From humble origins to fame: Edward Bransfield

Born in Ballinacurra, County Cork, this sailor — press-ganged into the Navy at 18 — was a classic example of someone being in the right place at the right time, to unwittingly carve out their own piece of history: namely, being the first man to sight mainland Antarctica. Edward Bransfield began as an Ordinary Seaman and steadily rose through the ranks; by 1816, he was Master of the Severn, which he took part in the Bombardment of Algiers. In 1817, he was appointed Master of the Andromache, under the command of Captain WH Shirreff; during this tour of duty, Bransfield was posted to the Royal Navy’s new Pacific Squadron off Valparaíso, Chile — then fighting for its independence from Spain. Two years later, Captain William Smith of the merchant ship Williams accidentally discovered what came to be known as the South Shetland Islands.

When Captain Shirreff learned of this discovery, he chartered the Williams and sent it back with Bransfield, two midshipmen and the surgeon from HMS Slaney, to survey the islands. On January 28 1820, Bransfield landed on King George Island and took formal possession on behalf of King George III, before heading south-west past Deception Island and then turning south, crossing what is now known as the Bransfield Strait (named for him by James Weddell in 1822). On January 30 1820, Bransfield sighted Trinity Peninsula, the northernmost point of the Antarctic mainland, and made a note in his log of two ‘high mountains, covered with snow’, one of which was subsequently named Mount Bransfield, by Dumont Durville, in his honour.

Bransfield then discovered various points on Elephant Island and Clarence Island, and formally claimed them for the British Crown. When he arrived back in Valparaíso, he gave his charts and journal to Captain Shirreff, who gave them to the Admiralty.

These charts survived and are still in the possession of the Hydrographic Department in Taunton, Somerset, but the journal has been lost. However, two private accounts of Bransfield’s voyage were published in 1821. It later emerged that, two days before Bransfield’s sighting, the Russian explorer Fabian Gottlieb von Bellingshausen had sighted an icy shoreline now known to have been East Antarctica, and some historians therefore claim he should be credited with the find.

Based on this sighting, a claim has been made on behalf of Bellingshausen that he should be credited with the discovery of the continent. After his journeys in the Southern Ocean, Bransfield returned to Plymouth and was discharged, on half pay, to the reserve list. He served for several years as a Master on merchant ships. When he retired, he moved to Brighton, setting up home in London Rd. He and his wife, Ann, are buried in the Extra-Mural Cemetery, and the gravestone now bears an inscription reflecting Bransfields claim to fame. In 1999, one of his descendants, Sheila Bransfield, discovered the grave and found it in a woeful state. Aided by charitable donations, she organised its renovation and a ceremony was held to mark this, attended by the master of RRS Bransfield (an Antarctic surveying vessel named after him) plus representatives from the National Maritime Museum, the Hydrographic Office and the Royal Geographical Society. In 2000, the Royal Mail issued a commemorative stamp in his honour but, as no likeness of him exists, the stamp depicted RRS Bransfield.

The origins of Brighton to the Neolithic Age

We all love the seaside and the sense of freedom it brings, but Brighton has a reputation above all other resorts in Britain for the ‘edgy’ pleasures it offers to visitors from all over the world. It’s not a bucket-and-spade kind of place, but a sophisticated ‘melting pot’ for a wide variety of people who relish the idea of having a good time in their own way. In fact sometimes it feels like a place for grown-ups who haven’t quite grown up at all.

It took a long time for a proper town to develop here and Brighton only discovered its true purpose in life only about 250 years ago. That purpose has been to attract visitors in their droves, parting them from their cash – and sometimes from their common sense, too – in return for an endless, and colourfully varied, range of entertainments. Of course, the people who live here care very much about things like schools, hospitals and rubbish collections, but that’s certainly not what Brighton means to everyone else.

As far as the wider world is concerned it isn’t really owned by its inhabitants at all – or not in the way that matters. It’s always been a place for other people to pass through on their way to somewhere else, or to pause in for a little fun before going away again. This has given it a very peculiar history. The obsession with having a good time began with George, the Prince Regent, and his extravagant friends (can you imagine the gaudy Royal Pavilion being built in any other seaside town?), and it hasn’t stopped since. In many ways this has been very useful for Brighton. The rich folk who came here during the 18th century for the ‘sea-water cure’ helped to revive a town that was very much down on its luck.

