Some secrets of Brighton

Secrets are generally things held by individuals, are little known and are things that people don’t want known. Brighton is one of the UK’s seemingly best-known places and a location visited by so many people in such large numbers every year – over 10 million per annum still. However, scratch beneath the surface and Brighton can be a dark, brooding, secretive and mysterious place. Towns at the end of the line always are; there is something exciting about a place where 180 degrees of your options for movement are wet, increasingly deep, dark and dangerous.

Brighton is also not just a place on the edge, it has sometimes nearly been pushed over the edge. Invaded by Saxons, Vikings and Normans, each of whom left not just their place names but a bloody footprint, Brighton (or Brighthelmstone as it was until 1810) was nearly wiped off the map by the French, economic downturns and most of all the encroaching waves. The sea led to Brighthelmstone being nearly abandoned with 113 buildings washed away in 1665 and dozens more in the early eighteenth century. Daniel Defoe, who knew a few things about waterside locations, questioned whether the investment needed to pay for coastal defences to save the town was worth spending.

It was then saved by the same waves, this time however as a substance for the rich to be dunked under, to swim in, promenade beside and even to drink with milk. Dr Richard Russell’s decision to treat his wealthiest patients with his sea cures in his hydro at his nearest low-lying established coastal settlement accelerated the town’s recovery but also the idea of spending time by the seaside. The fact that the first visitors were extensively wealthy meant that the secrets were linked with court intrigues and affairs. The secrecy that wealth could buy meant that from its earliest days Brighton was built as a place of gossip, scandal and intrigue. Brighton became fashionable as people copied the Prince Regent, himself escaping the watchful eyes of court so that he could indulge in whatever secretive and scandalous behaviour or relationships he chose. He chose, of course, to engage in his on-off secret marriage with Mrs Fitzherbert away from his father’s gaze. So those who copied the prince by moving to Brighton were moving, or at least visiting, based on a pack of secrets.

Many people don’t know that despite being on the south coast, Brighton has spread out not only northerly, westerly and easterly but southerly since its earliest days. Also little known is that its southerly fishing community, which was based on the beach, was washed away by the 1700s due to erosion and horrendous storms. An early drawing of Richard Russell’s house, pictured here was precariously perched on crumbling chalk cliffs, whereas today the Royal Albion Hotel that has replaced it is safely inland behind a dual carriageway, promenade, esplanade and a wide shingle beach. Brighton was being eroded northwards, its chalk cliffs offering little protection from the encroaching tides, but the building of the coastal King’s Road (paid for by George IV, hence the name), sturdy groynes and tidal deposition in between these, means Brighton has since moved southwards further out over the sea than the old fishing dwellings beneath the cliffs ever did. Should you believe in the spiritual, these hardy fishing folk, who would have lost their lives in droves in the storms of the eighteenth century, don’t inhabit the area where the sea now is, but instead our sewer tunnels and space under our coastal road, built outwards over where the sea once lapped.

We forget that where the Madeira Terraces now stand, the cliffs underneath, encased in cement and awaiting a much-needed restoration at time of writing, were once the shoreline. We also forget that these chalk cliffs, always referred to on early maps (the area where the Metropole is today was once ‘West Laine Cliff Butts’ for example) have been not only encased under concrete and tarmac, but are part of the same cliffs that make up the cliffs at Peacehaven, the Seven Sisters and indeed even Beachy Head.

Brighton has lost not just its beach-dwelling fishing village, but also a village high up on the Downs. Balsdean, near Woodingdean, was a Saxon village that survived the Vikings and the Normans but was evacuated in the Second World War so that the artillery could use its rural buildings as targets in preparation for D-Day. Balsdean once had a manor house, cricket pitch, barns, lunatic asylum and even a chapel. It also had pluck. It reputedly was where Sussex yeomen stood their ground and stopped invading Frenchmen reaching Lewes in 1377 after the destruction of Rottingdean.

Heading under the land, Brighton has numerous tunnels – Kemp Town’s is one of the most secretive and was believed to be a smugglers’ tunnel, as is one that led towards the Druid’s Head. The Kemp Town tunnel, which has since collapsed and been filled in, gained its reputation partly due to the publicity campaign by Magnus Volk when his electric railway was extended. Volk was allowed to extend his original railway as he was forced to move the westwards end station eastwards for a planned swimming pool that never was built. The extension was also partially allowed as recompense for the treatment Volks received by the council over his ‘Daddy Long Legs’, where his seagoing railway was forced to be rerouted around new groynes, effectively meaning that it had to close. Black Rock, before the days of the construction of the mammoth marina, was a wild and windswept place and it was easy for Volks to claim the tunnel had been a smugglers’ route. The truth was far less exciting. In the 1820s, the tunnel was needed for the building of Kemp Town. Its supremely wealthy residents were far from the sort that would countenance illicit imports to the country, but the construction of the estate meant that large amounts of building materials had to be brought by sea. In the days before the railways, much of Brighton’s resources were brought into the town across the beach. Kemp Town even had its own temporary marina as the estate was being built, such a huge building project it was. It was big enough to bankrupt its financier, Thomas Kemp MP, who ended up dying in poverty in France. The Pavilion was also rumoured to have an underground tunnel to everywhere, including the Druid’s Head and the Market Inn, then called the Three Chimneys after its ownership by the Pavilion’s head chimneysweep.

