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.
"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".
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 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.
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
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 was until recently 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.
Regrettably, since the time of writing that, Jean-Jacques has passed away. We
understand that it was peaceful.
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, in countries including Gaza, Albania, and Syria, 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.
In the early 2010s Kemptown was incensed by an
unpopular plan to erect an unsightly, low-budget tourist attraction, by a
company with an allegedly unfortunate past, in cahoots with a council not fighting for the very best
price for the lease of the land... the Mad Wheel.
In 2015 the people of Brighton voted Green,
and Hove voted Labour. This left Kemptown feeling distinctly blue, and a
resistance movement formed in the
hope of aligning with the People's Republic
of Brighton & Hove.
Last updated May 2015 by Kieran
Turner. Views are from various contributors.
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).