Ghostly Brighton

The city we know today as Brighton was first settled back in Saxon times, with the main industries being farming and fishing. Soon designated streets developed, these being North, South, East and West Streets and all are still in existence today. Also surviving are the smaller passages that sprung up in order to navigate between the main streets. These are now known as Brighton’s famous ‘Lanes’.

Brighton saw its fair share of prosperity as well as despair. When the French attacked in 1514, the town was destroyed as the wooden buildings burned to the ground. The occupants were defiant and soon rebuilt their town and towards the end of the century records show that Brighton was home to over 400 fisherman and their families.

However, further wars with both the French and the Dutch meant that Brighton and its fishing trade suffered. Additionally as the 18th Century arrived, it brought with it powerful storms that battered and brought destruction to the entire South East coast. Brighton’s fishing trade was at an end.

However, the town was about to have a regeneration. In 1750, a Dr Russell wrote a paper enthusing about the many health benefits to both body and mind that were to be obtained from sea air and sea bathing. Soon the rich were flocking to the coast and when the Prince Regent chose Brighton as his favourite coastal retreat in 1783, the town’s status was sealed. Hotels, cafés, and theatres appeared to provide accommodation and entertainment for the new visitors.

During the following century, other iconic landmarks of Brighton were created including the wonderful Pavilion, the once grand and beautiful West Pier and the aquarium, now the Sea Life Centre. In 2010, Brighton played host to the annual World Horror Convention. The organisers chose the city to be their UK host as they believe it to be the most haunted place in the country. Other cities may disagree but with a wide and varied assortment of spirits from monks and nuns to smugglers, sailors, publicans and soldiers, Brighton certainly has a plethora of paranormal activity to offer.

Fancy going on a walk of haunted Brighton? Begin at the chapel formerly known as Trinity Chapel which stands on the corner of Prince Albert Street and Ship Street. Look to your left and you will see the FRIENDS’ MEETING HOUSE, on Ship Street. Originally built in 1805 for the local Quaker community, it now has a dual purpose as both a place of worship and an education centre.

The Meeting House has been rumoured to have a presence for many years. One of the best known accounts is that of two women who, in April 1997, accidentally got locked in one evening after attending a class there. Using a mobile phone, they were able to get the police to contact a key holder. However whilst waiting for their release, the women heard a key turn in the lock and distinct shuffling type footsteps close to them. However, no being emerged and the building was entirely empty, except for themselves.

Walk south down Ship Street, then turn right onto Union Street and find the FONT & FIRKIN PUB, with a JEWELLERS’ SHOP opposite. This building was originally a Presbyterian church built in 1688 and served this purpose for the following 300 years until the congregation eventually built a new church and moved out in 1988. The building then stood empty until 1994 when a brewery company bought it with plans to turn it into a pub. The Font & Firkin opened its doors a year later.

During the conversion, builders reported that their tools were regularly moved around overnight. At some point during the late 1800s, church authorities had a number of bodies removed from a burial chamber beneath the church which were then buried elsewhere. However it seems some must have remained although whether this was accidentally or intentionally is unknown.

When conversion works in 1994 required the builders to remove part of the ground floor in order to allow for the fitment of brewery vats, more human bones were found. Shortly after the new pub opened, a barmaid apparently saw an ashtray fling itself off a shelf, and another witness saw the face of a young woman wearing a grey shawl peering through the interior front doors. The image vanished as quickly as it had appeared. When a colleague checked the outer doors, they were locked, meaning that no-one could have got in or out during that time.

It seems that the upheaval of the conversion did not confine itself to the walls of the old church. A jeweller’s shop that stood opposite was also witness to several extremely odd occurrences during the time, all of which were destructive to a greater or lesser degree. Two porcelain plates flew out from their mountings on the wall and onto the floor. One remained complete but the other broke into pieces.

A few months later, with construction still taking place across the lane, a very strange Saturday afternoon ensued at the jewellers. In the space of two hours, and with plenty of witnesses, four separate incidents occurred. Firstly, with no-one touching it the glass door of a display cabinet spontaneously shattered. Later it was noticed that the amber part of a necklace had completely disintegrated.

