A History of Brighton

By Tim Lambert

Early Brighton

Brighton began as a small Saxon village. The Saxons landed in Sussex in the 5th century AD and they founded the kingdom of Sussex including the village of Brighton. It was once called Beorthelm’s tun (Beorthelm’s farm or village). Centuries later it grew into the city of Brighton.

Fishermen lived in Brighton as well as the farmers. The farmers lived in a village above a cliff and the fishermen lived under this cliff on the foreshore. The Church of St Bartholomew in Brighton was first recorded in 1185 (although it may well have been there much earlier).

In 1313 Brighton was given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights). Afterward, it became a busy little market town. There was a fish market daily on the beach at Brighton. There were weekly pig markets and corn markets in Brighton as well as a general market where goods of all kinds were sold. Brighton also had annual fairs. (In the Middle Ages a fair was like a market but it was held only once a year. Buyers and sellers came from a wide area for the Brighton fair).

Medieval Brighton was a small town with only 4 streets, North Street, West Street, East Street, and South Street. However Middle Street existed by 1500. There were also fishermen’s huts along the shore. The area between Middle Street and East Street was called the Hempshares and fishermen grew hemp there for ropes and nets. (The Lanes were once pathways between allotments).

Unfortunately, the coast at Brighton was constantly being eroded by the sea. In 1340 it a writer said that the sea had recently ‘swallowed’ 40 acres of farmland. Nevertheless, the little town continued to prosper.

Tudor Brighton

The French burned the little town of Brighton in 1514. That was an easy task as most buildings in the town were wooden and had thatched roofs. Yet it was soon rebuilt.

In 1545 the French attacked Brighton again. A writer said the French commander: ‘Came forth into the seas and arrived on the coast of Sussex before Brighthamstead (Brighton) and set certain of his soldiers on the land to burn and spoil the country, but the beacons were lit (to warn people in the nearby villages and call on them to help) and the inhabitants thereabout came down so thick, that the Frenchmen were driven to fly with loss of diverse of their numbers so that they did little hurt there’.

By 1580 Brighton was a flourishing little town. At that time there were 400 fishermen and 102 landmen living there. So it probably had a population of around 2,500.

By 16th century standards, Brighton was a fairly large market town. It also had 80 fishing vessels. A writer said that in 1558: ‘there was granted to the inhabitants of that town by the Lords one parcel of land containing in length, 30 feet long and 16 feet in breadth’. The land was used to build the blockhouse. The blockhouse was a circular fort, 50 feet in diameter, 16 feet in height with walls 8 feet thick. It had 6 large guns and 10 small cannons. It stood near the Southern end of Middle Street. A wall 14 or 16 feet high, with placements for guns, extended 400 feet eastwards to East Street and westward to West Street.

Brighton in the 17th century

In 1651, two years after the execution of Charles I, Charles II persuaded the Scots to invade England to help him gain the throne. However, the Scots were defeated at Worcester and the king narrowly escaped being captured. He fled, in disguise to Brighton, and escaped to France.

In the late 17th century the fishing industry in Brighton declined. This was because England fought a series of wars with France and Holland. The enemy navies prevented fishing vessels from going fishing. In 1694 a writer said ‘Our poor town of Brighton has been this day suddenly surprised by 4 French ships and pestered by them since 11 am. As yet they have not done us much harm, having positioned themselves so near to us as to shoot over the town’. Two more French vessels arrived but the townsfolk took up arms and assembled. Eventually, the French left.

Brighton, the modern name for the town was first recorded in 1660. By 1810 it was the official name. Meanwhile, in 1665 a Bowling Green opened on the Old Steine.

Brighton in the 18th century

In 1703 a terrible storm struck England. It devastated Brighton. A writer said it ‘stripped a great many houses, turned up the lead off the church, overthrew 2 windmills, and laid them flat on the ground’. Another storm in 1705 demolished houses below the cliff, along the foreshore. The two storms caused great damage in Brighton, which was already declining. In the early 18th century the population fell to only around 1,500 people.