Not surprisingly, considering the Prince Regent’s drinking habits, there is even rumoured to be a tunnel from the Pavilion to the shop that sold booze on the corner of Church Street and New Road! Roedean has a tunnel built in 1910 to the sea. Southern Water have built a tunnel 5 kilometres long and 6 metres wide under the whole of Brighton and Hove, following the line of the coast but it is not a secret; instead it exists to prevent storm water entering the sea straight from Brighton’s drains without being treated first to make it nice and clean. A more magical tunnel in Brighton must be the small one in Sussex Square that goes to the sea. It is said to have inspired Lewis Carroll when he saw a rabbit disappear down it. Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland therefore owes something to our waterside wonderland of Brighton! The Daddy Long Legs mentioned earlier, which travelled across the land at low tide (and also through the sea at high tide) is also said to have inspired H. G. Wells to create the aliens in The War Of The Worlds (1898).

Moving from below the earth to 400 feet above it, the land high above Brighton is where the earliest Brightonians were buried. This is in a causewayed enclosure, which was some sort of camp for feasting and rituals, but not, it seems, a military defence. The camp is over 1,000 years older than Stonehenge, dating from the Neolithic part of the Stone Age (c. 4000 BC–2500 BC). The remains of a young woman and her newborn child told us much about this era, but also provided us with questions we may perhaps never answer, such as why were they buried, did they die of natural causes and why were they buried with animal bones and other rubbish? Was this a punishment for a young mother back at a time when children were lucky to make it into adulthood? The fact the mother was buried with an ox bone, two fossil sea urchins (called shepherds’ crowns) and two chalk ‘pendants’ with holes drilled in them perhaps suggests otherwise – these were probably good-luck talismans for the afterlife. The remains are at Brighton Museum should you wish to make your own mind up.

Places to visit in Brighton


All Saints is the main Anglican church in Hove and has been the parish church since 1892. The parish of Hove and Preston has been united since 1531 and work started on the new church on this site in 1889 to cope with the increasing population. The church is a large gothic style structure although the planned tower was never completed. In addition to the regular services which are held here the building is also used for theatre productions, dinners and music events. Sadly, on Christmas Day in 2013 there was a break-in which led to a stained glass window being smashed which set back the church’s £45,000 appeal to raise funds to repair windows in the sanctuary area which is still on-going.

There is no admission charge for entry but donations are always welcome. The church is open every day of the week and there are services each day which are listed on the church’s web-site.


The Booth Museum was founded in 1874 by Richard Booth and focuses on all aspects of natural history, from birds to fossils and from butterflies to skeletons. Booth’s own particular interest was in ornithology and there is a very Victorian feel to the museum, with the various displays. There is also a more modern mission behind the museum, which aims to promote conservation and tries to make the temporary exhibitions have more of a modern feel. A visit is recommended although the new closure at lunch can be a little awkward for visitors to work around.

There is no admission charge for entry and the museum is open six days a week, being closed only on Thursdays. The museum is open from 10.00 until 12.00 and from 13.15 until 17.00 on Mondays to Saturdays (other than Thursdays when it is closed all day) and from 14.00 until 17.00 on Sundays.


This was once known as the Palace Pier before the steady decline of the West Pier meant that it became better known as just Brighton Pier. Work started on the pier in 1891 with the concert hall opened at the end of the structure in 1893. Today there are numerous eating places along the 1,772-foot long pier, with a fairground at the end and various stalls along the length. A visit to the pier is recommended, but some of the rides can be expensive (although all day passes are available for £15 on weekdays and £17.50 on weekends), although some discounts are available for booking in advance online.

There is no admission charge for entrance and the pier is open every day of the year other than Christmas Day. Opening hours can vary, and the various attractions along the pier have different opening times, but generally the opening hours are 10.00 until 22.00 every day.


This was once known as the Palace Pier before the steady decline of the West Pier meant that it became better known as just Brighton Pier. Work started on the pier in 1891 with the concert hall opened at the end of the structure in 1893. Today there are numerous eating places along the 1,772-foot long pier, with a fairground at the end and various stalls along the length. A visit to the pier is recommended, but some of the rides can be expensive (although all day passes are available for £15 on weekdays and £17.50 on weekends), although some discounts are available for booking in advance online.