It wasn’t until 1810 that the authorities decided officially to call their town Brighton. Before that it was known as something like Brighthelmston, although more than 40 variations on the theme have been recorded. (In the Domesday Book it was Bristelmestune.) The ‘tun’ bit signifies a homestead, and the best guess is that someone called Beorthelm (which means ‘bright helmet’) was the bigwig here in Saxon times – but, if so, the poor chap’s been completely forgotten.

But the influx of so many outsiders can cause problems, too. Once the railway had arrived in the 1840s, Brighton grew faster than any other town in Britain, and during the later Victorian period many areas were horribly overcrowded, with foul-smelling slums that were a terrible health hazard because people drank water raised in buckets from wells that lay right next to their cesspits.

During the 1930s, day-trippers arrived here in their thousands, but some of them weren’t the kind of people you’d want as next-door neighbours. There were razor-wielding gangs who frequented the racecourse, and for a time the town had a very bad reputation indeed. Fortunately, Brighton has always found ways to rise above its problems, knowing that unless it puts on a good show for its visitors it can’t hope to be prosperous. Today it’s a bright and cheerful city, but – just like some of the characters who like to have their fun here – it has a colourful and occasionally disreputable past.

The first thing you need to know about Brighton is that the land it sits on wasn’t always there. Let’s go back a hundred million years to a Sussex that wasn’t the attractive jumble of hills and valleys we know today, but a flat expanse of nothing, covered by water. At one period this was a swampy region, criss-crossed by meandering rivulets and inhabited by iguanodons and other dinosaurs. Later it was flooded by the sea. The bands of sediment that built up on the bottom hardened to become the eventual rocks and soils of Sussex: sandstones, clay, shales, limestone and chalk.

During all these vast aeons they lay in an orderly fashion, one on top of the other, quietly minding their own business. The chalk, on top of everything else, was created from minute calcite crystals secreted by planktonic algae when the land was under the sea, and it built up at the rate of a metre every 100,000 years for all of 30 million years to form layers some 300 metres thick.

So why isn’t the landscape flat today? Because once, another very long time ago, there was a gradual but violent grinding of the tectonic plates (sections of the earth’s crust) that lie beneath our continent. It lifted, twisted and buckled the rocks to form the Alps in northern Europe and create the huge, if less dramatic, dome that eventually became today’s Sussex. Geologists call it the Wealden anticline – and Brighton sits on the southern edge of it.

Once rivers had cut through the rocks on their way to the sea, and once rain, frost and ice had scoured and weathered the surface over millions more years, Sussex was left with the broad bands of soils which make up our Downs and Weald today. (You might think that our chalk slopes should be called the Ups rather than the Downs, but the word comes from the Old English dun, which means ‘hill’.)

Don’t imagine, though, that the beach we walk the dog on today is where the earliest inhabitants of Sussex found it half a million years ago. The fickle sea was sometimes 40 metres higher than it is now, and sometimes all of 100 metres lower. In the cliffs at Black Rock, near Brighton Marina, you can see evidence of an ancient beach 8 metres above the current sea level and dating from about 200,000 years ago. It wasn’t until 5,000 years ago that the sea arrived at something like the present coastline, and another 2,000 years before it reached roughly the height we know today – although it has kept ebbing and flowing ever since, and at present threatens to wash away houses all around the south-east coast of England.

Let’s introduce you to a man called Roger. He’s very old – probably half a million years old – but unfortunately we can only guess what he looked like. That’s because all that remains of him is a single fragment of shin-bone. The archaeologists who affectionately gave him his daft name (no, of course nobody was called Roger then) were exploring an ancient raised beach at Boxgrove, 32 km (20 miles) west of Brighton, near Chichester. They also found a couple of teeth, but these probably belonged to someone else.
The Boxgrove people were members of a species we know as Homo heidelbergensis – their descendants being Neanderthal man (now extinct) and possibly ourselves (not yet) – and they lived in a climate similar to our own. They collected flints from the base of the cliffs and chipped away at them to fashion razor-sharp hand-axes. With these they hunted and butchered rhinoceroses, bears, bison, horses and large deer. But there were chilly times to come. Some 14,000 years ago, with glaciers forming further north, the Downs were covered by snowfields and the chalk was permanently frozen. The snow melted when the last ice age ended, and rivers cut through the hills, scouring out the valley north of Brighton which we know as Devil’s Dyke.

As the temperature rose, life became easier for the nomadic hunter-gatherers and hunter-fishers who foraged along the coast and in the dense oak forests of Sussex, which teemed with wild cattle, deer and pigs. Their rock-shelters have been excavated in the Sussex Weald, especially on the high ground to the north of Brighton, but scatterings of their worked flints have been found in the Brighton area, too.

