For many, Brighton is home to the new, hip and trendy – no place for those stuck in the past, it would seem. Beneath the chic restaurants and stylish shops, however, there’s plenty of history to this most contemporary of seaside cities. We’ve gone hipster-diving through the archives and pulled out some strange and interesting facts for you to enjoy. Here are Six Things You Didn’t Know About Brighton’s History.
Brighton’s Woolly Mammoths
Way back before there were fish ‘n’ chip shops along the Brighton front – or even a place called Brighton – the site of the city was home to a whole host of huge prehistoric creatures. Recent excavation of the soil surrounding the city centre has shown a small layer of earth below the upper cliffs that dates back over 200,000 years. This slither of dirt was once the Sussex coastline and has revealed incredible archaeological finds including the bones of mammoths, woolly rhinos, bison and whales. Human settlements have also been discovered in this strip of turf, and the high frequency of spearheads may suggest that Brighton’s ancient counterparts were in fact hunters of the regions’ Ice Age beasts. You can see this layer of prehistoric soil for yourself by visiting the cliff face directly behind the Asda in the Brighton Marina.
Woolly Rhinoceros Hunt, Horniman Museum, London. Jim Linwood
Charles II’s Escape
Brighton has had many important guests pass through its ports leaving for Europe, but few have been quite as important as Charles II. The monarch’s father Charles I was famously deposed and executed in 1649 following the English Civil War. Two years later, Charles II mounted a second Civil War in an attempt to reclaim the throne. His efforts, however, were thwarted by Oliver Cromwell at the Battle of Worcester, and he was forced to flee. During his daring escape, Charles II passed through Brighton – or Brighthelmstone, as it was then known – to Shoreham, just a few miles west along the coast, before sailing to Le Havre. The retreating monarch’s journey is full of fantastical stories. Charles famously hid up an oak tree to avoid passing soldiers, and on another occasion posed as a travelling servant. In Shoreham soldiers supposedly arrived to catch the exiled royal just two hours after his boat departed the port. Charles II eventually returned to England in 1660 to be re-appointed king. The site of his lucky escape, Shoreham, is easy to visit from Brighton, lying just to the west of Brighton Airport.
Statue of Charles II. Photo Credit: Sharaf
Britain’s First Filmmaker
It is a little known fact that Britain’s first films were made in Brighton. Less than a year after the Lumière Brothers first demonstrated their new motion picture technology to the world at the Paris Exhibition of March 1895, a Brighton local George Albert Smith purchased one of the French pair’s cameras and set about experimenting back in his seaside home. The city proved the perfect spot for the former circus showman’s enterprise: the south coast sun provided that extra bit of light needed for the primitive recording technology. Albert Smith went on to make over twenty films and pioneered many of the earliest approaches to film editing. You can learn more about Britain’s earliest film pioneer and his Brightonian successors at the Brighton Museum’s Experimental Motion exhibition, on display until 4 June.
A Kiss in the Tunnel by GA Smith, 1899. Credit: BFI National Archive
Film wasn’t the only technology that was pioneered in Brighton: telephones also found an early home in the Victorian coastal resort. Brighton was the first city to have a long distance telephone connection to London, and one of the first six British cities to have their own internal network. It was also the first area in Britain to have a yellow pages! Local inventor and entrepreneur Magnus Volk bought the area’s first device in 1879 and strung the first cable across Stanford Avenue to his friend William Jago, a science professor at Brighton School of Science and Art. Unfortunately, Volk’s neighbours did not take kindly to the look of the dangling wire, and he was asked to take the contraption down. The site of Brighton’s first telephone can still be visited, only a few minutes’ walk from London Road Brighton Station.
The Royal Pavilion and a Flea Circus
You can’t miss The Royal Pavilion walking through Brighton’s city centre. The elaborate Oriental structure was first built in 1786, commissioned by Prince Regent George. Since then numerous annexes and interiors have been added, eventually leading to today’s tourist attraction. The Royal Pavilion’s history, however, has been far from smooth. In 1849, Parliament almost passed a bill that would have allowed the architectural oddity to be demolished – it was only thanks to local investment that the building survived. Even after this, the structure’s future was uncertain. The premises were used for a series of disparate functions including a library, a hospital and even a flea circus. You can learn all about the Royal Pavilion by visiting the building, or read our handy Discover guide!
Photo Credit: Dun.can
Brighton in Flames
Here’s a real history fact: Brighton almost never existed. The city, then coastal village, danced with destruction in 1514, when the small fishing port was attacked by French raiders. The English had been at war with France since 1511, and, from the limited accounts we have, this marauding fleet appears to have attempted to pillage much of the south coast. Auxiliary forces eventually arrived to repel the raiders, but by then much of Brighton had been burnt to the ground. Not much is known about the attack, and almost no marks of the destruction survive. The raid is believed to have begun in Rottingdean, however, and progressed all the way up to Lewes – not a bad journey if you fancy a historical day out!