There is no admission charge for entrance and the pier is open every day of the year other than Christmas Day. Opening hours can vary, and the various attractions along the pier have different opening times, but generally the opening hours are 10.00 until 22.00 every day.


The fishing museum aims to tell the story of Brighton’s history with the sea from the origins of Brighthelmstone and the fledgling industry through to the twentieth century. There is a 27-foot long clinker built punt boat as well as hundreds of other exhibits, and it also tells the story of how many fishermen transformed their boats from fishing craft into touring boats for tourists. The museum is well laid out and is recommended, especially given that there is no entrance charge.

There is no admission charge for entrance and the museum is open seven days a week. The opening hours vary slightly depending on volunteers (who are welcoming and really engage about the subject), but the museum is generally open throughout the day.


Hove Museum and Art Gallery is situated in what was originally a Victorian villa called Brooker Hall and the building was used in the First World War to house German prisoners of war. It was purchased in 1926 by Hove Corporation and the following year was opened as a museum. There are a range of displays covering not just the local history of the area, but also special collections relating to toys, cinema, crafts and fine art. The museum is quite small and the displays are a little bit random but in many ways this adds to the charm. There is also a café here, run by the London company of Peyton and Byrne, which offers a range of light meals and snacks and which also specialises in tea with over twenty varieties available to choose from.

There is no admission charge for entrance and the museum is open on Mondays, Tuesdays, Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays (closed all day on Wednesdays) from 10.00 until 17.00 and on Sundays from 14.00 until 17.00. There are occasionally events and special exhibitions which are chargeable, but tickets are available on-site in the museum gift shop.


This small museum has a range of penny arcade machines which can still be played on, although sometimes several can be out of order and awaiting repair. The museum has done well to survive as it has had financial difficulties in the past, and the rent in its current location is expensive. Although there is limited space in the museum it is worth a visit and children are likely to find the machines intriguing. The museum closed for much of 2014 following serious storm damage but perseverance helped the owners keep it running.

There is no admission charge for entrance and the museum is open from 12.00 until 18.00 every day of the week, although in winter months the museum can be closed during inclement weather. The museum does charge for old pennies (£2 for 20) to put into the machines which is its primary form of income.

A brief history of Brighton past and present

Origins of Brighton

There was no major Roman settlement in what is now Brighton although some traces of a villa have been found, as have some stone and bronze age implements suggesting an earlier occupation. It is known that a small Saxon settlement was established in the area and a small village started to build up based round the fishing industry. One of the first pieces of documented evidence about the area was the Domesday Book, a Norman survey of the lands they now controlled following the Norman conquest, and this identified what was then known as Brighthelmstone (or Bristelmestune) as a village with 400 residents.

Middle Ages

There has been a religious structure on the site of the current St. Nicholas’s Church since Saxon times, although the current building was built in the twelfth century and was renovated in the thirteenth century. In 1312 King Edward II granted the right to hold a market to the then village, securing its position as a market town. Hove at this time was an established village having had its own church which had been built in the twelfth century, but there were fewer than one hundred residents, and even by the time of the 1801 census this number hadn’t increased.

In 1514 much of Brighton was destroyed by French invaders, and it was attacked again in 1545. The French threat was of continual concern to the town authorities and by the end of the sixteenth century walls and gates were constructed in a bid to ensure strong fortifications would help defend against any future attacks.

Development of Brighton

By the mid seventeenth century Brighton was becoming a much larger settlement, the largest in Sussex, but it was still predominantly based around the fishing industry. Towards the end of the century the town had started to decline slightly, the population fell and many of the residents were suffering financially. The fortunes of Brighton were about to change as by the mid eighteenth century the town was benefitting from the new interest in drinking and bathing in sea-water for health reasons. The doctor who was particularly responsible for this new thinking was Dr Richard Russell of nearby Lewes who had set up a practice in the town in 1753 and who had published books on the benefits of sea-water. By 1769 the first salt water baths were built in the town which attracted many more visitors to the town keen to experience the fresh air and bathe in the waters.

In 1783 the Prince of Wales, later George IV, first visited Brighton to see a relative and found the town suited his temperament. The Royal Pavilion was built in the city by the Prince of Wales in the 1780s as a Georgian mansion and the prestige of the town was significantly enhanced by these Royal links. The Royal Pavilion is today one of the most popular tourist attractions in the area, although it wasn’t until 1815 that John Nash undertook the expansion of the Royal Pavilion into the grand affair which is now one of Brighton’s best known landmarks.

