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On England's South Coast, and one hour from London by train, East Sussex' Brighton is home to a creative hub of "new media" industries, and has been referred to as "Soho by the Sea".

The town underwent explosive growth after the arrival of a rail link to London in 1841, and has a reputation as a party town. It's currently Britain's most popular seaside location for European tourists.

Brighton history

The town was originally a fishing village, and gained a population of Flemish immigrant fishermen who lived and worked under the cliffs, until a terrible storm washed away this part of the town. Above the cliffline, the village formed a compact rectangle, bounded on the North by North Street, the West by West Street, and the East by East Street, with the open region to the East – The Steyne - used by fishermen as a place to spread out and repair their nets. Repeatedly attacked by the French, the town gained a battery of guns to fend off unfriendly ships.

Plagued by erosion and storm damage, Brighthelmstone spent much of 1600-1750 afflicted by widespread poverty and bad luck, until its fortunes started to change with the appearance of Dr. Richard Russell in the town, who wrote about the curative properties of bathing in seawater. The influx of people coming to experience the healing properties of Doctor Brighton created a fledgeling tourist industry, and in the 1780s the Prince Regent (who later became George IV) visited and decided to move in, adopting a farmhouse by the Steine, and progressively enlarging and remodelling it and its grounds until it became the current Royal Pavilion.

With a stream of people now making the trip from London to Brighton, the 1823 Chain Pier was built to provide an easy way to make the ship crossing to Dieppe, for Paris. The arrival of the London-Brighton railway line in 1841 triggered an explosive growth with Londoners now able to get to Brighton in a mere hour, and the town boomed, with large regions of the surrounding area being quickly built on. With the railway came the locomotive works, which built over 1200 steam locomotives, and the West Pier in 1866, a pleasure-palace built over the sea to cater for the whims of visiting holidaymakers. The boom encouraged Thomas Kemp to build Kemptown to the East (with the current bricked seawall and Promenade / Madeira Drive protecting his investment from falling into the sea), the Brighton Aquarium in 1872 and the Volks Electric Railway in 1883, with the town's new prosperity marked by the appearance of the Jubilee Clock Tower in 1888.

The current Palace Pier – the replacement for the old Chain Pier – opened in 1899.

Brighton in the Twenty-First Century

Brighton has attracted more than its fair share of new media businesses, and architects, graphic designers, product designers, photographers, game designers and other new media professionals. This has been partly because of the city's short travel time to Central London, partly because of the city's more laid-back and less "dog-eat-dog" attitude compared to London ... and partly because, unlike Soho, Brighton has a beach! The area directly to the East of the station, that used to be occupied by the Locomotive Works is now the New England development area, which encourages new media businesses.

Architecturally, the Brighton Wheel transformed the city's skyline for its five-year run starting in 2011, and Marks-Barfield's i360 observation tower is due to open in Summer 2016. Although the i360 has been controversial, it has also enabled the regeneration of the adjacent stretch of seafront.

1838 description:


The vicinity of Brighton to the Metropolis, and its easy and pleasant communication to that populous commercial city; the salubrity of its atmosphere, which is seldom obscured by fogs, the crystaline brightness and purity of its water, the abundant and excellent manner with which its market is supplied, the elegance and spaciousness of its houses, and the suitable accommodations they offer to individuals or to families, with the most numerous and extensive retinue of servants; all unite to render it the first watering place in the kingdom, and added to which, its being the occasional residence of the Court, gives it a decided pre-eminence over every other marine resort for the superior rank of its visitants and the splendour and fashion of its circles. Six hours is the time that is generally allowed to the stage coaches to and from London, and as the journeys are often performed much within that space, and with the greatest ease, it is scarcely necessary to observe, that those who travel in their own carriages, with suitable relay of horses, may, if they please, go over the same ground much quicker.

The situation of the town is of the most romantic and agreeable description; at the bottom of an extensive bay formed by the promontories of Beachy Head to the east, and Selsey Bill to the west, it extends three miles on the sea coast, rising with a gentle ascent, east and west, from the centre of the town. Its front to the south appears to project into the bed of the ocean, the waters being kept back by means of groynes, which are well contrived, and formed of oak; and from the quantities of wild thyme, and other aromatic shrubs, that spontaneously grow on the downs, the air, particularly after a shower, is impregnated with odours the most refreshingly grateful to the senses.

The Town is fifty miles distant from London, the nearest road, by Red Hill and Croydon; fifty-two by way of Reigate and Sutton; and fifty-eight by way of Horsham and Dorking; it is distant from Lewes eight miles, and from Chichester thirty miles; the living is a vicarage value £1041, in the gift of the Bishop of Chichester.

The number of resident inhabitants is 40,634 according to the census of 1831, but during the fashionable season the population is estimated at 60,000.

The conveniences of the place correspond with its magnitude; many of the shops are equal to those of London – the places of amusement are various and select – there is every requisite for bathing – the baths are numerous – the accommodation for visitors is excellent, and many advantages are here to be found which are wanting in smaller and less frequented watering places.

