Memories of North Laine in the 1960s

Photo:Tichborne Street in 2011

Tichborne Street in 2011

Photo by Henry Bruce

I lived in Tichborne Street

By Sarah Wright, North Laine resident

When my family and I moved to Tichborne Street in the late 1960s we had no concept of moving to a known area as such - it was simply a house, quite run-down, but a good size and a salvation after many years of looking for suitable accommodation.

The 1968 squat

In fact the house was made available to us only at the conclusion of the infamous ‘1968 squat’, when 25 families banded together with Sussex University students to highlight the lack of affordable housing in Brighton.

Families either homeless or in unsuitable accommodation

This was not merely a gimmick - all the families involved were actually either completely homeless or living in totally unsuitable circumstances such as a bedsit.  Our involvement was that we were in a flat in George Street, Brighton, but as there was a 30 foot drop beyond the patio over which my two year old son fell, we then had the offer of the house in Tichborne Street.

Introducing the concept of political activity

The facilitating office for emergencies at that time was the ‘Welfare Department’, managed by a kind and harassed man who I think was Mr Allen, running the department almost single handedly.  Needless to say nothing happened immediately, and before we got to Tichborne Street there was a year of frantic activity around the town when the families moved en masse from Wykeham Place to various houses in Railway Street and adjacent streets.  It was a very hot and feverish summer - at times wildly exciting with street parties (without planning permission!) and politicised meetings, introducing some of the family members to the concept of political activity for the first time, with factions of Marxism and Anarchism thrown into the heady mix.  I can remember sitting in a garden in Railway Street in steamy heat feeling as though I had reached a different planet.

Our house in Tichborne Street

During our three years in Tichborne Street we decorated the house, buying end-of-run rolls from Gilkes in North Street, but some quite good paper.  I can remember a Sanderson’s brown paisley pattern for the top bedroom that was typical of the period.  A bathroom had been installed in the windowless basement, so it was very dark.  The only paper I could find in sufficient quantity was a red pattern, which I hoped would make it look warmer but resulted in it being even darker and more murky.

A lot of traditional shops

The local shops did not change a great deal at that time.  We had the traditional shops: two butchers, two fishmongers, two electricians.  In Gardner Street there were the very old and interesting shops such as the cork shop (façade now in Brighton Museum), the egg shop, and the wonderfully aromatic coffee shop.  There were several independent greengrocers and of course the London Road Open Market was not far away.

The Saturday morning market

But much nearer and more exciting was the Saturday morning market in Upper Gardner Street, which offered very cheaply everything from vegetables to knitwear.  I can remember writing to my mother saying how convenient it was to have a market at the end of our street where I could buy an armful of children’s pullovers for only a few pounds and then be able to replace them in the same way when they wore out.

An early supermarket in Gardner Street

In Gardner Street there was a launderette, which later became Monarch Dry Cleaners, and almost opposite there a new building went up to accommodate a very early Tesco.  There was no controversy over the introduction of a supermarket at this time; we hardly new what a supermarket was – it was just another shop and the idea of buying everything in one shop was rather new and appealing.  There was great deal of poverty then and apart from the new Tesco the commercial sector was very slow and unimaginative.  North Laine was not ‘North Laine’ as it is known today; it was just a collection of neglected streets, with dusty old-fashioned shops closed on Sundays and Wednesday afternoons and with a considerable number of boarded-up houses.

No-one talked about being 'gay'

Perhaps the first of a different type of shop was the Unicorn Bookshop at the top of Gloucester Road.  Bill Butler, a flamboyant gay American, set up his shop for the ‘alternative reader’: politics, poetry, gay literature etc.  It should be remembered that in the period of the ‘secret’ gay Brighton of the 1950s (depicted in ‘Daring Hearts’, QueenSpark Books) no-one talked about being ‘gay’ and there was no acknowledged movement as such.

The first co-operative food exchange

The movement that made radical and visible changes to central Brighton was the beginning, in 1971, of the co-operative food exchange at Infinity Foods, which began as a small experiment and developed and grew until during its current 40thth year anniversary it is a major award-winning health food shop at the centre of the massive green revolution.  Infinity Foods probably made more direct contribution to the changes in North Laine than any other single activity at that time, because it combined well with the ‘hippy era’ - people from other parts of Brighton would drift in to buy there what they couldn’t buy anywhere else.  Of course Anita Roddick opened the first Body Shop in Kensington Gardens and Peter Stocker opened his long-lived and popular pottery workshop in Trafalgar Street.  And this is what North Laine became - the place where the unusual, the quirky and the specialist could be found.

We moved back to North Laine in 1989

Of course I was not aware of these changes as my family and I then moved out to a pleasant flat in Marine Square: less grimy and near the sea.  It was not until 1989 that we moved back again to North Laine, which by then had become much more the recognisable place of today. It was beginning to be a place where people wanted to live and to have a house in the North Laine area was becoming an asset creating a degree of envy in others.  The big difference was that everything looked much cleaner and brighter.  Most of the houses by this time were well decorated and the streets had emerged from their derelict ‘slum area’ persona of the past to manifest their natural elegance as well-proportioned, well-constructed dwellings ideal for the small modern family.

Development of the artistic and unusual

The shops had begun a metamorphosis that is still in progress today.  Peter Stocker’s pottery shop was one of the first craft shops to influence and aid the development of the artistic and unusual reputation that began to develop within the North Laine.  Traditional retailers such as the Cheese Shop in Kensington Gardens and Gunn’s the florists in Sydney Street jostled with new trends such as skateboarding (which provided an opportunity for a skateboarding shop) and there was even a kite and juggling shop that survived for years longer than it would seem possible.  Snoopers Paradise draws the discerning shopper of today into North Laine, as does the Guitar & Amp Shop.

Shop rates increased

The Komedia theatre, moving from Manchester Street to the old Tesco building in Gardner Street, created a new platform for the performing and creative arts that had previously been focused on  the David Land Arts Centre in the old school in Upper Gardner Street. As North Laine became more popular, cars and parking became problematic, and the shop rates were becoming much higher, but the conditions of the shop buildings were often not correspondingly improved. Retail problems such as these were aided by the North Laine Traders Association, as was the protection of the now much valued houses and environment by the Conservation Area status conferred through the work of Chief Planning Officer Ken Fines and the North Laine Community Association.

Substantial renovation work in the 1990s

The later part of the 1990s saw the development of substantial renovation work  in Gloucester Street, Sydney Street and Trafalgar Street, accompanied by what was known as the ‘Green Streets’ work, which attempted to soften the raw edges of the changes being made.


[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 212, September/October 2011]

This page was added on 25/10/2011.
Comments/reviews:

Can anyone tell me if there was a cinema in Gardner Street before Tesco moved in on the same site? I'm pretty sure there was but I can't find anything about it so maybe I'm wrong ??

By Marion Bell (neƩ Long)
On 27/05/2013

I thought there might have been a cinema there in the 1970s but when I asked about this, I got the following from Henry Bruce: "As far as I know there was never a cinema on that spot prior to the recent opening of 'The Dukes' there. There was one around the corner however at 104 North Road called the Coronation,  which may be the one you are referring to. I did some photos for a book called 'Back Row Brighton' a few years ago which was all about old cinemas in the area and as a result I discovered that a guy called David Fisher had produced a comprehensive listing in connection with this that is available here..... http://www.brightonfilm.com/brighton_cinema_directory.htm Hope this helps!" The list of cinemas is fascinating but it doesn't look like there was one in Gardner Street.

By Anne Fletcher
On 02/06/2013

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