INTRODUCTION
by Kieran Turner with contributions from others.

Kemptown is now a darling area for estate agents, known as "the village". There's much more in its fabric than just the boutiques and trendy bars which have been arriving, arriving, and arriving of late. Through the late 1990s and 2000s, Kemptown was a lively and essential part of Brighton's cultural and community revival. Not so many years ago, you might hear Kemptown variously described as "run-down", "seedy" and "decadent". Less than flattering nick-names included "Camptown", "Tramp town", or "Soho-on-Sea". History tells us another tale. Few residents would dream of moving away from what has become a physical, mental and spiritual centre for activists, artists, writers, performers, musicians, film-makers, web-publishers and numerous other professions fascinated by the avant-garde.

 

EARLY HISTORY

"All towns, like most people, become more interesting as you learn something of their past"

The earliest sign of habitation is a flint dagger discovered in the chalk cliffs. It is believed to date back 250,000 years. Located on Whitehawk Hill, overlooking Brighton racetrack, are the remains of a Neolithic "causeway camp" of the New Stone Age. The Romans came, saw, conquered, built roads and villas; and then departed. In 447 or 457 (nobody is certain), Saxons following a chieftain called Aella secured the area and made it theirs (Sussex, land of the South Saxons). Brighton is first mentioned in the Anglo-Saxon Chronicles of the seventh century as "Beorthelm's-tun" and means "the town of Beorthelm".

Lewes Crescent, the original Kemp TownBeorthelm's-tun, by now "Brighthelmstone", remained a small fishing village (population circa two thousand) until the 1780s. The population then grew rapidly due to Dr Russell's "sea water cure" (the belief that a dip in the cold sea has very therapeutic qualities). Several nobles took the cure and became enamoured enough of the area to build houses. In 1783 George Prince of Wales visited the Duke of Cumberland. The Prince (later George IV) pioneered the less salubrious reputation of his favoured Brighton when in 1785 he secretly and illegally married Maria Fitzherbert, a Catholic. By 1806 his ultimate indulgence, the transformation of a rural farmhouse into the ornate Royal Pavilion was complete. Brighton flourished.


THE KEMP TOWN DEVELOPMENT

In 1808 a West Indian speculator called J.B.Otto had the black-tiled Royal Crescent built in isolation to the East of Brighton. It proved unpopular, no doubt in part because of the rather unflattering statue of King George III erected in its gardens. This has since been lost! Two small fountains remain, for which priviledge the residents must pay a premium on their Council Tax.

Several years later, Thomas Reed Kemp formulated a more promising scheme. Houses in Brighton were not big or elegant enough for the truly affluent. Kemp financed architects Charles Busby and Amon Wilde to design the original "Kemp Town" estate in open country to the east of Brighton. The original plan called for two hundred and fifty houses. Financial constraints, however, necessitated the elimination of two of the squares as originally conceived. Arundel Terrace, Chichester Terrace, Lewes Crescent and Sussex Square were included in the final estate plan. They consisted of 106 houses. In 1823, Kemp approached Thomas Cubitt to commence building works. Houses sold slowly. Kemp had to convey ten thousand pounds of land to Cubitt to cover his debts. By 1828, eleven houses had been occupied; by 1834, occupancy numbered thirty six. In 1837, Thomas Kemp was forced to flee the country to escape his creditors. His grand project, however, continued under the aegis of Cubitt and the Fifth Earl of Bristol.

Bad roads and slow transportation had helped Brighton remain exclusive. French tourist Le Garde describes his carriage overturning no less than seven times from London to Brighton (Le Garde also provided a fabulous account of the pomp and splendour of a society dinner-party at number twenty-two Sussex Square). In 1844, the opening of the London to Brighton railway made the journey cheap and easy. It also brought a massive influx of tourists from a very different social background from traditional high society. The new tourists were middle- or lower-class trippers from the South of London. In 1845, Princess Victoria left the Royal Pavilion, disgusted with the dissipation and debauchery of her surroundings. Half a century of royal patronage in the area ceased. Victoria did not return for twenty years. The massive building boom continued into the 1860s. It was during this time that the space between the Stein and the original Kemptown estate became entirely developed. We have a list of some of the early residents.

