Why North Laine grew the way it did

Photo:Sea dippers

Sea dippers

Never a tiny fishing village

By Geoffrey Mead

North Laine owes its particular 'spirit of place' to a host of influences operating to produce this diverse neighbourhood. I hope to show below how the start of development in the Laine was linked to the upturn in the economy of Brighton's Old Town.

Fallen on hard times

Never the tiny fishing village beloved of some historians, Brighton was in fact a large trading and fishing town that had fallen on hard times. Various writers at the turn of the 17th and 18th centuries comment on the appearance of Brighton, eg

1693: "a town that standeth by the seaside on a beach"
1710: "a large built irregular market town mostly inhabited by seafaring men"
1720: "an indifferent large and populous town".

However, by 1735: "Brighton which is the ruins of a large fishing town" and worse to come in 1751: "[Brighton in size] is not contemptible and supports a considerable population chiefly of the lower sort and those very poor. The appearance of the Town was very miserable.... houses left desolate and walls tumbling down".

How had this come about?

It was the all too familiar theme: loss of markets, failure to adopt changing technology, and outside political events. The fleet used to fish the North Sea banks, land catches on the East Coast and return to the South coast with Tyne coal, shipping it down the Channel to Portsmouth and Southampton. By the late 17th century more East Coast towns were organising their own fishing fleets, purpose-built colliers were being launched on Tyneside, and political instability on the Continent made the narrow Channel a plunder ground for pirates and freebooters.

To add to these troubles, changing climatic conditions and wind patterns were causing rapid erosion of the beach at Brighton, making it too steep to land on. Smaller boats only could call, and so trade, especially the lucrative coastal shipping trade, fell away to Newhaven and Shoreham. As the beach was eroded away, so the community that lived below the low cliffs on the foreshore was forced to move up onto the cliff into the more substantially built town.

This gloomy view is attested to by a guide to Sussex published in 1720: "it hath decay'd much for want of a free fishery and by very great losses by sea, their shipping being often taken from them by the enemy". The final straw came, as this guide notes: "But the greatest damage to the buildings has been done by the breaking in of the sea which... hath laid waste above 130 tenements".

What happened to the former beach community?

The displaced beach community was either housed in the very run-down buildings left in the Old Town or in cheap housing thrown up on the many open spaces within the area of the present Lanes.

Dr Russell's treatise on sea water cures

As the economic base shrank, so investment dwindled, the working population drifted away, and the town was so poor that a rate had to be levied on the county to counter the effects of the loss of town revenue. With an under-employedlabour force, an existing - if run down - housing and warehouse stock and low rent and rates, the scene was set for a well-known character - a property developer! At this time - the 1730s - Scarborough, Margate and Weymouth were already operating as resorts, taking advantage of changing social and leisure tastes away from the chronic expense of the inland spas. Brighton already received a few visitors but the desire to bathe and drink sea water saw a rapid rise in their numbers. More so when the Lewes-based Dr Russell set up in practice in Brighton and published his well known treatise on sea water cures. The Tunbridge Wells 'smart set' as well as London society started to patronise the town, especially after the royal patronage of the Dukes of York, Gloucester and Cumberland.

The town's natural advantages

Brighton's natural advantages: easy access to the beach, good air, well drained soil, no coastal marshes, nearness to London etc, linked with its economic possibilities: low rents, cheap land and labour, all combined with Royal patronage, produced an upturn in the economy. Lewes traders and local farmers invested in the town, in buildings and services. To provide accommodation for the tourists, old properties in the town were torn down (nothing new!) and new housing replaced it. The poor were packed even denser into the rookeries within the Old Town, especially around the boom area of North Street, the main east-west link across the town.

As the buildings spread, so the open spaces, paddocks and market gardens came under pressure, eg 17 July 1786: "Lodging house with garden walled in, planted with fruit trees - east side West Street".

With the disappearance of these spaces the farmland and crofts on the north side of North Street took on the former role of the cramped urban area to the south.

The need for shops and services

The needs of visitors and residents for shops and services, stabling and provisions saw a clearer distinction between the resort area and the service suburbs. Cobby's Directory of 1799 shows how this North Street fringe was even then industrialising:

King Street: smith, farrier, baker, grocer, builder
Portland Yard: stonemasons, tailor
New Street (Bond Street): basketmaker, whitesmith, builder
Church Street: horse dealer, livery stables.

The move from town centre to greenfield sites had begun and the basis for North Laine's industrial and service growth role was set....

SOURCES: "Georgian Brighton"  by Sue Farrant (1st edition 1980; new edition Phillimore, 2005); "Tudor Town to Regency Resort" by John & Sue Farrant, 1980; "Old Ocean's Bauble" by E W Gilbert, 1954; "Sussex Weekly Advertiser", 1786.

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 54, March/April 1985]

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