Next a child’s bottle of drink exploded without cause and luckily without injury and finally on this extraordinary day the jeweller’s wife looked at her watch and noticed that the glass was entirely shattered. She was positive that she had not knocked the watch against anything.

The activity seemed to settle down soon after the pub opened. Turn right down MEETING HOUSE LANE. Keep right, then take the first left. Go to 41 Meeting House Lane. Number 41 Meeting House Lane is now a café but the building itself dates back to the 17th Century and has been home to an assortment of businesses. Several years ago an antiques gallery occupied the site. During this time several people witnessed an apparition of a middle aged man with greying hair dressed in grey trousers and a dark coloured, knee length overcoat. In each description he is said to be carrying a canvas or linen bag which looks to be the shape of a doctor’s bag. Unexplained thumps and sudden drops in temperature have also been experienced on the premises.

The lower floor of this building was once home to Brighton’s Museum of Childhood, which no longer exists in the town. One visitor got rather a shock to see a pale faced unkempt toddler sitting on the stairs. When the visitor went to speak to the child, she faded away.

Walk to 4-5 Meeting House Lane to see the BATH ARMS PUB. When it was first built in 1864, this pub was called the True Briton Inn but the name was changed within three years. Several health spas were being built in the town following Dr Russell’s declaration, so the name change was possibly a bid to cash in on the health resort reputation of the town.

There have been a couple of different apparitions in this pub. One is a man wearing a tri corn hat. Another male has also been seen, this time dressed in a Victorian style with a black overcoat and black brimmed hat. It’s possible that one of these gentlemen is a former landlord. Rumour has it that the man committed suicide by drowning. He calmly walked into the sea and began swimming out to sea and was never seen again.

Glasses, bottles and other items have been witnessed by both staff and customers to move of their own accord. Go back up Meeting House Lane which will bring you to the back of the Friends’ Meeting House. Take the first left at the T junction. Immediately on your right is a BRICKED UP DOORWAY.

During the 2nd World War, coastal areas were acknowledged as being at the highest risk of invasion and often classified as a ‘restricted’ area. This meant that only local residents and essential personnel were allowed to be in the town. Everyone had an identity card and movement at night was limited. It was under such circumstances that one of the best known sightings of the Grey Nun of Meeting House Lane was seen. A woman firewatcher on duty in The Lanes one night was surprised to see a hooded figure in grey moving along the lane towards the Friends’ Meeting House. The firewatcher called out to the figure but received no response. The watcher then ran after the individual and was astonished to see it drift through a blocked up doorway in the wall of the lane. There are those that think this apparition may not be a nun but perhaps a female Quaker. Their traditional clothes are plain in both design and colour, including grey and the women often wore bonnets or shawls to cover their heads. Those that have seen the apparition of a nun in this area (whether this is the same one or another wraith) close up tell that there is no face within the dark hood of her habit.

How Brighton’s pubs have changed over the years

The origins of Brighton lie in a small Saxon settlement known as Beorhthelm’s Tun, which translates as the Farm of Beorhthelm. Its centre was on a ridge once known as the Knab, now called Brighton Place and site of the Druids Head pub. The people would have brewed their own ale, sweet, unhopped, flavoured with herbs and spices and consumed in simple alehouses. A division between farming and fishing communities had occurred by at least the Norman Conquest, but in medieval times the latter had developed into a significant industry. After a charter was granted by Edward II in 1313 to what was by then called Brighthelmstone, or one of the many variants of that spelling, buyers and sellers plied their wares at fairs and markets and the town began to prosper. A large area called the Hempshares was set aside for the fishermen to grow the hemp from which their ropes and twine were made. In 1580 there were 400 able mariners who outnumbered the land men by nearly four to one. By 1829 there were still 300 fishermen. The old inns were then concentrated around gaps from the beach and in the neighbourhood of the old fish market. Many were used almost exclusively by fishermen. Indeed, it was their custom to gather at the Greyhound (now the Fishbowl) near the bottom of East Street to auction their daily catch.

