did, however, have one extremely unlikely champion: Hitler himself ordered that the Royal Pavilion not be bombed as he was rather taken with the building and planned on making it his headquarters after the war. (How did that pan out, old boy?)
Post War Brighton After the war, Brighton effectively picked up where it left off, thriving once again as a fashionable resort town, now even more so with the growth of mass tourism. Restaurants and pubs opened everywhere to feed and water the visiting grockles, and the vibrant cultural scene that was created has remained ever since.
1967 saw the inaugural Brighton Festival, featuring Pink Floyd, The Who and (now Sir) Anthony Hopkins, and included the first ever exhibition of Concrete Poetry (I also had to look it up). The festival has since grown into one of the largest and most important annual celebrations of art, music, film, dance, comedy and culture as a whole, taking place at venues across the city. Last year saw the festival cancelled for the first time in its history due to that stoopid pandemic! But you can’t keep a good thing down, and this year the festival was back wowing and entertaining people once again, in new and innovative ways, thanks to the pioneers and performers behind this yearly miracle of entertainment.
The 1970s and 80s saw testing times for Brighton, and much of it became dilapidated, with slum landlords exploiting tenants in sub-standard accommodation. High unemployment and woeful underinvestment (particularly galling at a time when a major investment was being made in building the Brighton Marina, from 1971-1979) led to a strong unemployed counter-culture, united in their hatred for Margaret Thatcher. Unthinkable now, but North Laine, now so synonymous with the city, was nearly demolished in the 70s for high-rise buildings, a flyover and a large car park. Thankfully, the Borough Planning Officer for Brighton, a certain Mr Ken Fines, recognised the charm of the area and effectively put his foot down, against much opposition. Brighton owes Mr Fines a great debt of gratitude and very large beer.
The 1980s saw two devastating incidents: in 1984, in an attempt to assassinate Thatcher and her top tier of government, the IRA set off a long-delay time bomb at the Grand Hotel, killing 31 people, but not Thatcher. Three years later the Great Storm wrought destruction across the area, felling ancient elm trees on the Level and the Steine, and damaging the Pavilion and St Peters Church, among many other buildings.
After a few unspectacular years when the most exciting things to happen were the opening of the Brighton bypass in 1990 and Chris Eubank’s tie knots going from comically small to unfeasibly large, the year 1997 was a hugely significant one. That year, the towns of Brighton and Hove became Brighton & Hove, a unitary authority, which was subsequently granted city status by the Queen in 2001.
Today the city enjoys a well-earned reputation of cultural diversity and enlightened socio-political thinking, with a creative and hardworking populace, ready to welcome anyone and enjoy a beer with them (maybe not Crystal Palace fans). The casual and friendly atmosphere now so intrinsically linked with the bricks and mortar of our beloved city makes it feel as though it’s always been like this: sometimes we forget that it’s been five and a half thousand years in the making.
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