Brighton in the Olden Time, article (NGB 1885)

From The Brighton Toy and Model Index

A partial transcription of a history of Brighton, up until around 1800. The extract is taken from "Brighton: Past and Present", from the 1885 edition of Nash's Guide to Brighton.

Brighton in the Olden Time

TRADITION proclaims Brighthelmston, as Brighton was formerly called, a place of some note with the ancient Britons, and in the time of the Romans. The truth of this, however, is as dubious as the supposition that its name is derived from Brighthelm, its Saxon owner. The first reliable information extant respecting it is that in the eleventh century the manor belonged to Earl Godwin. At the time of the Norman Conquest it was granted to William de Warrenne, son-in-law of the Conqueror. It soon became a town of some importance, for a colony of Flemings, driven from their country by an inundation, settled here, and brought the fishery into great repute. In 1313 the mariners, who had hitherto resided wholly under the Cliff (now entirely covered by the sea), built East Street and West Street. Ship Street and Middle Street were built at around the same time, thus proving that the town was thriving and increasing.

Its prosperity, however, received many checks, for the French made hostile descents on the town in 1377, that being during the reign of Richard II.; again in 1513; and in the following year, when they were forced to retreat; and also in 1545, when they were again defeated. of this last attack, a curious picture-map is preserved in the British Museum. To guard against further depredations, a fort called the Block House was built in 1558. A battery called the Gun Garden, and a flint wall, 15ft. high, with embrasures for cannon, were also erected, reachign from East Street to West Street. Four gates were built at the same time; one opposite the end of East Street; the Porter's Gate, near it; the Middle Gate, opposite Middle street; and the West Gate, opposite West Street.

In 1580, in the reign of Queen Elizabeth, the fishing boats numbered 80, and were manned by 400 mariners, who possessed 10,000 nets. A laughable incident occurred about this time:– Whilst the Spanish Armada alarm was at its height, a fleet of about 50 sail were discovered off the town, apparently waiting for an opportunity to land. The terrified inhabitants, believing it to be the great armada, sent in haste to Lord Buckhurst, one of the Lords of the Manor, who attended with all speed with as many armed men as he could rally. During the night his force was increased to 1,600 men, and others were on the road to join him. Next morning the ships appeared in the same place, but those on board showed no disposition to land; so a few boats ventured out to reconnoitre, and found that these terrible enemies were merely Dutch merchantmen, laden with Spanish wine, detained by contrary winds!

Another evil which militated against the prosperity of the town was the perpetual jealousy and strife between the landsmen and the fishermen. The latter were the most powerful and wealthy, but the sea, which, between the years 1260 and 1340, had washed away 40 acres of land, continued its encroachments, and forced the fishermen to abandon more and more of their ancient domain under the Cliff.

The next event of a public nature in which Brighton was concerned was the escape of Charles II after the battle of Worcester, in 1651, to the coast of France. The incidents connected therewith are as follows:– "The fugitive King arrived at Brighton on the 13th October, remained at an Inn in West Street all night, and left early on the following morning, in a small boat belonging to Mr. Tattersalll. The brig, at the time, was partly laden with coals, and the seamen were consequently absent from her. Tattershall, however, announced that she had broken away from her moorings, and having got the men on board by this means, told them he was bound on a secret expedition, for which all on board would be well rewarded. The captain seems to have confided the secret to his wife, but she proved worthy of the trust. it is said that the King, whilst in his Puritan disguise, was sitting on deck, one of the sailors stood close to him smoking his pipe, and on the captain rebuking him for making so free, grumblingly retorted, that 'Surely a cat may look at a King!' but without being aware of how personally apposite the remark was. The King landed on the following morning, the 15th, at Fecamp, in Normandy. As a memorial of the Royal visit, the portrait of 'His blackwigged Majesty,' as Madame d'Arblay, with more truth than reverence, calls him, has, from the sign of the Restoration, been the sign of the Inn where he passed the night. After the Restoration, perceiving that the King had forgotten his obligations to him, Tattershall sailed in his little vessel to London, and moored opposite Whitehall; The hint was understood, the vessel admitted into the navy as fifth rate, under the name of "The Royal Escape," – Tattershall was presented with a ring, and a pension of £100 was secured to him and his descendants. By them it was long enjoyed. The present Sir Henry Schiffner, of Coomb Place, is a lineal descendant of Captain Nicholas Tattershall. Sir Henry's grandfather, Sir John Bridger, was the last person who received the pension, and Lady Shiffner is in possession of the ring given by Charles II to Tattershall.

From 1645 to 1655 we read of the continual encroachments of the sea, which had destroyed 22 tenements under the Cliff, though there were still 113 remaining there.

In the year 1666, a petition to parliament for assistance shows the declining state of the town and fishery. The petition stated that owing to the war with the French, the fishermen had lost £30,000, and 14 of their best vessels. The inhabitants, who now numbered about 3,000, were reduced to such a state of poverty that in 1690 the surrounding parishes were ordered by the Magistrates at Quarter Sessions to contribute to the relief of the Brighthelmstone poor.

Storms and tempests completed the ruin which the sea had begun. The dreadful storm of Sunday, December 27th, 1703, demolished several houses, unroofed others, stripped the lead off the parish church, blew down two windmills, and drover several vessels ashore. But even this was not so devastating as the tempest of the 11th August 1705. During that awful night, the sea completely swept away the remains of the lower town; the 113 tenements were destroyed, and the total loss sustained was estimated at £40,000. In a few years not a trace was left of the old town, and the waves now ebb and flow over what was once its site.

The encroachements of the sea were so continuous that large masses of the Cliff were sapped and fell, and the upper town seemed destined to share the fate of the lower. To avert this calamity, it was determined in 1732 to erect groynes that should serve as barriers against the sea, and prevent the beach being carried eastward by the action of the currents. To pay for these groynes a royal brief had to be obtained enabling the inhabitants to collect money all over England. Twenty years later another brief for collecting money to repair the groynes had to be obtained. The Poor Rates were now six shillings in the pound, and the best house in the town was rated only at forty shillings per annum.


The misfortunes of Brighton had now reached their culminating point, and better prospects were looming in the distance. Dr. Richard Russell, whose skill in glandular disease was already held in estimation, removed in 1750 to Brighton. His works on these complaints, and especially one "On the Efficiacy of Sea Water in Glandular Diseases" not only increased his reputation, but was the first step towards founding the prosperity of Brighton. Numerous visitors frequented the town for the benefit of the Doctor's advice and the sea air; the letting of lodgings became a remunerative employment ...

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— - , Brighton: Past and Present , Nash's Guide to Brighton, 1885