The Greyhound had previously gone by the nautical name of the Anchor. It is the city’s only surviving pub that can claim a documented link back to the 1600s, which in Brighton is as old as it gets. Other existing pubs have stated an earlier date of establishment: the Cricketers, the Seven Stars and the Druids Head have all at some point made a case for the 1500s. The evidence for all these claims is circumstantial at best and must in any case refer to previous houses on the site. That the medieval town, largely of wood and thatch construction, was torched by French raiders in 1514 is less in dispute than the extent to which it was destroyed. Many foreshore dwellings were also lost to two great storms of the early 1700s and by constant coastal erosion, by which time the population had fallen by a third. Whatever the causes, architectural historians are firm in their judgement that Brighton does not have domestic or commercial buildings with fabric surviving from the sixteenth century or earlier. What is retained from the medieval period is the grid layout of the old town, with the coast bounded by West Street, North Street and East Street. The pubs in the area now known as The Lanes, were mostly licensed by the late 1700s, by which time the town had a new-found prosperity.

In 1800 the town had forty-one inns – one for every thirty houses and 178 residents. By 1831, the number of inns had more than doubled to eighty-nine but the population had increased over five-and-a-half fold to 40,634. Brighton, as it was officially known from 1810, had been transformed from a fishing community in decline to a pleasure ground for the famous and the fashionable. One attraction was seawater, or rather the growing belief in its supposed health-giving properties. In 1750 Dr Richard Russell, of nearby Lewes, published his Dissertation on the Use of Sea Water in the Diseases of the Glands. It was originally in Latin and obviously aimed at learned society. Seawater bathhouses, Awsiter’s, Brill’s and Mahomed’s, soon sprang up in the town. Although long since demolished, their presence lives on in the names of two pubs in The Lanes: the Pump House and the Bath Arms. Another reason for the turnabout in the town’s fortunes was the Royal patronage of the Prince of Wales, later King George IV. Enormously popular in Brighton, ‘Prinny’ brought with him the libertine culture of excessiveness that characterises the city to this very day. It became necessary to both accommodate and amuse the influx of visitors and the Georgian inns fulfilled this function admirably. One of the largest hostelries was the Old Ship, still standing on the seafront and which gave its name to Ship Street. It then had seventy beds, stabling for 100 horses, plus a coffee room and wine vaults.

By 1851 Brighton had 65,569 residents and over 200 licensed premises. The town had become less attractive to fashionable society and lost its Royal patronage in 1845. What fundamentally changed its character was the coming of the railway, with the symbolic arrival of the first train from London on 21 September 1841. In the decade before the opening of the line, the population of the town increased by 15 per cent; the increase the decade after was 41 per cent. This growth consisted of a new, more democratic set of social classes – professionals, clerks, artisans, servants, shopkeepers and the second- or third-class day tripper. The railway was also directly responsible for new purpose-built hotels just outside the terminus, the Railway (now the Grand Central) and the Prince Albert. It equally encouraged a proliferation of plebeian pubs, many of which originated as basic beer retailers licensed under the 1830 Wellington Act. Trafalgar Street once had eleven pubs plus three unnamed beerhouses. The railway also bought a halt to the days of the old coaching inns, although some, notably the Royal Oak in St James’s Street, survived as hotels. In March 1892 Brighton had 572 hotels, public houses and beerhouses for a population of 115,400. The greatest concentration was in the poorer areas: Edward Street had twenty-six pubs. Yet the number had peaked and continuous contraction was to follow.

