When you drive in the car today round the Old Steine, you perhaps tend to rather miss it. But it was, in Brighton’s early days, very much the social centre of the town. An open green area with a stream running through it, it was the place that the fishermen traditionally laid out and dried their nets. When the first fashionable visitors were coming down in the late 18th century to the town, it naturally became the fashionable centre.
First building on the eastern side
The very first building in fact built on the eastern side of the Steine in 1760 was a circulating library built by a Mr Baker. Now this wasn’t a library as we would think of today. When you, as a fashionable Regency visitor, came to the town towards the end of the 18th century, the first thing you would do was go to one of the circulating libaries so that you could sign on. You paid over a sum of money, and in return you were allowed to sign on in the Master of Ceremonies’ book. The Master of Ceremonies made sure that the balls that were being held in the Castle Inn didn’t clash with balls that were being held in rival establishments, like the Old Ship. He made sure that your name was known to other visitors in the town. It meant that people would know that you were in town and would know to call upon you or invite you to the various social activities that were going on.
Fishermen and their nets
From a very early stage, this area that had been used by the fishermen to dry their nets started to be encroached upon by these fashionable visitors. From the mid-1770s, railings were going up round the Steine, so that it became more of a controlled area. In fact, the Eastern Lawns of the Royal Pavilion were originally part of the Steine. The enclosure of the Steine continues throughout the nineteenth century. It’s only really as the century wears on, and you get alternative promenading areas provided, that the fasionable area moves away.
A mini revival
When you move into the twentieth century, the Royal York and Royal Albion hotels are revived through the work of Sir Harry Preston. In a sense, the Steine has almost a mini-revival, becoming as popular as it was once before.