Thomas Kemp's brainchild itself was completed in 1855. Lewes Crescent, together with Sussex Square, is larger than Grosvenor Square in London, and the crescent is the biggest in Britain with a diameter two hundred feet greater than Bath Royal Crescent. Kemp's original estate remains one of the finest examples of Regency architecture in the country, although Busby and Wilde produced a similarly grand seafront development with the Brunswick Estate in Hove. It displays an abundance of stuccoed facades and classical inflection. Ironically, the completion of such a grand project coincided with the beginning of a general decline of the entire Brighton area throughout the late nineteenth century. Sloth, drunkenness and Brighton became synonymous. Many of the larger houses on the Kemptown estate progressively emptied because of huge overheads and a dwindling economy. In 1903, Lord Rendell pioneered the trend of buying large houses and converting them into flats. He purchased twenty houses in Sussex Square.

From 1896, Princess Louise, daughter of Edward VII, and her husband, the Duke of Fife, lived in number one Lewes Crescent. In 1908, George VII stayed with his daughter to recover from a period of infirmity. The gardens were closed so that George could stroll in uninterrupted seclusion. At the time Brighton Corporation were desperate to have people know the area as "King's Cliff" but this name never stuck. Sir Albert Sassoon, a friend of George's, embarked on a last wild building flurry. He erected the Preston Place Mausoleum for his family in the north-east corner of Preston Place. The mausoleum is now a bar. Wholesale conversion to flats continued.

Zeppelins flew over Brighton during the 1914–18 war, but the town suffered no damage. The Royal Pavilion was converted into a hospital for Indian soldiers with multiple kitchens catering for various religious denominations.

 

THE GROWTH OF GREATER KEMPTOWN

Amidst the rapid development of rail travel in the 19th century, a railway was built at great expense and with huge engineering effort from Brighton Station to Kemptown, via two viaducts, a tunnel through the Race Hill, a station at D'Aubigny Road (Lewes Road Station) and a short-lived intermediate halt at Hartington Road.

Kemp Town Station
Kemp Town railway station and goods yard, 1960s

The railway was never a success; it was cynically motivated, the intention being that if a line were in place from Brighton across to the East, no other railway company could build a line from London! The train journey was twice as long as the direct route by road. In the 1930s the station was closed forever to passengers, having already had a patchy timetable. Through the next few decades, coal and other freight kept the line alive, but by the early 1970s that too became uneconomic and ceased. Sadly the viaducts did not survive the architectural transgressions of the 1970s and are now remembered only by the curvaceous rendering on the sides of Brighton's main Sainsbury supermarket. The tunnel remains, open at one end and visible from the Freshfield Industrial Estate. Part of it has served as a mushroom farm and it is now believed to be in use by a van rental company. A recent visit by a reader of news:uk.rec.subterranea reveals it to be dry inside.

During the twenties and thirties, Kemptown continued to attract artists, writers and performers and white-socked males (a secret sign of the outlawed homosexual community). The seafront promenades were expanded on and their defences against the ravages of the sea improved. A survivor of fashion and "improvements" has been the railing which runs the length of Marine Parade. This features a relief of two dolphins, the emblem of Brighton, and also the helmet from a suit of armour. This is the product of Victorian whimsy; it was believed by some that the town's earlier name, "Brighthelmstone" was sourced from the words, "Bright Helm" — a shiny helmet!

From the outbreak of war in 1939, Brighton became a no-go area. The beach was covered in mines and barbed wire and guns were sited in parks. Children where evacuated as a precaution against bombing raids and possible invasion. Britain fought off the Luftwaffe, and thwarted operation Sea-Lion (German Code-name for the planned invasion of Brighton's beaches). In the event, only twenty bombs fell on Kemptown, one of them hitting the Odeon cinema. You can see evidence of that war today by walking up Edward Street, which runs parallel to the seafront. As you pass White Street, you notice the Victorian terraces stop short of the main road. Look in a line towards the top of Upper Rock Gardens. All the houses in this diagonal line are of modern construction because this is the route plowed by a German bomber which was shot down and crashed here, destroying the houses at the ends of these roads.

