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18 June 2014
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Legacies - Surrey and Sussex

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People paddling on the seafront

© Brighton History Centre - Museum and Art Gallery & Royal Pavilion Gardens
The hidden face of the Victorian seaside: behind the scenes at Brighton

Brighton was among the earliest of English seaside resorts, and therefore one of the first examples of this sort of town in the world; an 18th Century creation rather than a Victorian one: it already had 40,000 inhabitants when the railway arrived from London in 1841. It had a well-established reputation as a haunt of vice and fashion, symbolised by the exotic oriental opulence of the Brighton Pavilion, built for George IV when Prince of Wales at a point when his court and its camp-followers sucked in Regency high society and stimulated a building boom.

Royal Pavilion Gardens
Royal Pavilion and Bandstand, 1940
© Brighton History Centre - Museum and Art Gallery & Royal Pavilion Gardens

Beneath the surface gloss and glamour, however, lay the harsh reality of hard work, low pay, insecurity and slum living for the people who serviced the holiday season; this article turns the spotlight on these unsung strugglers without whom this great resort could not have functioned.

Victorian Brighton had to reinvent itself after the young Queen turned her back on it, objecting to the pressing curiosity of the visiting crowds and preferring the seclusion of the Highlands or the Isle of Wight. It did so very effectively, keeping a reputation for raffish dissipation, accommodating the rising tides of working-class day-trippers who came in on the trains by the shortest route from London to the sea, and building up a respectable middle-class family trade to complement its 'faster' side.

People paddling on the seafront
© Brighton History Centre - Museum and Art Gallery & Royal Pavilion Gardens
Investment in new amenities included two piers and an aquarium, and a burst of expansion in the 1870s took the population past 100,000; but the last two decades of Victoria's reign showed much slower growth. The summer became more down-market, while the more prosperous visitors shifted to the autumn and winter to avoid the Cockney contagion, where they were not lured abroad; but Brighton became the metropolis in miniature, 'London by the sea', with something for almost everyone, whether down for the day, the week-end or a longer stay.

Words: John K. Walton

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