Come the New Stone Age, Brighton at last finds a definite place on the prehistoric map. During this period settlers used polished stone tools, domesticated animals, practised weaving, made pottery and sank flint mines deep into the chalk – walk on the Downs above the Long Man of Wilmington chalk figure to the east of Brighton, and the indentations you see in the turf are the tops of those ancient mineshafts.

These settlers also left permanent marks on the landscape in the form of long and oval ‘barrows’, or burial mounds, and a series of large ‘causewayed camps’ on high points of the Downs. One of these camps can still be seen – although it’s been knocked about more than a bit – 130 metres above sea level, up by Brighton Racecourse at Whitehawk Hill. Probably built between 4000 and 3000 BC, and extended over several centuries, it comprises four concentric earthworks with crossing points, or causeways, over the ditches.

Nobody really knows what these structures were for. They weren’t sufficiently protected to have been fortifications, and the best guess is that they were centres for communal rituals of some sort.

The 1984 Brighton bombing

At 2.54am, on October 12 1984, a 20-pound gelignite bomb planted by a member of the Provisional Irish Republican Army exploded in room 629 of the Grand Hotel. It was an attempt to assassinate Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and her Cabinet, who were attending the Conservative Party conference at the Brighton Centre.

Due to the hotel’s sturdy Victorian brick walls, the blast went downwards, rather than sideways, but a huge chimneystack on top of the building crashed through ceilings and floors. The front of the hotel was ripped open and the central section of eight floors collapsed into the basement, taking guests with it. Masonry was scattered across the streets, ripping the heads off parking meters and destroying a seafront shelter. The Prime Minister’s bathroom was extensively damaged; she said that she would have been in there when the explosion happened, if her private secretary Robin Butler had not asked her to do ‘one more paper’ before she retired for the night. As a result, she was sitting in an armchair, with her back to the window, when the bomb went off.

Five people died as a result of the explosion: Roberta Wakeham, wife of Parliamentary Treasury Secretary John Wakeham; Lady Muriel Maclean (who died five weeks after the bombing), wife of Tory Scottish President Sir Donald Maclean; Eric Taylor, a member of the Conservative national executive committee; Jean Shattock, wife of Western Counties Conservative chairman Sir Gordon Shattock, in room 628, and Sir Anthony Berry, MP for Enfield Southgate (at the subsequent by-election in December 1984, the seat was won by a young Michael Portillo). Several others, including Margaret Tebbit — the wife of Norman Tebbit, who was then President of the Board of Trade — were left permanently disabled. 34 people were taken to hospital, but recovered from their injuries.

The hotel’s sign had been on the balcony outside the room occupied by Norman and Margaret Tebbit. Firefighters used a BBC crew’s arc lights to rescue the Tebbits from the rubble, a dangerous operation that took several hours. Margaret Thatcher was whisked away from the building in a black Jaguar at 3.21am. Lord Gowrie fetched deckchairs from the beach for shaken but unhurt survivors to rest on; others sought refuge at the Metropole next door, where tea and sympathy were dispensed, and TV coverage of the incident could be viewed as it unfolded virtually in front of them. Sir Keith Joseph emerged in dressing gown, holding his ministerial red box. At the suggestion of a female survivor, Lord McAlpine got Marks and Spencer on Western Road to open early, so that those attending conference the next day could ‘get kitted up properly’.

By December 1 1984, police had ascertained that the occupant of room 629 on the nights of September 15 and 18 was a ‘Roy Walsh’ of 27 Braxfield Rd, London SE4; reports said that a woman stayed with him on those nights, but her identity was never discovered. In September 1986, Patrick Magee, then aged 35, was found guilty of planting and detonating the bomb, and of five counts of murder. He had stayed in the hotel as Roy Walsh 24 days prior to the conference and planted the bomb, fitted with a long-delay timer made from video recorder components, under the bath in room 629. Magee received eight life sentences: seven for offences relating to the Brighton bombing, and the eighth for a separate bombing conspiracy. The judge recommended that he serve a minimum term of 35 years; Home Secretary Michael Howard later increased this to ‘whole life’.

Magee was released from prison in 1999, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. A Downing Street spokesman said that his release ‘was hard to stomach’ and an appeal by then Home Secretary Jack Straw to prevent it was turned down by the Northern Ireland High Court. After being freed, Magee said the attack had ‘made a contribution to the peace process’ and would do the same again, but also that he was sorry for the innocent people who got caught up in the blast.

