Nearly goodbye to Upper Gardner Street

Photo:Upper Gardner Street Market, 1978

Upper Gardner Street Market, 1978

Violet Monger writing in 1972

By Elaine Evans

While sorting out my late mother's papers a few years ago, I came across a piece that she had written in 1972 when the little cottages in Upper Gardner Street were under threat of demolition by Brighton Corporation (and sadly many of them were indeed subsequently demolished). My mother's name was Violet Monger and she was living in Upper Gardner Street at that time. Here is what she wrote:

Compulsory purchase and clearance?

Will it be 'goodbye' to Upper Gardner Street? Last February [ie in 1971] Brighton Corporation approved this area for Compulsory Purchase and Clearance. A Public Inquiry will be held on Tuesday 11th January [ie 1972]. The Minister of the Environment will send an inspector to the Town Hall. He will hear objections to the Corporation's Order and will decide whether the clearance of properties affected by the Corporation's proposal should be allowed.

Will the street be demolished?

Will the street be demolished and its little grey cottages pounded into nothingness? These small dwellings provide an ideal backcloth for the popular Saturday Street Market, which is known and loved by thousands of shoppers and tourists. Only Brighton Pavilion can rival its attraction. This bustling street provides something of interest for everyone. If the Inspector gives the Corporation the go-ahead to proceed with the Compulsory Purchase Orders, then we lose another colourful part of the town, as the market would not seem the same if located on a barren scarred site. It is proposed to use the area for parking cars!

Boarded-up windows and doors

Brighton Corporation already owns some of the cottages - the boarded-up windows and doors are their mute reproach - but these melancholy units let us see the slow death of yet another small street in central Brighton. The townspeople have been long aware of similar hideous sores on Brighton's face. If one were to walk the length of Upper Gardner Street at any time other than Saturday mornings, one would sense the unease which already besets it. But let's go back in time....

Known by the Anglo-Saxons as 'Whalesbone'

The Anglo-Saxons knew central Brighton as 'Whalesbone'. There were grassy hills as far as the eye could see. In 1606 only about 450 people lived here and called the town 'Brighthelmeston'. Elizabethan laws proclaimed:

"That none shall wash ought within four feet of any common well." "That if any hogge go unrynged upon the Stene where netts lye, a forfeiture for every hogge so found." "That no dunge or fishwater to be cast into the streets of Brighthelmeston."
A 'paule piece' in Upper Gardner Street

The town grew slowly and 1,400 people lived here in 1811. There was no mayor, no police, and the nearest Justice of the Peace lived in Lewes. An interesting fact is that some Sussex areas still measure the land as in Anglo-Saxon times. Thus a frontage in Upper Gardner Street would be called a 'paule piece' ('paule' meaning a stake, when land was measured by a wand) and these measurements are used only in parts of Sussex.

Gardner was the surveyor for the area

When the Prince Regent had the Royal Pavilion built, Brighton became a restless, brilliant town and a tremendous change occurred. 'Brighthelmstone', as it came to be called, attracted a wealthy and sophisticated society. Work was readily available for builders and domestics and both elegant houses and cottage dwellings were quickly developed. 'Gardner' was the surveyor for the area and two streets are named after him.

John Constable and William Turner both resided in Brighton

Brighton has had many notable visitors. The artist John Constable complained that he "couldn't hear the everlasting verse of the sea because its sound was drowned by din and turmoil of stage coaches, gigs and flys" - apparently something like today's traffic noises! William Turner was another famous artist to reside in Brighton.

A village-type community

Upper Gardner Street once housed a compact village-type community. There were several tiny shops in the street: a fishmonger's (where fish was home cured), a baker's, a butcher's, a general shop and a barber who was blind! Number 21 was a public house - it is so small that the landlord could soon say "Full house!".

The largest building was a furniture depository

There was also a school in the street and the largest building was a furniture depository belonging to Durtnall's, the removers. Durtnall's foreman lived in the cottage next to the 'Heart and Hand' public house. It had an adjoining stable and can still be seen. Eighteen horses were stabled in the yard at the back of the cottages numbered 28 to 38.

Long hard journeys

Sixty years ago the men who worked for Durtnall's would be in the yard in the small hours of the morning, harnessing the horses to start by 6.30am on long hard journeys. It would take several hours to arrive in London and, if weather conditions were bad, the men would not return to Brighton until 10.30pm or even later. There are still one or two hardy old gentlemen in our town who did this exacting work in the century's early years.

Much exciting material in Brighton

We now come to the present day [1972]. Archaeologists have found much exciting material in Brighton: mammoth elephant bones, Roman coins, sarsen stones and varied treasures. 'Whalesbone', 'Brighthelmeston' and 'Brighthelmstone' have all been obscured by the passing years. We have the good fortune to possess paintings by great artists, also Nash's Royal Pavilion and some elegant houses, but which of us can now hear the clattering hoofs or try to view the distance? There is nothing to be seen but tower blocks and TV aerials and the little streets accommodate a multitude of metal boxes on rubber wheels. Oh grassy hills of Whalesbone - where are you now?

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 169, July/August 2004]

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