A very short recap
Wander around Brighton today and it is difficult to imagine that this thriving, cosmopolitan city less than one hour from London was an impoverished fishing town that was nearly abandoned.
By the beginning of the 18th century, the sea had succeeded where the French – in repeated attacks – had all but failed. Most of the town and much of the foreshore had been destroyed by great storms and the cliff top was also under threat; Brighton was in danger of being swallowed by the English Channel.
Sea defences were proposed at a cost of 8,000 pounds – but, if Daniel Defoe is to be believed, that was more than the whole town was worth! Two groynes were eventually constructed in 1723, but the town was being squeezed from all sides as the fishing industry declined and the population packed its bags and left. By the middle of the 18th century, there were just 2,000 souls living in the town.
So, Brighton was broke and about to disappear for ever from the map of Sussex… until, ironically, the very thing that had nearly destroyed the town – seawater – saved it.
Brighton was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of a craze for seawater cures, pioneered in the mid 1700s by Dr Richard Russell, who sent his patients from the county town of Lewes to Brighton. Then fashionable society and the Prince of Wales arrived… and the rest is history.
IN THE BEGINNING
Early man thought that Whitehawk Hill would be a nice place to settle and a Neolithic encampment of about 2700 BC on the hill is the earliest known settlement of the Brighton area. What a windy and desolate place it must have been (a bit like today, actually, although at least views of the Channel were not interrupted by the flashing neon lights of Brighton Pier.)
Flint implements of a much earlier date have also been found in cliffs at Black Rock and Saltdean – what on earth would early man make of the area today, with its Marina stuffed full of yachts and motor cruisers and a weird-looking lido nestling in the valley?
There was a Bronze Age settlement at Coldean and, in the early second and third centuries BC, there was a settlement at Hollingbury Castle Camp.
Then came the Romans… A small villa existed in Preston and a Roman road ran from London to the coast near Brighton (traces of which have been found around Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath).
THE SAXONS (BRIGHTHELMSTON v BRIGHTON)
Brighton is a contraction of an older name, ‘Brighthelmston’. The first part is thought to derive from the Anglo-Saxon personal name ‘Beorthelm’ or ‘Brithelm’ and the second part from ‘tun’, an old English name for homestead or village (thus, Beorthelm’s homestead or possibly Brithelm’s village).
The first known use of the name Brighton was in the late 1600s, but it didn’t come into general use until the 18th century and official use dates from as late as 1810.
Brighthelmston grew up during Saxon times where the South Downs met the sea. With easy hill and valley routes to Lewes, a small inlet (Pool Valley), a sheltered area (Old Steine) for boats and no European Union fishing quotas to worry about, it’s hardly surprising that a fishing industry developed.
Wolnuth, a Sussex nobleman who commanded a fleet against the Danish in 1008, was the lord of the manors in the Brighton area. His son, Godwin, was created Earl of Kent, Surrey and Sussex by King Canute in 1019. When Godwin died in 1053, one of the Brighton manors went to Brictic, son-in-law of Ethelred, and the other two went to Godwin’s son Harold – later King Harold II.
With 1066 and all that, the conquering Normans left their mark. King William made his son-in-law, William de Warrenne, Earl of Surrey and conferred on him the barony of Lewes, including most of the local manors.
Tenants were put in most of the manors, except at Stanmer, which belonged to The Archbishop of Canterbury, and at Preston, which belonged to the Bishop of Chichester.
The Domesday Book seems to indicate an increasing population, now about 400, and a well-established fishing industry – a tribute of 4,000 herrings was paid to one of the manors.
At first, the fishing village was concentrated below the cliffs, with farming on the surrounding hills. It then grew into one of the largest towns in Sussex and in 1313, Edward II granted a weekly market and annual fair.
France 1, England 21
Raiders from across the Channel were a nuisance during the 16th century, constantly attacking the Sussex coast and Brighton – they even set fire to the town in 1514 during an England v France match (the 1511 to 1514 war).
A drawing in the British Museum, which depicts regular streets, houses blazing and ships offshore, is probably an account of the incident. The French, who destroyed most of the town, were driven off by archers alerted by a warning beacon on the Downs. Today, because of this raid, St Nicholas’s Church and the regular street pattern are the only survivors from those days.
Although the English got their own back, sailing to the visitors’ home ground to burn 21 French towns and villages, the French returned for a rematch in 1545. Large numbers, once again alerted by beacons, drove them off. The wreck of a ship from this period lies just offshore near the Marina.
Fed up with Gallic incursions, the English built a circular fort, called the Blockhouse, on the cliff top in 1559 and dared the French to try again. They would have got a very hot welcome after 1630, when 10 guns – taken from a Dunkirker warship which was chased on to the beach and broken up – were installed in the Blockhouse.
RISE AND FALL…
Brighton survived plagues and storms to prosper and by the beginning of the 17th century had a population of 1,500. By the middle 1600s it had become one of the most important towns in Sussex, with a population of 4,000.
It can even then boast (secretly) of a royal connection – King Charles II stayed there before he escaped to France (hence the Escape club in Marine Parade and the annual Royal Escape yacht race).
Then it all started to go wrong and the town became so poor that in 1708 a three-halfpenny rate was levied throughout eastern Sussex to help Brighton. And still the sea continued to take its toll… and the fishing industry slumped.
REVIVAL – the right place at the right time (18th century)
In 1750, Dr Richard Russell, a doctor with a practice in Lewes, published a paper on ‘Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Affections of the Glands’. Um, bedtime reading… especially recommended in its original Latin! Basically, he said that bathing in, and drinking, seawater was good for you and he was prescribing seawater cures for his patients.
All this was, of course, a cure for Brighton’s ills, as visitors flocked to the town to clear up their ‘Affections of the Glands’ (Didn’t they know that drinking seawater drives you mad?). And as the good doctor’s reputation grew, so did the population (and coffers) of Brighton.
In 1753, Dr Russell built a house in Brighton and moved in a year later. The following year he published another book, ‘The Economy of Nature in Acute and Chronic Diseases of the Glands’ – more bedtime reading!
Today, the Royal Albion Hotel stands on the site of Dr Russell’s house and a plaque commemorating him was erected on the southern facade facing Brighton Pier. It says: ‘If you seek his monument, look around’.