The Bread Street irregulars

Photo:Corner of Bread Street

Corner of Bread Street

Photo by Jackie Fuller

Photo:Street sign

Street sign

Photo by Henry Bruce

Photo:Bread Street, May 2008

Bread Street, May 2008

Photo by Maureen Brand

Brothels and prostitutes abounded

By John Christopher Travers, North Laine resident

Originally and long ago Bread Street existed just opposite Queen's Gardens, and so off North Road, as a row of houses going right through to Church Street, where there was a small Providence Chapel on the corner. Half way along Bread Street there also used to be a very plain church. And thereby hangs part of this tale....

The notorious Church Street

In the early to mid 19th century Church Street and its environs were notorious! The Canterbury Music Hall there (long gone) was particularly so. Around the entire area there were beggars, drunkards, prostitutes and thieves. In 1860 alone 97 brothels were counted, along with 300 prostitutes.

The vice and criminal district

Fishermen, labourers, pigs and livestock were all jumbled together with those 300 ladies of course, in appalling conditions in the slums. The worst houses were in the area from the Old Steine up through what became Jubilee Mews and Regent Street (where the Jubilee Library now is), overflowing into Gardner Street and so right up to Bread Street. This mighty jumble of slums, a maze of hovels and crumbling houses, murkey alleys and mucky lanes was the vice and criminal district of Brighton.

Massive slum clearance

By 1870 something had to be done and there was a massive slum clearance. Gardner Street was smartened up and houses were built on what became Tichborne Street. The adjoining Bread Street appears to have been relatively untouched but by that time it had an addition.

Small mission church built

In 1862 Father Arthur Wagner built a small mission church in Bread Street. It was a simple red brick affair, with whitewashed walls and a wooden roof inside. Father Wagner named it the Church of St Mary and St Mary Magdalene - the last perhaps in acknowledgement of the lives led by some of the Bread Street inhabitants.

There are still word-of-mouth traditions that insist that Bread Street became a kind of refuge for some of those 300 ladies of the town, once plying their trade in the slums, who are said to have moved into the mildly more genteel surroundings of Bread Street itself.

But back to Father Wagner and his Bread Street church. Although licensed for church worship, it was never consecrated. Perhaps this turned out to be helpful, as Father Wagner had a reputation for kindness that sometimes went beyond the then usual. It appears his little church sometimes became a doss house for the temporary homeless, where he provided soup and bread and, hopefully, a few mattresses too.

Summoning worshippers to prayer

Father Wagner also used to walk through the streets in the surrounding area, ringing a handbell, rather optimistically summoning prospective worshippers to prayer. At least some of the 'Bread Street Irregulars' (as the ladies were once described to me) would have heard and heeded the call and so dropped in for the occasional service.

These ladies were quite religious in their way and so perhaps the odd prayer or two saw them through the rough times as well as the relatively good. The church too muddled through into the following century but soon became derelict. It was finally demolished as late as 1963.

Streets and twittens pulled down

Bread Street itself was not far behind in the demolishing stakes. As with so much of old Brighton, many of the charming streets and twittens were pulled down and fell to the mercy of the developers. This happened to Bread Street and also incidentally to one side of the adjoining Tichborne Street.

New buildings

In the 1980s a huge building project encompassed the block from Spring Gardens along North Road and so into Bread and Tichborne Streets. The YMCA was built in North Road, whilst Bread Street became the site for two blocks of flats at the north end: Alfred Davey Court and Belbourne Court. At the southern end, a massive commercial block - now a finance house - swallowed up the remainder of Bread Street and the rest of one side of Tichborne Street, as well as the corner of Church Street.

Remembering the Bread Street irregulars

Residents of the two blocks of flats have been amused to hear of what Bread Street once was and, as they both have reported ghosts in the blocks, could it be that some of the 'Bread Street Irregulars' are still keeping in touch, as it were? Those of a romantic nature have been known to raise a glass to their memory and to wish them well.

So that is what happened to Bread Street, but a tiny part of it does still remain as the entrance to the two blocks of flats and their carpark. Just between two rows of small shops there is this entrance with its name-plate on the wall - Bread Street - for all to see. Only a few feet, but there it is, not quite destroyed after all!

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 166, January/February 2004]

This page was added on 30/11/2009.

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