Brighton: Early history

Hill Fort at Hollingbury Camp, 1954. An aerial view of Hollingbury Camp, showing features of the Iron Age hill fort and of the surrounding landscape. Dating from the sixth century to about the middle of the second century BCE, it is a scheduled ancient monument, covering about 9 acres in a rough square about 600 feet across, with gateways to east and west through ramparts that can still be seen. The camp was excavated in 1908 by Herbert S. Toms, a Curator at Brighton Museum, by Cecil Curwen and Brighton and Hove Archaeological Society in 1931, and by John Holmes in 1967. The sites of some wooden huts have been discovered within the fort.
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
St. Helen's Church, Hangleton, c. 1920. St. Helen's Church is largely Norman, with the walls of the nave being up to four feet thick. At one time the walls were decorated with paintings, of which only traces remain.
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
Boats at Brighton Beach, Date unknown. This drawing shows Brighton beach at high tide, with people in a sailing boat and a rowing boat. The wooden fence running along the top of the beach reveals that this scene is before iron railings were installed in the 1880s.
Image reproduced with kind permission from Brighton and Hove in Pictures by Brighton and Hove City Council
Black Lion Lane
Photo by Chris Webb

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.

A necessarily very brief outline of the main events in the history of the town up to the establishment of the resort function in the mid eighteenth century. See also “Ancient Customs”, “Batteries and Fortifications”, “Charles II”, “Coastline”, “Fishing Industry”, “Lower Town”, “Manors” and “Population”.

a) EARLY SETTLEMENTS: The earliest known settlement in the Brighton area is the Neolithic encampment of around 2700 B.C. on Whitehawk Hill, although flint implements of a much earlier date have been found in cliffs at Black Rock and Saltdean. A Bronze Age settlement was discovered north of Coldean in 1990, while Hollingbury Castle Camp followed in the third and second centuries B.C. The area was also populated in Roman times as a small villa has been found at Preston; numerous Roman coins have been found throughout the district, and a Roman road, still traceable around Burgess Hill and Haywards Heath, came south from London to the coast near Brighton.

b) SAXONS: Probably in the early Saxon period the settlement of Brighton was founded, possibly just a farm as the older name, ‘Brighthelmston’, is believed to derive from ‘Brithelm’s Tun’; ‘tun’ is the Old English word for a homestead and is generally associated with villages of that period. The settlement grew up at the point where the Downs meet the sea, providing easy hill or valley routes to Lewes and beyond, with perhaps a small inlet (at Pool Valley) and a large, flat, sheltered area (Old Steine) nearby to accommodate boats and encourage the growth of an embryo fishing industry. The fishing village probably developed on an extensive chalk foreshore below the cliff and above the high-water mark, protected from the force of the Channel by an offshore submarine bar of shale.

It is known that in the eleventh century the manors in the Brighton area were under the lordship of Wolnuth, a nobleman of Sussex who commanded a fleet against the Danes in 1008. His son Godwin was created Earl of Kent, Surrey and Sussex by King Canute in 1019, but after helping defeat the Danes in 1046, Godwin was banished by Edward the Confessor and his estates, including forty-four manors in Sussex, were seized. Threatening to retaliate with force, he regained his possessions and found favour with the King once again. On the death of Godwin in 1053 one of the manors of Brighton was passed to Brictric, the son-in-law of Ethelred, but the other two became the possessions of Godwin’s son Harold, who was later to become King Harold II.

c) NORMANS: Following the Norman Conquest, King William I conferred the barony of Lewes, including most of the local manors, on his son-in-law William de Warrenne whom he created Earl of Surrey. The Domesday Book of 1086, the earliest documentary mention of Brighton, records the following local manors: ‘Bristelmestune’ (Brighton) which had three manors, ‘Hovingedene’ (Ovingdean) and ‘Rotingedene’ (Rottingdean), all in ‘Welesmere’ hundred; in ‘Falemere’ (Falmer) hundred were ‘Bevedene’ (Bevendean) and ‘Stamere’ (Stanmer); and counted in ‘Prestetune’ hundred were ‘Prestetone’ (Preston) and ‘Piceha’ (Patcham). These manors were leased to Norman tenants by William de Warrenne, except for Stanmer and Preston which belonged to the Archbishop of Canterbury and the Bishop of Chichester respectively. Churches are mentioned at Brighton, Ovingdean, Patcham and Preston.
The fishing industry was well established at Brighton by this time as a tribute of 4,000 herrings was paid to one of the local manors. The information provided by the Domesday Book would also indicate a sizeable population at Brighton, something in of the order of 400.

d) MEDIEVAL TIMES and FRENCH ATTACKS: The early settlement of ‘Bristelmestune’, which eventually developed into Brighton, was probably a fishing village concentrated below the cliffs, the so-called ‘Lower Town’, with some farming on the hills above. A small priory was established between 1120 and 1147 on the site now known as the Bartholomews by the great Cluniac Priory of St Pancras at Lewes, possibly as a monastic farm.

