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History & Heritage

The heritage of Brighton


Wandering around 'The Lanes' (a maze of narrow streets and alleyways just off the seafront) you can easily imagine the small fishing community of Brighthelmstone, with shadowy figures ducking down the narrow 'twittens' and sheltering from the strong winds, possibly engaged in a little smuggling! Turn the corner and you will find elegant, graceful buildings redolent of the silk and ruffles of the Regency dandy.

Brighton began as a small fishing village constantly at the mercy of French raiders and the sea. After a great storm in 1724 many of the houses were washed away and the townspeople were granted a "Brief', to beg for money all over England to raise banks against the sea.

The town's transformation from a small fishing and farming village began when it was 'discovered' in 1750 by Dr Richard Russell who proclaimed the therapeutic benefits of his amazing sea-water cure. Almost overnight it became the fashionable watering hole of London High Society.

George IV as the Prince Regent

When George, Prince of Wales - later to become Prince Regent and then George IV - decided to make his home here, Brighton's popularity soared. The town underwent an amazing transformation. Local people made money by providing bathing machines which carried the bathers into the sea and bathing attendants known as 'dippers' stood by - ready to duck reluctant bathers. One of the most famous of these, Martha Gunn, is buried in St Nicholas churchyard.

Although well-known for its connection with the Prince Regent, the first recorded Royal visitor was Charles II. After his escape from the Battle of Worcester in 1651, he hid from the Roundheads disguised as a servant. He stayed in the George Inn in West Street (later renamed the Kings Head) and escaped to France by boat, now celebrated every May with a race from Brighton to France, appropriately named the Royal Escape.


The Prince of Wales liked Brighton so much that he decided to move here. At first his cook rented a small farmhouse for him, which he eventually bought and improved. Over a period of years it grew from a modest classical building to the magnificent oriental palace we see today. The Prince had flamboyant tastes and scant regard for economy and budgeting. The first changes were made in 1787 when Henry Holland was engaged to enlarge and refurbish the humble farmhouse. With the addition of a domed rotunda and a new wing it became known as the 'Marine Pavilion'. Further alterations were made in 1801 with the addition of a new entrance, conservatory etc.....At the same time Frederick Crace introduced the Chinese theme into the interior.

Interior of the Royal Stables

Meanwhile, William Porden was designing new stables for the Prince's horses. Inspired by water colour pictures of India he created an incredible building in the Indo-Saracenic style with a vast dome (24 metres in diameter and 19 metres high) covering the main hall. Many pessimists predicted that this daring construction would collapse once the scaffolding was removed!

Now known as The Dome it has been converted into a modern concert hall, while the western riding hall has become an exhibition hall known as The Corn Exchange.

Once completed, these buildings were so impressive that they completely upstaged the Royal Pavilion itself. So, it was back to the drawing board, and the Prince ordered another round of improvements! The project was taken over by John Nash in 1813, and it was at this stage that the Pavilion took on its present ornate form.

Nash built over and around Holland's original structure, introducing a huge central dome over the Saloon and tent-like roofs over the Banqueting Hall and Music Room.

The interior was decorated by Frederick Crace and Robert Jones in exotic oriental styles, rich in colour and detail. The whole project was finally completed in 1823. It did not attract universal aclaim but indeed some ridicule. Sydney Smith declared that "it looked for all the world as if the Dome of St. Paul's had come down to Brighton and pupped".

The Prince of Wales was far from conventional and is known to have kept a number of mistresses. But he fell deeply in love with Mrs Maria Fitzherbert. By English law the Prince was not allowed to marry without the King's consent, and as Maria Fitzherbert was a Catholic, the Prince knew his father would never approve. They therefore married secretly in 1785. Mrs Fitzherbert did not live at the Pavilion but a house was built for her nearby. This can still be seen, although much altered, and is now the YMCA in Old Steine. There are reputed to have been secret passageways from this house to the Royal Pavilion but alas their exact whereabouts are no longer known, if indeed they existed.

The relationship flourished for a number of years. Eventually, as his debts mounted King George III forced the Prince to divorce Maria Fitzherbert and marry Caroline of Brunswick. Caroline was a Protestant Princess and could therefore become Queen. However, they detested each other and the marriage was a disaster. George would not live with Caroline and refused to let her into Westminster Abbey for the Coronation when he became King. They had only one daughter who died in childbirth. He later returned to Mrs Fitzherbert and when he died in 1830 her miniature was found around his neck. Maria Fitzherbert died in 1837 and is buried in the chapel of St John the Baptist in St Georges Road.

Regency House

Although Henry Holland, William Porden and John Nash made a remarkable contribution to the architecture of Brighton, establishing elements which became intrinsic features of Brighton's Regency style, there were others of perhaps even greater importance. The most influential and successful were undoubtedly Amon Wilds, his son Amon Henry Wilds, and Charles Augustin Busby.Between them they designed hundreds of Brighton and Hove's most spacious and elegant houses. Wherever you walk in Brighton and Hove their work can be seen: in terraces, streets, squares and crescents from Kemptown - with its famous Sussex Square and Lewes Crescent to Brunswick Square and beyond.

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