For perhaps a quarter of a century or more, tourists exploring Brighton’s famous Lanes may have happened upon an unusually quaint red brick building occupying a prominent position at the intersection of Brighton Place and Market Street. Many may have lingered at the doorway and mused upon the plaque above: ‘The Original House of Correction, Built in the Reign of William IV, 1835’ proclaims the inscription.
First reference found
Whilst previously researching a property in Market Street, I came across references to this building in ‘A Walker’s Guide’ by Maire McQueeney, issued by the ‘Hove and Brighton Urban Conservation Board’ in the 1990s. At the time I was rather perplexed by this, as so far as I was aware, Brighton had never had what would usually be taken to be a ‘house of correction’. Felons previously would have been transported to Lewes, which had a house of correction, or for minor infringements, there was the ‘black hole’ behind the original Town Hall. As I already had other research underway, I was not that disconcerted by the claim that I felt it was worth pursuing any further.
Looking for primary sources
My curiosity was revived by a recent posting on the website message board, asking about the ‘house of correction’ in Market Street. Upon further investigation it was noted that guidance notes for teachers recommended that this building be included on historical walks for their students. Furthermore, the highly reputable Pevsner architectural guide detailed that the present ‘High Victorian Gothic’ building was erected about 1867 on the site of the former house of correction built in 1835. So, perhaps my earlier presumptions were wrong and I might now turn my attention to establishing the primary source materials for the claim.
To me, the major apparent inconsistency in the story was, “why open a house of correction in 1835?” The newly built Town Hall contained 6 cells for the detention of felons and had opened in 1830. The evidence certainly seemed perverse. Inspections of the prisons at the time mention the 6 cells at Brighton and also 32 cells at the house of correction at Lewes – but no other Brighton establishment. It is also of note that a continuing criticism of prison inspectors was that Brighton had to send vagrants and other transgressors to Lewes because it had no house of correction. This situation persisted until at least the 1850’s.
In broad terms, a house of correction does not refer to a holding cell, as were the cells in the town hall. Time and again there are references to prisoners being held in the cells at Brighton, waiting to be transported to the Lewes house of correction. Perhaps the reference mistakenly stemmed from earlier accounts of the ‘black hole’, attached to the previous town hall which was demolished in 1828. However, this was some way south of the site of the building in question.
Had I missed something?
A cursory trawl through contemporary directories seemed to give a fairly consistent account of the premises being used commercially, which made things even more confusing. But it must always be borne in mind that “absence of evidence does not constitute evidence of absence” – I felt that there must be some primary source material I had missed.
The House of Correction: Part II is here