In 1823 the Chain Pier opened, which encouraged more passengers on the then increasingly popular Dieppe-Brighton line although this service was to end in 1847 when the ferry on the English side moved to Newhaven. In the late 1830s the local newspaper suggested that the town “has all the advantages of sea port towns, without any of their disadvantages. She is at once the seat of Royalty and fashion, and the southern emporium of commerce and trade”. In 1832 William Cobbett wrote that “Brighton certainly surpasses in beauty all other towns in the world” and many new homes were built in the town to cater for the increased demand to live in such as a fashionable resort.

The Railway

Another one of the greatest influences on the development of Brighton was the advent of the railway, on which work started in 1839, which reached the town in 1840 with regular services starting in 1841. The planning hadn’t been easy, there had been arguments for several years on whether there should be a direct line from Brighton to London or whether it should go via Shoreham. The decision was eventually taken to build a direct line for reasons of efficiency, but a branch line was built which connected the town to Shoreham and other coastal towns.

The railway allowed Londoners to visit the town to enjoy the sea and also to try and catch a sight of Queen Victoria and to ‘take the waters’. In just one week of 1850 over 73,000 passengers were carried by the railways and the new transport connection helped the population grow from under 50,000 in 1840 to over 90,000 people in 1870, a far cry from the 1760 Brighton population of just 2,000. Queen Victoria wasn’t though enamoured by Brighton in the same way as George IV and she preferred the residence of Osborne House in the Isle of Wight. The Royal Pavilion was sold to the Town Corporation in 1850 and is now accessible as a museum.

First World War

Brighton was fortunate to escape much of the damage suffered by other cities in the First World War and many people came from London in a bid to avoid zeppelin raids. The town was important though for its work in treating injured soldiers and between 1914 and 1916 the Royal Pavilion was used to house Indian soldiers who needed medical treatment, and from 1916 it was used to help those who had lost limbs in the conflict.

Following the end of the First World War there was an increased demand for a better quality of housing, which led to an extensive slum clearance programme in the 1920s and 1930s. Much of the work was over-due and had been debated since the late nineteenth century, but the demolitions of property also had the unfortunate result of leading to the demise of many of Brighton’s old buildings. One example of this change which took place in the 1930s was the opening of the Brighton Municipal Market in 1937 which was built on properties which were demolished during the slum clearance.

Second World War

Although Brighton had remained relatively immune from air attacks in the First World War, Brighton was an obvious target for the Germans, both as a potential landing area and also as a bombing target. The sea-front was closed in July 1940 and the piers had gaps made in the decking to prevent them being used for landing, and 30,000 people from the town were evacuated.

There were a series of air raids throughout the conflict, with 198 people killed in total. The first air raid took place on 15th July 1940 when bombs were dropped on the Kemp Town area, on 14th September 1940 the Odeon cinema was bombed which killed 6 and injured 49 and on 25th May 1943 a large bombing raid killed 24 and injured 127. Hundreds of houses were destroyed or badly damaged and both the railway and local industry were heavily hit by the bombings. A war memorial marking those who lost their lives in both wars is located in the northern part of Old Steine Gardens.

Modern and Cosmopolitan Brighton

The end of the Second World War led to a drive to modernise the town, but there was a concern that much of Brighton’s heritage would be lost. In 1945 the Regency Society of Brighton and Hove was formed with the aim of protecting the Regency terraces and squares. The campaign was successful and the plan to replace Brunswick Square, Brunswick Terrace and Adelaide Crescent by high-rise tower blocks was scrapped. Brighton became an increasingly popular seaside destination for day-trippers and holiday makers in the 1950s and 1960s, although it is also known for the ‘Battle of Brighton’ which took place in May 1964 between the ‘mods’ and the ‘rockers’. The mods got their name from their modern style of dress and were seen as middle-class whilst the rockers were known for their leather jackets and motor-bikes, and the conflict between them took place on Brighton beach, destroying hundreds of deckchairs and smashing tens of windows. The iconic 1979 film Quadrophenia was set in the 1960s and depicted the mods and rockers conflicts on Brighton beach.

In 1984 Brighton received worldwide attention following the IRA bombing of the Grand Hotel which nearly killed the Conservative Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher. The attack saw the hotel badly damaged and five people were killed, with 31 injured. Despite this Brighton and Hove continued to be popular with visitors and didn’t suffer from the decline that affected some other seaside towns and cities. The town got a reputation as a cosmopolitan and welcoming location with a tolerance and acceptance of minority groups. After a long campaign it was announced in 1997 that as part of the planned millennium celebrations that Brighton and Hove had been offered city status by Queen Elizabeth II.

Although Brighton and Hove are two very different places they have combined to offer a popular location to visit and live. The bohemian and cosmopolitan environment has meant that the people living here have created a unique place which is proud of its green credentials, being the location for the country’s only ever Green Member of Parliament, and its welcome for visitors and residents of any age, gender, sexuality or colour.