Meanwhile, the ocean continued to erode the seashore. The sea destroyed the houses under the cliff and by 1760 it was undermining the cliff itself. Furthermore, the sea gradually undermined and destroyed Brighton’s fortifications.

In 1730 a writer said: ‘If some speedy care be not taken to stop the encroachments of the ocean it is probable the town will, in a few years, be utterly depopulated, the inhabitants being already diminished by one third less then they were and those that remain are, many of them, widows, orphans, decrepit persons and all very poor’. Another writer said the people of Brighton were: ‘mostly very needy and wretched in their mode of living’.

Meanwhile, Preston Manor was built in 1739. The council acquired it in 1932.

However, Brighton recovered in the late 18th century. The recovery started in 1750 when a doctor named Richard Russell wrote a book in which he claimed that bathing in seawater was good for a person’s health. Gradually wealthy people began to visit Brighton. They believed that bathing in seawater would cure their illnesses. At first, only a small number came but in 1783 the Prince of Wales and his friends visited Brighton. Many rich people followed and the town boomed.

As the town revived the first theatre opened in North Street in 1774. The first grammar school in Brighton opened in 1789. By 1767 two Assembly Rooms were built (for dancing and playing cards) at the Old Ship Inn (Ship Street is named after it) and at the Castle Tavern (which stood on the south side of the Marketplace). In 1773 a Market House was built for covered markets.

The population of Brighton grew rapidly in the late 18th century. It was only around 2,000 in 1750 but it grew to about 4,000 in 1783 when the Prince of Wales visited. As the town boomed new streets were built in the space between Middle Street and East Street and by 1792 many of the Lanes were built up. Between 1770 and 1795 635 new houses were built.

Furthermore, new streets were built north and east of Brighton including Battery Place, Bond Street, Broad Street, Charles Street, Church Street, King Street, Manchester Street, Russell Street, and Old and New Steine. n In 1787 Brighton Pavilion was built for the first time. (However, it was originally built in classical style. The original building looked quite unlike the present oriental one).

Then in 1793 two batteries were built at Brighton. One was on the East cliff near the bottom of Marine Parade. The other battery was opposite Artillery Place. (Both were removed in the 19th century).

Brighton in the 19th century

In 1808 a row of houses was built east of the Steine. Shortly afterward that area became built up. Then in 1815, Brighton Pavilion was rebuilt. This time it was an imitation of an Indian palace. The town council bought Brighton Pavilion in 1850.

At the end of the 18th century, fishermen in Brighton spread out their nets to dry on the open space known as the Steine. In 1799 a writer said: ‘Fishing nets are daily spread from one end of the Steine to the other so that the company while walking are frequently tripped up by entangling their feet’. However, in 1822 railings were put up around the Steine and the fishermen lost the right to put their nets there. Also in 1822, The Level was laid out.

In the 1820s wealthy men built new areas of houses. Thomas Kemp built Kemp Town to the east of Brighton and a man called Brunswick built Brunswick Town to the west. Meanwhile, in 1821 a newspaper called the Brighton Gazette was first published.

For centuries ships had simply moored off the shore of Brighton but in 1823 the chain pier was built. Then in 1824, a steamship began carrying passengers between Brighton and northern France.

Furthermore, in 1841 a railway to London opened. The railway made it far easier for visitors to reach the town and as a result in 1848, it was estimated that 250,000 people visited Brighton each year. West Pier was built in 1866 and Palace Pier followed in 1899.

The population of Brighton rose rapidly from 40,000 in 1841 to 65,000 in 1861. In the 1870s Preston was swallowed up by the booming town.

In the 19th century amenities in the town continued to improve. Brighton Museum opened in 1861. Brighton General Hospital was built in 1867 and an aquarium was built in 1872. Preston Park opened in 1874.

The first telephone exchange in Brighton opened in 1882. Then in 1883, an electric railway opened. The Clock Tower was built in 1888 for the golden anniversary of Queen Victoria.

Brighton in the 20th century

During World War I Brighton Pavilion was used as a hospital for Indian soldiers. In the 20th century amenities in Brighton continued to improve. The first cinemas opened in Brighton in 1909 and a boating pool was built in 1925. A children’s playground was laid out on The Level in 1927 and the aquarium was rebuilt in 1929.