— , Saunders, , The Stranger's Guide in Brighton; Being a Complete Companion to that Fashionable Place, and the Rides and Drives in Its Vicinity., , 1838

1840 overview: The Parliamentary Gazetteer of England and Wales

Town.} – The town is situated at the bottom of a bay of the English channel, formed on the one hand by Beechy-head, and on the other by Selsea-bill. From the north and north-east winds it is sheltered by the semicircular range of the South Downs, which are easy of access, and command extensive views of the weald of Sussex and the isle of Wight. The climate of Brighton and its vicinity is warm, from its southern aspect, and the shelter afforded by the Downs from northerly and easterly winds; yet it is rendered refreshing and bracing by an almost continual sea-breeze. The town covers a considerable space of ground, presenting a sea-frontage of nearly 3 miles in extent, and consists for the most part of spacious streets, intersecting each other at right angles, lighted with gas, and well paved. The whole is divided into two nearly equal portions by an open space, extending the whole length of the valley, from the entrance from London to the sea, and varying from 50 to 100 yards in width. At the northern extremity of this opening are situated the public gardens; the next portion is termed the Level, a piece of land held in trust as a cricket-ground, and for other pedestrian exercises and diversions. In 1836 the town-commissioners fenced it round with iron posts and rails, and have cleared and levelled it at very considerable expense. It is now reduced to about eight acres, two acres having been taken for the adjoining roads. Immediately south of the Level, in the centre of the open space, is St. Peter's church, a very elegant Gothic building. Beyond this are two handsome enclosures, affording a very agreeable resort for the occupiers of the houses on each side, called the North Steyne. The palace with its grounds occupies the next portion; and lastly, the Steyne brings us to the sea-side, or rather, to the York and Albion hotels, which have been permitted to intervene between the Steyne and the sea. The older part of the town is chiefly situated to the west of the Steyne, which forms a beautiful lawn, from which the east and west cliffs rise with a gentle ascent. On the northern part, called the Old Steyne, a fine statue of his majesty George IV. has been erected; it was executed by Chantrey, in bronze. On the eastern cliff are the Royal crescent, the Marine parade, Pavilion parade, and other fine ranges of buildings commanding views of the sea. Still farther to the east, is Kemp town, which consists of three sides of a quadrangle, from the extremities of which other rows of houses branch-off, enclosing spacious pleasure grounds which communicate with the beach. The sea-wall at the eastern part of Brighton is the greatest improvement ever made in this place, and affords a magnificent and unequalled promenade. On the western cliff are Cannon-place, Bedford-square, Regency-square, and Terrace, with an extensive esplanade much resorted to as a fashionable promenade. On this point of the coast is a battery mounting six 42 pounders. The pavilion, a palace erected by George IV., and for a long time his favourite residence, was begun in 1784; and, after many additions and alterations, finally completed in 1827, in the form of the celebrated palace of the Kremlin at Moscow. Connected with this structure are extensive pleasure-grounds, a suite of stables in the Arabian style, and a chapel-royal capable of accommodating 1,000 persons. About half-a-mile to the west of the old church is a chalybeate spring much resorted to by invalids. There are several public libraries, and a handsome theatre. The Sussex Scientific and Literary Institution was founded here in 1836. Races are held in August, on the neighbouring downs.

Population, Markets, &c.} – The pop., in 1801, was 7,339; in 1831, 40,634; but this number is greatly increased at certain seasons by the large influx of visitors. The number of houses is 7,798; of acres, within the parish, 1,980. The assessed property is rated at £71,515 of annual value. Poor rates, in 1837, £19,224. A market was established by act of parliament in 1773; Thursday is market-day. Fairs are held on Holy Thursday, and September 4th, for pedlery; but daily for provisions. There are a considerable number of boats employed in fishing, partly for the supply of the London market; the fish chiefly taken are mackerel, soles, turbot, and skate. – The town is governed by a constable and four head-boroughs. The county-magistrates hold petty sessions in the town-hall here twice a-week for the Brighton division of the rape of Lewes; and the police is regulated by commissioners appointed by the inhabitants paying scot and lot. – This borough, comprising the parishes Brighthelmstone and Hone, now returns two members to parliament. The number of electors is about 3,000, and the constable of the hundred of Whalesbone is the returning officer.

... Within the period of accurate history ... it was a mere fishing village, which, having been often plundered by the French, was at length fortified with walls and batteries. From this place Charles II. embarked France after the battle of Worcester. The sea often made considerable inroads here, especially in 1665, and 1705. The town was brought into repute in the reign of George II., when Dr Richard Russel recommended the use of sea-bathing for various disorders. His late majesty George IV., displayed strong partiality for it.

— , -, , The Parliamentary Gazetteer of England and Wales, p276, , A.Fullerton & Co., , 1840

Brighton's Pasts and Futures

See also:

Visitor guides


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