In November 2000, Jo Berry, daughter of the late Anthony Berry, met Magee; in 2003, they set up Causeway, ‘a healing project that helps individuals address unresolved pain caused by The Troubles’. He explained, ‘I decided to meet Jo because, apart from addressing a personal obligation, I felt obligated as a Republican to explain what led someone like me to participate in the action.’ Ms Berry said, ‘I wanted to meet Pat to put a face to the enemy, and see him as a real human being. At our first meeting I was terrified, but I wanted to acknowledge the courage it had taken him to meet me’. In October 2009, at the time of the 25th anniversary, Magee told the BBC: ‘I have to tell you at the time I would not have lost much sleep about Norman Tebbit. He was a hard-liner. I do very much regret Margaret Tebbit has been confined to a wheelchair ever since. I think a lot about that.’

On 18 October, Magee took part in a Q&A session, alongside Jo Berry, after a screening of the documentary Soldiers of Peace at the Duke of York’s cinema, to launch the charity, Building Bridges For Peace. He told the audience, ‘How could I not be sorry — people have been hurt, killed and damaged by my actions.’ On October 12 2009, a memorial service was held at St Paul’s Church, West St, to mark the 25th anniversary of the bomb attack, attended by Lord Tebbit and his wife Margaret, to pay tribute to those who lost their lives or were injured in the attack.

The church near the Grand Hotel was used in the aftermath of the bombing and has a plaque on its wall listing the names of those who died. After the 6pm service, officiated by Rev Prof Peter Galloway, Lord Tebbit unveiled a memorial plaque inside the Grand Hotel.

The memorial service was organised by Michael Knox-Johnston, general manager of The Grand. Just days before, Tebbit had criticised the Labour Party for allowing Sinn Fein’s Martin McGuinness to attend its conference in Brighton, shortly before the 25th anniversary of the bombing.

The Blockhouse and the Battery

The earliest known fortification of the town was possibly the ‘werke’, probably a bulwark, which was referred to in 1497, together with a ‘sea-gate’. The first major fortification was The Blockhouse, erected in 1559 on the cliff top between Ship St and Black Lion St. It was a circular fort 50 feet in diameter with flint walls 18 feet high and about 7 feet thick; it was financed out of both town and government funds. Inside were arched recesses for storing ammunition with a dungeon below, while a battery of four large cannons from the Tower of London stood on the cliff in front; ten small guns were also provided by the town. A turret on the top housed the town clock.

In 1558, The Blockhouse, a circular fort, was built near the southern end of Middle St. It was 50 feet in diameter, 16 feet in height, with 8 feet thick walls, and had six large guns and 10 small cannons. A wall nearly 16 feet high, with placements for guns, extended 400 feet eastwards to East St and westward to West St. Its four gates were East Gate, Porters Gate, Middle Gate and West Gate. It was maintained from the ‘quarter-share; claimed by the church-wardens from each fishing trip and also by the landsmen’s rates, in accordance with the Book of Ancient Customs.

In 1749, residents were able to go to the Blockhouse where ‘Mary Saunders, Widow, sells fine genuine French Brandy, at nine shillings per gallon’. The fort’s foundations were gradually undermined by erosion and it was badly damaged by the great storms of 1703 and 1705. Its clock was taken down in 1726, the walls were partly washed away by another storm in January 1749 and, by 1761, the blockhouse was completely ruined. It was eventually dismantled for an improvement to the cliff-top road in 1775.

The Blockhouse was replaced by The Battery. Built by the Board of Ordnance in 1760 at the bottom of East St, it was equipped with 12 old and dangerous guns; during a salute to Princess Amelia in August 1782, a gunner had both hands blown off, and when the Prince of Wales visited the town for the first time in September 1783 another gunner was killed.

Not surprisingly, the guns were not used again. The battery was severely damaged during a storm on August 7 1786 and collapsed completely on November 3 1786. Part of the battery wall was later used in the foundations of Markwell’s Hotel. Two other batteries were built: the East Cliff Battery, built in 1793 on the cliff top opposite Camelford St, was equipped with four 36-pounders, while the West Battery, built in the same year on the cliff top at Artillery Place, was equipped with eight 36-pounders.

The West Battery guns were used in royal salutes, which often caused nearby windows to shatter. Only once were its guns fired in anger: a British ship, in pursuit of smugglers and therefore not displaying her colours, fired shots which landed near battery. The gunners retaliated and the ship was forced to break out her colours.

The West Battery was removed January 27 1858 for the widening of King’s Road, but Artillery St and Cannon Place were named after it. The East Cliff Battery was dismantled in about 1803, as vibration from the guns and encroachment by the sea had made the walls dangerous.