History of Brighton

Mother Earth Travel > United Kingdom > Brighton > History

Although the local land has been inhabited since 3000BC, it was not until the arrival of the Saxons that Brighton's foundations were laid. By the 6th Century AD they were in control of much of the South of England; in fact Sussex means the 'kingdom of the south Saxons'. The original name of Brighton was 'Brighthelmston' and was almost certainly distorted from the Saxon name 'Brithelm' or 'Beorthelm', and 'tun', meaning farmstead. During Saxon times the settlement developed as a modest community of 400 which revolved around fishing and farming.

Brighthelmston was a village constantly fighting to survive. In 1514 the French pillaging of the south coast all but destroyed it, but against all odds the village recovered and went on to thrive as a fishing community as never before. Despite this growth, the town fell into decline as rising sea levels, culminating in the violent storms of 1703 and 1705, destroyed its lower part. By 1730, a population that had swelled to 4,000 in 1600, had dwindled to half that number.

The Royal Resurgence

In 1750 Dr. Richard Russell, of Lewes, popularized beliefs in the healing power of drinking and bathing in sea water and breathing sea air. Dr. Russell, as well as others who maintained his views, advocated this struggling fishing town as the ultimate health resort. The wealthy but unhealthy started to trickle down from London to see if it was all true. For many the cleaner air and the seawater did the trick, but even if it did not, Brighthelmston quickly began to provide social pursuits at every turn, from cock-fighting or theatre to drinking and gambling.

Once George the Prince of Wales added his emphatic approval after visiting in 1783, the trickle became a positive flood. Prince George defined the new image of the town now unofficially called Brighton. Artistic, witty and charming on one hand, he was excessive and hedonistic on the other. Be he saint or sinner, he left his mark physically as well as spiritually, most famously in the fabulous Royal Pavilion. The Chain Pier, now Brighton Pier, was completed in the same year, 1823, and along with the classic style of houses built in the Regency period of 1811-1820, Brighton was acquiring many of its enduring characteristics.

When the town finally did lose royal favour under Queen Victoria, it bought the Royal Pavilion to keep it from neglect and opened it to the paying public, bringing it yet more revenue. By 1861 the population of Brighton (officially called so since 1853) had risen to 78,000. The final stages of this population explosion were accelerated by the opening of the first London to Brighton railway in 1841, a service which got faster, cheaper and more frequent as the years passed. The railway meant that Brighton was becoming a more and more viable prospect for the masses, who came for newer attractions such as Palace Pier (now Brighton Pier). Brighton was evolving into what some called a "Cockney Paradise", as Londoners found all the amusements of the capital fitted snugly into a friendly seaside town.

The War Era

Although Brighton had flourished for over a century, its success disguised an unsettling underbelly of poverty and crime. Wealth was not evenly distributed, and many who tried to make their fortune here failed. After the First World War poverty was at crisis level, and government money was given over to clearing some of the worst slums. Unfortunately, many people were moved to new estates without thought, and old homes were lost, roots damaged, and in some cases families separated. £2m was spent on slum clearance, road widening and refurbishments between the wars, but the image of Brighton was tarnished, as is demonstrated by Graham Greene's novel of this era, "Brighton Rock". If anything, though, the seedier side of Brighton increased its attraction and the crowds flocked. On the August Bank Holiday of 1945 Palace Pier attracted 45,000 visitors. A few weeks later the beach was lined with barbed wire as Brighton awaited Hitler's forces. They never materialised, but Brighton was still right in the firing line, and 56 air raids during the WWII killed 198 people and destroyed 280 houses. The town's architectural treasures survived however, and Brighton continued entertaining, this time US and Canadian troops.

The Modern Era

After the war, Hove Council failed to see the lucky escape and proposed to demolish the beautiful Brunswick Square and Terrace and Adelaide Crescent and replace them with high rise blocks. In reaction to this the Regency Society was formed and successfully protested against the developments. Further successes included campaigning to have hundreds of Brighton buildings listed by 1952.

The society could not stop all progress, however, and high rises popped up over the 1960's, as did a modern shopping centre at Churchill Square in 1968. The protection of the South Downs always had massive support, and in 1966 the area became an Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty (AONB), and an Environmentally Sensitive Area (ESA), safeguarding the Downs for the near future. Other positive developments were the foundation of the University of Sussex and Brighton Polytechnic (now Brighton University). These, along with the Brighton College of Technology and numerous language schools, made the town a major centre of learning, and education became the number one employer.

The increasing young population brought more nightlife to the town, as well as more political activism and, in some cases, more trouble. The most dramatic episodes occurred in the rivalry between the mods and rockers, culminating in the pitch battle on Whitsun Bank Holiday of 1964. The turbulent social pattern in Brighton discouraged some visitors, as did the rise of the holiday camp, foreign holidays, car ownership and competition from other seaside resorts. Theatres and other attractions were forced out of business and the neglected West Pier was closed in 1975.

Even as the rot was setting in, Brighton was fighting back. The first Brighton Festival of the Arts was not a success in 1967, but it grew to represent Brighton's cultural diversity as the city bloomed again in the late eighties and all through the nineties. The Brighton Marina project, initially derided by some, came to fruition in the nineties also. A massive success was the Brighton Centre, which has been in constant use since its completion in 1977, with political conferences, concerts and other events, bringing tens of thousands to Brighton every year. And, as ever, there is the sun, the sea and the friendly, positive, outgoing and welcoming people of Brighton, drawing visitors in and making them want to stay. With train links to London now dipping under 50 minutes and set to decrease, more and more people are coming round to the charms of Brighton.

It is a history such as this, of bad times as well as good, that has given Brighton a richness of character that enables its visitors and residents to revel in its delights as never before.