 

KEMPTOWN TODAY

Post-war Kemptown has witnessed the development of modern estates and wholesale conversion of it's Regency buildings into flats. This fashion- and economy-driven influx of new people has served to broaden horizons and add to the cultural melting pot that is the Kemptown of today. It has also left a fascinating architectural mixture which thoroughly rewards a walk with ones eyes raised above the shop-front level.

St. James's Street, the main thoroughfare from Brighton to Kemptown proper, boasts Brighton's first gay coffee shop, and at 23 Broad Street the Shalimar, an organic bed-and-breakfast hotel, welcomed all manner of Brighton characters to word-of-mouth soireés on Tuesday nights for much of the late 1990s — at which one might have thought one had wandered into The Establishment in the 1960s, rubbing shoulders with Brighton's movers and shakers, and enjoying anything from music to magic shows! On nearby Charles Street, the now-famous Komedia theatre, so much a part of Brighton's comedy, theatre and music life (and indeed the Edinburgh Festival Fringe), had its humble beginnings in a basement venue.

Further up the road, the Ranelagh may be Brighton's best-kept secret pub, where live Blues can be heard most Sunday nights. As with so much of Brighton, "everybody knows your name". Deeper within Kemptown are hidden away music studios (for example Metway, home of The Levellers). At both the sublime and ridiculous ends of this scale, there is The Laughing Onion, a unique restaurant, almost invisible behind its apparently closed exterior. The interior is trapped in Paris of the 1950s, and on just one Saturday a month, the doors are opened, the food is served, and most importantly, Parisian chanteur Jean-Jacques Jordane appears from the basement, red wine always in hand, and shirt always open. For the next few hours, this acquaintance of the likes of Bardot and Monroe (both Matt and Marilyn!) entertains with numbers such as Je ne regrete rien.

Tourism continues to play an important part in the life of Kemptown and a number of exclusive "boutique hotels" have emerged, such as Blanche House on Atlingworth Street, with themed rooms and cocktail bars taking over from the bed-and-breakfast of old.

Kemptown houses the UK headquarters of the visionary paradise-engineers at BLTC Research. Here too, throughout the 1990s, were the offices of a number of direct-action campaign groups. One of these, Justice?, is a collective formed in the mid 1990s in opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill. They became famous for squatting a number of municipal buildings in the town to highlight the scandal of empty buildings not being used to house homeless people, or for socially beneficial community functions. They continue to produce the weekly "information for action" newspaper, SchNEWS.

In the late 1990s the spirit of regeneration really took off as grass roots, "real people" organisations begin to bring control over local facilities and the urban environment back into the hands of the local people. The Kemp Town Network brought together many strands of local life. For 2000 and beyond, the area and the surrounding housing estates are the recipients of large injections of European and Lottery / Millenium Commission money. Whilst the corruption and bureaucracy of local politics are as much a problem here as anywhere, some exciting community-led initiatives are developing. The most significant and lasting was the foundation of the Kemptown Network's project to deliver humanitarian aid to Kosova. This project grew into Brighton Lifeline for Kosova, and now continues across the world as Aid Convoy.

Art, too is represented in the modern, vibrant Kemptown, with a number of painting, sculpture, crafts, and antique shops opening on St. James's Street and beyond, into the Kemp Town village itself. Several artists in the area take part in the Artists' Open Houses scheme during the Brighton Festival, which allows the public access to some of the neighbourhood's quirky properties as well as to the art on display. Cross-medium ventures also abound, such as at Silver, a shop selling mirrors and furniture made from chunks of natural wood, where one may also view and buy the art of local artist Rebecca Yates, and sometimes even witness her at work in her studio at the site. Kemptown village also boasts a proper old-fashioned bookshop, sadly an increasingly rare beast, and a nicely chaotic old flea market.

 

Last updated October 2008 by Kieran Turner

Suggested further reading: The Encyclopaedia of Brighton, by Timothy Carder. Published by East Sussex County Libraries (1990) and available from them (now renamed as Brighton Library).