Some sections of Victorian society exhibited a strong moralistic streak that exhorted abstinence from the demon drink. Temperance organisations proved to be adept at political lobbying, with successive legislation being passed to curtail opening hours. Magistrates were also given more power to refuse the renewal of licenses and the number of pubs subsequently decreased. Faced with fewer outlets, the common brewers began securing their market share of tied houses by purchasing more of them to rebuild in majestic and opulent style. The additional capital required for such a venture was raised through flotation on the stock market. The bubble burst in 1899, but not before it gave rise to what has been called the golden age of pub building. This is how Tamplins, Brighton’s biggest brewery, came to make expensive alterations to many of its pubs in the late 1890s, particularly to those it purchased from the West Street Brewery following a further share issue. Individual proprietors also turned to local architects to redesign their pubs in sumptuous style, with majestic mahogany bars, cut and etched glass and sweeping island counters. The Seven Stars in Ship Street, the Lion in St James’s Street and the Quadrant in North Street Quadrant were all altered in such fashion in this final decade of the nineteenth century.

A phenomenon of the 1920s and 1930s was the improved public house, based on a philosophy of ‘fewer, bigger, better’. There was to be no return however to Victorian flamboyance: solid Brewers’ Tudor and elegant neo-Georgian were among the preferred styles. The latter was taken up by the Kemp Town Brewery, whereas the Portsmouth and Brighton United Breweries favoured the use of green faience tiling. Both these local breweries were evangelists for the improved public house. In this period they rebuilt or newly built sixty-nine and forty-nine pubs, respectively (27 per cent and 17 per cent of their tied-house stock). Four examples from each brewery are visited in this book. The movement for modernised pubs was motivated by a reformist zeal that was forward-looking and progressive. The intention was to do away with disreputable ‘drink-shops’ that had few amenities and no ancillary activities to discourage perpendicular drinking by a predominantly male clientele. The improved pub aimed to promote cultural respectability by appealing to a wider class base and creating a comfortable environment welcoming to women and families. A Ladies’ Parlour and a Children’s Room were, for instance, provided in the mock-Tudor King & Queen, Marlborough Place, rebuilt 1931–36 by Clayton & Black.

If the 1930s were reforming then the 1960s were futuristic. Under the banner of ‘slum clearance’, tower blocks replaced traditional terraces. Whole swathes of Brighton streets with their corner pubs were lost to the wrecking ball, particularly to the northeast from Edward Street and west of London Road. Others were demolished for the construction of the Churchill Square shopping centre. Existing pubs also underwent changes. In a relatively affluent society less concerned with traditional class distinctions, the internal compartmentalisation of pubs into separate Public, Private and Saloon Bars appeared increasingly anachronistic. Both the King & Queen and the Golden Fleece (now the Market Inn) had their three bars knocked into one at the end of the 1960s. The décor altered, too. The industry came to be dominated by a handful of big national brewers: the ‘choice’ in Brighton was mostly between Charrington, Courage, Watneys or Whitbread. These created a corporate, branded identity for all their pubs, eroding their individuality. At the same time, young people had both income and leisure time at their disposal and were targeted by brewery marketing executives who thought mild beer and matchwood interiors to be hopelessly outmoded. Lager, keg bitter, Campari and Babycham became the order of the day. Wall-to-wall-carpeted pubs with chromium, plastic and Formica fittings became the newfangled places to drink.

The past thirty years have seen something of a reversal of such trends. First, there is a concern with conservation and heritage. In 1999, several Brighton pubs of architectural significance received Grade-II building listing protection or had amendments made to their listings. During the same period, the Campaign for Real Ale has identified local pubs with heritage interiors of national and regional importance. In 2015, the city council placed fourteen Brighton pubs on its new Local List of Heritage Assets. Second, the importance of locality has been emphasised. This is linked to the resurgence of real ale and the astonishing growth of microbreweries. Brighton had lost all its old local breweries to a process of acquisition by the 1960s. The city now boasts four micros that have opened in the last four years. Third, the industry has been deregulated. If this has led to pubs being owned mostly by non-brewing companies, then most of these Pubcos, such as Drink In Brighton stock locally-brewed beers. The market is also highly segmented, with bars, licensed cafés and gastro pubs all catering for different type of customers with variegated tastes. In many cases these drinking places inhabit imposing and historic buildings once used for other purposes, such as chapels, banks and newspaper offices. Brighton has certainly retained its Regency raffishness but has adapted to suit the changed conditions of the twenty-first century.