A short history of the area

Entrance to Black Rock Swimming Pool, August 1937. Entrance to Black Rock Swimming Pool as seen from within the complex, showing the prominent tower. The discs at its summit were illuminated by neon tubes. On the opposite side of the tower was an illuminated neon sign of a woman in swimwear. Black Rock Swimming Pool opened on 8 August 1936 and measured 165 feet by 60 feet. It was designed by the Borough Engineer David Edwards in "Seaside Modern" style, with an elegant cafe and changing rooms. It closed in 1978 and the buildings were demolished.
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
Black Rock Swimming Pool 1936
Image from the 'My Brighton' museum exhibit
Marine Gate: 105 flats erected in 1937-39
Photo by Tony Mould
French Convalescent Home opened in 1896; now apartments
Photo by Tony Mould

Please note that this text is an extract from a reference work written in 1990.  As a result, some of the content may not reflect recent research, changes and events.

Probably named after a large rock or cave that once lay at the foot of the cliffs, Black Rock, at Boundary Road, marked the eastern limit of Brighton until 1928, a boundary which was fixed by an inquiry in 1606 after an argument over wrecker’s rights {1}.

Black Rock also marks the point where the white chalk of the South Downs meets the sea, and there are some unusual geological formations in the vicinity. Visible in the fawn-coloured cliffs behind the Asda superstore, about 15 feet above the Undercliff Walk, is a ‘raised beach’ of rounded, flint pebbles and sandy gravels up to 10 feet thick, resting on chalk. This beach was laid down around 100,000 years ago during a warm interval in the Ice Age and has yielded sea-shells and the remains of whales. Above lies a 45-foot-thick layer of ‘Coombe Rock’, a chalky rubble eroded by freeze-thaw action during the colder periods and ‘sludged’ down into the valleys by the spring and summer rains. This layer has produced fossil remains of mammoths, wooly rhinos and hippopotamuses. The strata here may be seen to curve upwards where the solid chalk of the South Downs becomes exposed as cliffs; the prehistoric coastline was once at an oblique angle to the present cliffs. This area is protected as a site of special scientific interest.  {283a,306,311}

About 350 yards offshore to the west of the Marina breakwater is the site of an historic wreck, protected from interference by statute. On the sea-bed lies a large, timber framework from which a cannon ball, an anchor and other metal objects have been recovered. The origin of the wreck is uncertain but it may be a French ship from one of the sixteenth-century raids on Brighton (see “Brighton – Early History”), or even a Spanish galleon from the 1588 Armada {304}.

The first development at Black Rock was the gas-works, established in 1818-19 by the Brighton Gas Light and Coke Company (see “Gas Supply”). This was soon followed by some terraced housing to the east, and by 1828 the Abergavenny Arms had also opened. However, constant erosion claimed the cliff top for 75 feet inland in the fifty years to 1897, causing the closure of the road to Rottingdean and the opening of Roedean Road as an alternative; large landslips continued into the 1920s. On 22 July 1932, with the cliffs now protected by the Undercliff Walk, a new 60-foot-wide highway, the Marine Drive, was opened between Black Rock and Rottingdean; the old inn was demolished at this time. The small community at Black Rock centred on Rifle Butt Road was eventually demolished for the construction of the Marina road interchange which opened in 1976. {107,112,115,116,123}

In 1824 a tunnel was constructed from the eastern end of the Kemp Town esplanade to the gas-works to facilitate the carting of coal, but it fell into disuse once coal started to be landed at Aldrington Basin, and was blocked at both ends by the town commissioners in 1850 after it had collapsed in the middle. In January 1906 Magnus Volk rented the southern entrance and, describing it falsely as a smugglers’ cave, used it briefly as a tourist attraction for his railway extension to Black Rock. The entrance disappeared completely when the corporation constructed public conveniences in the 1930s. {46,189}