From certain names and customs it has been suggested that a colony of Flemings settled in Brighton in about the thirteenth century, contributing greatly to the success of the fisheries. Certainly the village grew into a town of size and importance, one of the largest in Sussex, and it probably spread onto the cliff top around this time, either through population growth or because of the ravages of the Lower Town by the sea. In 1313 a weekly market and annual fair were granted by Edward II, and the old parish church of St Nicholas appears to have been built, or perhaps rebuilt, at around this time. The townsfolk struggled to make a living, however. It is recorded that forty acres of land were lost to the sea in the fifty years from 1290 until 1340, and in 1341 the parish claimed relief from the ‘Nonae’ taxes on the grounds of poverty and crop failure.

During the sixteenth century the inhabitants of Brighton also had to contend with French raiders, whose attacks culminated in the burning of the town in June 1514 (England and France were at war from 1511 to 1514). This is probably the scene depicted in a drawing dated 1545 and held by the British Museum: it shows a rectangular pattern of streets with the houses ablaze; some tenements below the cliff; St Nicholas’s Church on a hill to the north-west with two windmills beyond; and the single street of Hove village to the west {8,18,278}. The French, led by Admiral Pr..e/.gent (known also as Prior John), destroyed most of the town except the church but were eventually driven off by archers from across the county who were attracted by the warning beacon on the East Cliff. A retaliatory raid on Normandy by Sir John Wallop resulted in the burning of twenty-one towns and villages. At Brighton virtually all buildings in the Old Town were destroyed at this time so that only St Nicholas’s Church and the rectangular pattern of the streets now survive from medieval times.

There were further raids along the south coast in 1545, but at Brighton the French were driven off by the large numbers gathered on the cliff who had once again been attracted by the beacons. (The wreck of a ship from around this time lies offshore at Black Rock, q.v.) The town’s defences were considerably improved with the erection of a circular fort known as the Blockhouse on the cliff top in 1559, but problems for the fishermen continued. They were involved in a local dispute with the farming community over the cost of town defences and church maintenance, a quarrel that led to the compilation of the Book of All the Auncient Customs (sic) (see “Ancient Customs”), and then in 1609 they petitioned Parliament over the harassment of men and seizure of boats, both by fishermen from Great Yarmouth and by pirates from Dunkirk. In February 1630 a Dunkirker warship was chased onto the beach where it was broken up and its ten guns were installed in the Blockhouse.

e) SEVENTEENTH-CENTURY PROSPERITY and DECLINE: Despite these difficulties, the town was relatively prosperous with the success of the fisheries. The small town grew despite plagues and epidemics in 1563, 1587-8 and 1608-10, and by the beginning of the seventeenth century the population had risen to around 1,500, with East Street, North Street, West Street, Middle Street, the Market Place, the Steine and the Hempshares all established. By the 1640s Brighton was the largest and one of the most important towns in Sussex, with about 4,000 inhabitants and an economy dominated by the fisheries; the inner area known as the Hempshares was developed around this time with streets leading northwards from the cliff. Brighton also figured briefly in national affairs in 1651 as King Charles II stayed overnight in the town before escaping to France via Shoreham (see “Charles II”).

From that zenith, however, the town went into a long decline, the main factors being a slump in the demand for fish, increased erosion from around the 1640s of the foreshore so vital to the fishing industry, and attacks by foreign powers on English ships; Parliament was again petitioned over attacks by French and Dunkirker ships which had resulted in a loss to the town amounting to £30,000, while the fishermen deserted the North Sea and turned instead to coastal trading for a living. In 1676 William Jeffrey went before the Lewes Justices to ask for the provision a pier or some other defence against the sea, without which it was feared that the whole town would eventually be inundated. In 1687 customs officers were removed from the town because of the decline in trade, and three years later the church-wardens and overseers were forced to appeal to the Lewes Justices for help in the relief and maintenance of the large numbers of poor in the town. This resulted in the levy of a sixpenny rate in Aldrington, Hangleton, Ovingdean, Patcham and West Blatchington; however, several of these parishes themselves pleaded poverty and in 1708 a general three-halfpenny rate to assist Brighton was levied throughout eastern Sussex.

The start of the eighteenth century saw the remaining tenements and workshops of the Lower Town and most of the foreshore destroyed by the great storms of 1703 and 1705. The cliff-top town itself was now seriously under threat, and Daniel Defoe described Brighton as an old and poor fishing town in imminent danger of being completely swallowed by the sea; the proposed expense of £8,000 on groynes was, in Defoe’s opinion, more than the whole town was worth! Two groynes were constructed as a defence against further encroachment in about 1723 with funds raised in churches throughout the country, but the decline of the fishing industry resulted in much unemployment, and when the population had fallen to around 2,000 by the mid eighteenth century the fortunes of the town had reached their nadir.

f) EIGHTEENTH-CENTURY REVIVAL: The impoverished town was in the right place at the right time to take advantage of the rising popularity of sea-water cures, advocated principally at Lewes by Dr Richard Russell (q.v.); perhaps in the 1730s, and certainly by the 1740s, Russell was sending his patients to Brighton. Only eight miles from the county town, with an unemployed workforce and the facilities of a small town, Brighton was a natural choice; with its proximity to London and the arrival of fashionable society, it has not looked back.

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. The following resource(s) is quoted as a general source for the information above: {1-3b,10-14,17,262}

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