Probably named after a large rock or cave that once lay at the foot of the cliffs, Black Rock, at Boundary Rd, marked the eastern limit of Brighton until 1928, a boundary which was fixed by an inquiry in 1606 after an argument over wrecker’s rights. Black Rock also marks the point where the white chalk of the South Downs meets the sea, and there are some unusual geological formations in the vicinity. Visible in the fawn-coloured cliffs behind the Asda superstore, about 15 feet above the Undercliff Walk, is a ‘raised beach’ of rounded, flint pebbles and sandy gravels up to 10 feet thick, resting on chalk. This beach was laid down around 100,000 years ago during a warm interval in the Ice Age and has yielded sea-shells and the remains of whales. Above lies a 45-foot-thick layer of ‘Coombe Rock’— chalky rubble eroded by freeze-thaw action during the colder periods and ‘sludged’ down into the valleys by the spring and summer rains. This layer has produced fossil remains of mammoths, woolly rhinos and hippopotamuses. The strata here may be seen to curve upwards where the solid chalk of the South Downs becomes exposed as cliffs; the prehistoric coastline was once at an oblique angle to the present cliffs. This area is protected as a site of special scientific interest. About 350 yards offshore to the west of the Marina breakwater is the site of an historic wreck, protected from interference by statute. On the sea-bed lies a large, timber framework from which a cannon ball, an anchor and other metal objects have been recovered. The origin of the wreck is uncertain but it may be a French ship from one of the 16th-century raids on Brighton, or even a Spanish galleon from the 1588 Armada. The first development at Black Rock was the gas-works, established in 1818-19 by the Brighton Gas Light and Coke Company. This was soon followed by some terraced housing and shops, in Black Rock Cottages, Rifle Butt Rd and Hillside Cottages and, by 1828, the Abergavenny Arms had also opened. A small laundry, employing four women who hand-washed everything, was run in Hillside Cottages; their customers included the Duke of Fife. Black Rock House was two houses knocked into one, consisting of 18 rooms. It ran as a hotel, then a guest house, and was eventually converted into flats. The bakery in Rifle Butt Rd opened in 1856 and was run by the Stevens family from 1926 until its enforced closure in 1972; it was still using the same coal-fired oven installed 116 years earlier.
Constant erosion claimed the Black Rock cliff top 75 feet inland between 1847 and 1897 — a major landslip occurred in 1843 — causing the closure of the road to Rottingdean and the opening of Roedean Rd as an alternative; large landslips continued into the 1920s. In 1824, a tunnel was constructed from the eastern end of the Kemp Town esplanade to the gas-works to facilitate the carting of coal, but it fell into disuse once coal started to be landed at Aldrington Basin, and was blocked at both ends by the town commissioners in 1850, after it had collapsed in the middle.
In January 1906, Magnus Volk rented the southern entrance and, describing it falsely as a smugglers’ cave, used it briefly as a tourist attraction for his railway extension to Black Rock. The entrance disappeared completely when the corporation constructed public conveniences in the 1930s. Black Rock Farm survived until 1928, when the corporation bought the land there. On July 22 1932, with the cliffs now protected by the Undercliff Walk, a new 60-foot-wide highway, the Marine Drive, was opened between Black Rock and Rottingdean; the old inn was demolished at this time. The small community at Black Rock, centred on Rifle Butt Rd, was eventually demolished for the construction of the Marina road interchange which opened in 1976. The graves of the Quaker cemetery there were exhumed and the remains were taken to Lawn Memorial cemetery, where they were re-interred in a mass grave.
Black Rock was perhaps best known for its swimming-pool, formally opened on the site of a terrace garden on August 8 1936, and necessitating a slight shortening of Volk’s Railway. The pool, 165 feet by 60 feet, closed in 1978 and the handsome changing room and café building was demolished; in March 1984, demolition of the open air pool itself began. A major cliff collapse in recent times followed a winter of intense rain, and the soft layers of Coombe Deposits in the cliff behind Asda failed and a major fall blocked the Undercliff Walk, almost reaching the store. The walk was closed for some time before extensive work was carried out to sensitively secure the cliff face in what is an important natural site, designated a Site of Special Scientific Interest (SSSI). The Black Rock cliffs were closed to the public again in 2001 and 2004, when storms caused parts of them to crumble and fall onto the Undercliff Walk. In 2005, professional abseilers from Uckfield builders CJ Thorne sank bolts into the rocks which were aimed at holding the rocks in place for the next 50 years. In July 2005, a sand sculpture festival was held at Black Rock beach, featuring Egyptian-style dragons, sphinxes, and Tutankhamun’s tomb, made by 60 carvers using 10,000 tonnes of sand.
In recent years, Black Rock has become the focus of several unrealised proposed major developments — some more controversial than others. However, a plan to build 147 homes on the set received a setback when, in March 2010, a High Court decision ruled that property developers would have to pay a substantial share of the costs involved in cleaning up such contaminated sites. In October 2003, RH Partnership and the Brighton International Arena became the two preferred bidders for the former pool site; RH’s proposal featured plans for a 150-bed, 5-star hotel by Forte, complete with health spa, winter garden and biodome. Brighton International Arena’s $50 million proposal was to include an 11,000-seat indoor events arena with two Olympic ice rinks (for skating and ice hockey) plus 109 residential apartments, 40 per cent of these ‘affordable’. Jayne Torvill and Robin Cousins supporting this scheme and proposed that it should be the home of a national ice dance centre. Brighton & Hove Council favoured this scheme, which was opposed by residents and a number of groups, including the Regency Society. However, the scheme — like other major developments in the city — was put on ice when the 2009 recession/credit crunch took its toll and financial backer Erinaceous went bust.