A rock garden opened in Preston Park in 1936. In 1928 the boundaries of Brighton were extended and in the 1930s a sea wall was built from Black Rock to Rottingdean to prevent erosion by the sea.

In the 1930s work began clearing the slums in the center of Brighton. Many fishermen’s cottages, looked quaint but were, crowded, squalid, and unsanitary. A new market was built in Circus Street in 1937 on the site of demolished slums. Some of the slums were replaced with 4 storey flats. The council also began building council houses. They built an estate at Whitehawk.

Also in the 1930s, The Western side of West Street was demolished to widen the road. Many private houses were also built in the 1930s, in Patcham, Falmer, and Ovingdean.

Between 1901 and 1939 electric trams ran in Brighton but in 1904 the first motor buses began running. In 1939 the trams were replaced with trolleybuses. They ran on electricity from overhead wires but they did run on rails.

In 1939 when World War II started many schoolchildren from London were evacuated to Brighton to avoid German bombing. Since Brighton was a seaside resort, not an industrial town the government believed it would escape the bombing. However, most of the evacuees soon returned home.

As it turned out Brighton was not as safe as people thought it would be. The town did suffer some bombing raids. There were 56 raids on Brighton during World War II and more than 5,000 houses were damaged or destroyed.

However, after the Second World War, the town continued to flourish. The Lanes were preserved but in the mid-1960s Churchill Square was created.

In the 1950s a new industrial estate was built at Hollingbury. Also in the 1950s and early 1960s, a council estate was built at Hollingbury. Brighton University was founded in 1962.

Although Brighton continued to flourish as a seaside resort in the late 20th century West Pier closed in 1975. However, the Brighton Centre, which is used for conferences, was opened in 1977 and a marina opened at Black Rock in 1978. Then in 1987, Brighton was hit by a great storm. The storm felled many elm trees on the Level.

Brighton in the 21st century

Brighton Pier

In the 21st century, Brighton continued to thrive. In 2000 Brighton and Hove were made a city. Then a new library, The Jubilee Library, opened in 2005. Also in 2005, the Old Police Cells Museum opened.

In 2023 the population of Brighton and Hove was 277,000.

A Timeline of Brighton

1000 AD Brighton is a small village

1185 St Bartholomews Church is first mentioned

1313 Brighton is given a charter (a document granting the people certain rights). Weekly markets are held and annual fairs.

1340 The sea ‘swallows’ 40 acres of farmland

1497 A bulwark is built to defend Brighton

1514 The French burn Brighton

1545 The French return but are driven off

1580 Brighton has a population of around 2,500. It has 80 fishing vessels.

1651 Charles II comes to Brighton while fleeing the Roundheads

1660 The modern name Brighton is first used

1665 A free school opens

1703 Brighton is severely damaged by a storm

1705 Another storm damages the town

1730 Encroachment by the sea causes great concern in Brighton

1739 Preston Manor is built

1750 Dr Richard Russell writes a book in which he claims bathing in seawater is good for your health. Afterward, Brighton develops as a seaside resort.

1774 The first theatre in Brighton opens

1783 The Prince of Wales visits Brighton. The population of Brighton is about 4,000.

1789 A grammar school opens

1793 Two new batteries are built at Brighton

1815 Brighton Pavilion is built

1821 A local newspaper is founded in Brighton

1824 Steamships begin operating between Brighton and France

1841 Brighton is connected to London by railway

1861 The population of Brighton is 65,000

1866 West Pier is built

1867 Brighton General Hospital is built

1872 An aquarium is built

1874 Preston Park opens. A museum and library opens.

1882 A telephone exchange opens in Brighton

1883 The electric railway begins

1888 The Clock Tower is built

1899 Palace Pier is opened

1901 The first electric trams run

1909 The first cinema opens in Brighton

1925 A boating pool is built

1936 A Rock Garden is laid out in Preston Park

1939 The last electric trams run in Brighton

1962 Sussex University is founded

mid-1960s Churchill Square is built

1975 West Pier closes