Autumn 2002: Brave new city, same mean streets

Geoff Mead

In his regular ‘letter from Hollingbury ‘, local historian Geoffrey Mead finds echoes of Brighton’s past in the events of autumn 2002.

Having had two glorious weeks holiday in North Wales, the Brighton and Hove news from the first half of September completely passed me by! But two items since have caught my eye that indicate the city’s complex make-up.

Major new book
The first was the launch party at the Old Market, Hove, of a major new book on Brighton. ‘Brave New City’, by Dr Anthony Seldon, the head of Brighton College, is a bold and innovative look at the past, present and future of the city. He is upbeat about its future prospects. Many books have been published in the last few years about the city, but often in the lighter vein. There has been little in the way of history since Edmund Gilbert in the Fifties, or Clifford Musgrave in the Seventies.

Controversial schemes
Dr Seldon takes a swipe at recent lacklustre developments and puts forward some highly controversial, but exciting, city schemes. To name but a few, he proposes Shoreham as an international airport; a Hove Pavilion to counterbalance the one in Brighton; an underground rapid transit system; and three new museum and art complexes around the Steine. This is a gorgeous coffee table presentation with stunning photos and computer generated images…and is remarkably ‘glitch free’. Buy this book! Currently at half price in Sussex Stationers!

Junction of crime
If Dr Seldon sees the future of Brighton and Hove as a world-class city thrusting into the twenty-first century, my other observation this month concerns a constant theme of the city since it grew out of the confines of the Old Town in the 1780’s. The Argus recently carried an item from Sussex Police reporting that forty per cent of all crime in the city emanates from a small area centred on the junction of The Level, Elm Grove and Lewes Road.

Mean streets
In the past, as now, there were hot spots of crime. A cluster of mean streets provided the 1830s equivalent of the epicentre of crime in the Argus report. Streets such as Chesterfield Street, Thomas Street and Egremont Street were Brighton’s ‘Lower East Side’. (They now lie beneath the DSS in Edward St and extended east towards Rock Gardens.) The area was on the fringe of the elegant Steine and in sight of the Royal Pavilion estate. Yet it was a world away in society terms.

Stolen bricks and brothels
Sad to say, the range of crime at that period was very familiar to our present city. There was large-scale theft of building materials; a house up Edward Street was raided and found to be full of stolen bricks! A prominent local business man was found in a brothel full of 12-13 year old girls (he escaped due to an informant in the police service). Prostitution was rife, as was illegal gaming, ‘mugging’ and shop theft. Drink-related cases filled the court columns, and the same unfortunates found themselves regularly up before the bench.

Fastest growing town
As the fastest growing town in Britain during the nineteenth century, Brighton (and later Hove) drew in huge numbers of unskilled labourers. They worked in construction and filled the countless low-paid jobs of any seaside resort. The disparity between vast wealth and abject squalor in the inner city slums bred all manner of crimes. The local press of the early nineteenth century left out little in the way of gory detail.

Queen of slaughtering places
So Brighton has always had an element of danger – a foil to the mainstream Brighton and Hove of the grandees or the holiday-makers. In the 1840s the Chief of Police, Henry Solomans, was murdered in his own office. In the 1930s, the press named the town the ‘Queen of Slaughtering Places’. (This was after the Brighton Trunk Murders, when dismembered female body parts were discovered in the town and at a London station.) In 1938, Graham Greene captured the element of danger in ‘Brighton Rock’. In the Sixties, it was seen at both ends of the social spectrum: in the protests of Sussex University students, and in the fights of Mods and Rockers on the seafront.

As we social geographers put it: ‘continuity and change’!

Geoff Mead is a social geographer who convenes the Locality and Landscape courses at the Centre for Continuing Education, University of Sussex. He is the Hollingbury editor for the My Brighton and Hove website.

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