Black Rock was perhaps best known for its swimming-pool, formally opened on the site of a terrace garden on 8 August 1936 and necessitating a slight shortening of Volk’s Railway. The pool, 165 feet by 60 feet, closed in 1978 and the handsome changing room and caf..e/. building was demolished, but the site still awaits a water ‘theme-park’ development. The most prominent building on the cliff top is Marine Gate, a large, eight-storey block of 105 flats erected around an open quadrangle in 1937-9 to the design of Maurice Bloom. There was a large public restaurant until it was converted for further residential accommodation in about 1955, but the block’s proximity to the gas-works resulted in a good deal of bombing during the war and it received a direct hit in 1944. Courcels is a seven-storey block of 1971, while the nearby French Convalescent Home opened in 1896 (see “Marine Parade”). The undercliff at Black Rock is dominated by the Marina (q.v.). {3,45a,116,123}

Any numerical cross-references in the text above refer to resources in the Sources and Bibliography section of the Encyclopaedia of Brighton by Tim Carder.

Update to the text
A major cliff collapse in recent times, followed a winter of intense rain, and the soft layers of Coombe Deposits in the cliff behind ASDA failed and a major fall blocked the Undercliff Walk and almost reached the store. The walk was closed for some time before extensive work was carried out to sensitively secure the cliff face in what is an important natural site, designated a RIGS[Regionally Important Geological Site] by English Nature.

Comments about this page

  • It seems unclear how the name Black Rock arose. It has always seemed to me that it was named after the black rock that washes up on the beach here, especially after a storm. This “black rock” is actually coal, a very low quality coal but nevertheless coal. It burns slowly and fitfully and leaves a lot of heavy ash. I have always imagined that it comes from the bunkers of a wreck somewhere off shore. Or perhaps there is a seam somewhere here and the “black rock” has been washing in for many years. Has anyone else come across this?

    By Bill Bellroth (07/02/2011)
  • I saw a load churned up by a storm yesterday; took 4 sacks full. As I was collecting it I was pondering the correlation of the coal and the name – it is to much of coincidence, I think personally. In this article it states that it was first referred to in writing as Black Rock in 1606. Coal has been mine in this country by since 200 AD by the Romans. But there are at least 4 colliery/coal ladened ships that have sunk in the last 2 centuries and many coal powered ships: check out maritime history of Worthing on Wikipedia look for Zadne in the shipwreck section asw ell as http://www.channeldiving.com/Diving_Charters/Brighton_divesites.xalter. Check Ashford Pentrych and big crab boat. It could also just be washed up from an undiscovered pocket of sea coal but they are not recorded on the south east coast. Anyway hope this of help to someone. Take care 

    By Harold (13/02/2014)
  • In the late ’40s and ’50s I lived about two minutes from Black Rock in Bennett Road. Beach combing was a pleasure for me after a storm. Picking up coal along the foreshore was normal and there was quite  lot of it. As Bill said it was not good quality coal but it burned and kept us warm in the winter. It used to go into the cupboard under the stairs after I brought it home. I remember the feeling of anticipation after a good howler of finding something interesting among the bits and pieces that were washed up. Of course it was only on weekends or holidays for this to happen as school always got in the way. Up out of bed and out of the house and run to the beach. My main joy was finding fishing tackle that had been lost. Leads weights and hooks and mackerel feathers were quite abundant. There were flippers and beach shoes which were put into my old army kit bag which I carried with me. If I didn’t find a matching pair of anything (which was the norm) the lot would be left on the beach for someone to pick over. I would take pieces of wood home as I found a beauty in those odd shapes that had been sculptured by the sea. There were lots of shellfish and other sea creatures ripped from under the waves and dumped high and dry. Starfish were very interesting as you never saw so many of them normally. I was fortunate to live so near to Black Rock as a kid, couldn’t have wished for a better place to live. Two minutes to the beach and another couple of minutes to the countryside. And the Black Rock swimming pool in the summer; where else would you want to live. I went to mass at the French Convalescent Home, and did part of my paper round in Marine Gate. Happy memories.

    By Mick Peirson (15/02/2014)

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