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The History of Brighton

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There is evidence of Neolithic settlements in the Brighton area, suggesting this section of the south coast has long played host to mankind. The Romans are known to have visited the area but there’s nothing to suggest the presence a Roman town. The Saxons settled at Pool Valley and Old Steine. Brighton is listed in the Domesday Book of 1086 as Brighthelmstone with a population of about 400. The three manors of Brighthelmstone were valued at £12 each and a rent was payable to the lord of the manor Ralph de Chesney. The rent of 4000 herrings annually indicates how important fishing was at the time to the manor’s economy. Brighton was known as Bristelmestune in the Medieval period. Hove is first mentioned in written historical records in 1288 but probably existed for some while prior to this. Bristelmestune received its royal charter in 1313 from Edward II . The charter allowed Brighton a weekly market on Thursdays and an annual three day fair. The church of St Nicholas was built around Norman times and is now the oldest surviving building in modern Brighton.

The town’s name continued to evolve and it was known as Brithampton when the French attacked it and burned it to the ground in 1514. Although the town was almost completely destroyed in the attack it sprang back up, partly in defiance and partly out of economic necessity. French or no French, there were still farms to be farmed
and fish to be fished, and all of this activity meant Brighton was still required as a market and a fishing port. There was more suffering in 1663, 1587-9 and 1608-10 when plagues swept through Brighton. The town also had the dubious claim to fame of being the last place Charles II stayed before fleeing to France after his defeat at the Battle of Winchester. The king’s presence in the town proved to be a bad omen as the town went into decline. By the end of the 17th century it had slipped from the position it held at the start of the century as one of the most important towns in Sussex. The dawn of the 18th century didn’t go well for the town when it was struck by two large storms that almost brought about its destruction in 1703 and 1705.

Brighton was saved by the most unusual mix, one that included sea water and crabs eyes and was expounded by a Dr Richard Russell in 1750. The good doctor’s famous ‘Seawater Cure’ for a variety of ills consisted of six rather unscientifically selected ingredients. Woodlice, cuttlefish bones, crabs eyes, bicarbonate of soda and milk were combined with Brighton’s sea water in the cure. Strange as it may seem today, Dr Russell’s quackery actually set Brighton back on the path of prosperity as the aristocracy were soon taken in and started to add Brighton to their fashionable resort calendar. Brighton’s position as a fashionable Regency resort was confirmed by the first visit of Prince Regent, later to be crowned George IV , in 1783. The building of George, Prince Regent’s lavish Royal Pavilion at the turn of the 19th century and the opening of the Theatre Royal in 1830 were more milestones in the development of Brighton into one of England’s most cultured resorts.

Queen Victoria rejected the Royal Pavilion as her country retreat and sold it to the Corporation of Brighton for £53,000 in 1850, something of a bargain at today’s prices but nonetheless a significant sum for the corporation to raise at the time. The opening of the main line railway from London to Brighton brought another boost to the town’s status as a resort. The railway opened Brighton up to the masses, not just the wealthy. People could now visit Brighton relatively cheaply, going down on a cheap day return from their homes in London. The population grew rapidly reaching 120,000 in 1901, up from just 7,000 just 100 years earlier in 1801. In keeping with any self respecting seaside resort Brighton had a pier, in fact, it had two. Brighton Pier , or the Brighton Marine Palace and Pier, was built in 1899 and became known as the Palace Pier. The earlier West Pier was completed in 1866 but has had an unhappy history. It has been closed since 1975 and plans to renovate it seem beset by continual setbacks. Brighton is also the site of the Volk’s Electrical Railway , first laid down in 1883 and still operating today. The line, which runs from Brighton Pier to Black Rock and Brighton Marina , is the world’s oldest operational electric railway.

The start of the 20th century saw more growth for Brighton, now firmly in London’s influence because of the way the railway had shrunk the distance between the capital and the seaside resort. A big private building project was undertaken by the wealthy local family the Stanfords, who owned large parts of the land in and around Brighton and Hove. The town of Brighton soon merged physically and administratively with its neighbour Hove as the urban spread continued, fuelled by large scale building of council housing between the wars. The city of Brighton and Hove was formed in 1997 principally from Brighton, Hove and Portslade although other former villages were also included in the new city. Queen Elizabeth II granted a royal charter confirming city status upon Brighton and Hove in 2000.

Brighton’s image as a fashionable seaside resort was somewhat tarnished by the day tripper, especially those arriving on two wheels. Brighton beach was the scene of violent clashes between the rival Mods and Rocker motorcycle gangs of the 50s and 60s, as epitomised in the film Quadrophenia. The infamous ‘Battle of Brighton’ was fought on 17 and 18 May 1964 between the Mods who arrived on their scooters, and
the Rockers who favoured big English motorcycles. In the Eighties Brighton was the scene of another battle, this time one fought in the war between the British Government and the IRA. The IRA bombed the Grand Hotel in 1984 during the Conservative Party Conference, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher survived the bombing which killed five people.

Brighton is once again a fashionable town, although it is not without the many social problems found in British resorts that have seen better days. The city’s proximity to London puts it just inside the capital’s realistic commuter belt. Brighton has managed to attract many young professionals, as well as a sizeable chunk of the ‘New Media’ industry. Many of the grander Regency buildings have been tastefully restored and some of the old Regency grandeur, and wealth, has returned to Brighton.

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