A Peep Into the Past:  Brighton in the Olden Time, by John George Bishop

This curiously charming book was a pleasantly serendipitous discovery while I was researching a completely different topic. However, Brighton is one of my favorite settings for a Regency romance, perhaps because it was an important setting for the very first Regency romance novel ever written, Regency Buck, by Georgette Heyer. Therefore, I could not resist reading through this book on the history of that city. Having done so, I suspect that many Regency authors and aficionados will be very happy to add this chatty tome on the early days of Brighton to their research library.

Peeping into Brighton’s past . . .

The full title of this book is A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, with Glances at the Present. It was written by John George Bishop (1825–1919), a local journalist and amateur historian. Bishop began his career, in 1839, as an apprentice at the Brighton Herald. He eventually rose to become the owner of the newspaper, in 1880. In fact, A Peep Into the Past was published in book form that same year, 1880. However, that was not the first time this material was published. A few years previously, Bishop had actually published a series of articles in his newspaper on various aspects of the history of Brighton and the surrounding area, primarily covering the period around 1800. In his preface to the first edition of the book, Bishop states that several of his friends had urged him to collect those articles into book form. Some of those friends were fellow historians and antiquarians who offered him the use of historical images and maps in their collections with which to illustrate the book.

It appears that Bishop’s initial intent was to focus on the period of a decade or two on either side of the turn of the nineteenth century. In fact, the first article in the book is a reprint of the directory of Brighthelemston (Brighton’s original name) for the year 1800. This directory includes a wealth of information on the inhabitants of Brighton in that first year of the new century. It also provided details of many of the points of interest in the town, including the public rooms and the local amusement venues, in some cases, with notes on their history, as well as their prices for subscriptions or single admissions. The directory lists the lodging and boarding houses of the town, by the street on which they are located, along with the proprietors’ names. The principal residents are listed with the Prince of Wales first on the list, followed by professional men, Parish officers, and finally, tradesmen, in alphabetical order. The local post offices are listed, followed by a list of all the coaches, carts and waggons which ran from Brighton, with their destinations. Next is a list of all the roads which ran from Brighton to other locations, including the mileage between each. After the reprint of the directory, Bishop provides a commentary on the importance of the document with regard to the history of Brighton, including a number of statistics, such as the population of the city as well as the number of houses there in the decades since the directory was published.

Perhaps because of the amusements listed in the Brighton Directory which formed the first section of this book, the next article focuses on the "Fashionable and Popular Amusements" of the city. This article is not limited to the immediate period around 1800. Rather, Bishop begins with the period in the later eighteenth century when the Prince of Wales first came to the sleepy little fishing village. But he did not limit his story to that period, and this article ranges over much of the eighteenth century well into the mid-nineteenth century. I was surprised to learn that, like Bath, Brighton also had a Master of Ceremonies, who managed many of the amusements in the city. That position was filled for nearly a century, including during the Regency period. As had been the case in Bath, there were sometimes conflicts between the M. C. and prominent citizens, some of which are chronicled in this article. The theatres in the city are also listed in this article, most of which were opened in the late eighteenth century. Some of them were still open during the Regency, while others had closed by that time. For each theatre, several historical anecdotes related to the plays and the players who passed through each of them over the years are provided. In addition, Bishop also details admission prices for many of the performances.

It turns out that in the late eighteenth century, Brighton had a pleasure garden similar to Ranelagh and Vauxhall Gardens, which were popular in London. Known as The Promenade Grove, this pleasure garden was the scene of many pic-nics and Public Breakfasts, sponsored by the young Prince of Wales. Concerts were also performed there during the summer season. There were grand walks through the garden, which were illuminated during the evenings, where fashionable people could stroll to see and be seen. Fireworks displays were given at The Promenade Grove, the program, as well as the price of admission, are provided. Another event held there one evening was pony races. The ponies raced over a lighted course in a series of heats. An orchestra was on hand to play before the race and between the heats. Admission was two shillings per person and it was reported that at least 600 people attended the races that evening. Balloon ascents and other events took place at this popular pleasure garden during its history. Unfortunately for Regency authors, in the summer of 1802, the Prince of Wales purchased The Promenade Grove. He closed it to the public and incorporated it into the grounds of the grand pavilion he was building in Brighton. By the Regency, The Promenade Grove existed only in the memory of the older local residents.

Bishop does not focus solely on the fashionable amusements of Brighton. He also shares information about the traditional local sports and other festivities which had been enjoyed by the inhabitants of the area for many years. These included foot races, some of which were run by women, boxing matches, and public feasts in celebration of national events. Horse racing had been popular in Brighton from at least the mid-eighteenth century. The Prince of Wales was very keen on horse-racing and racing meetings in Brighton became increasingly important social events as the years progressed. By the Regency, balls were given on each night of the meeting and other fashionable events took place through the week. Regency authors may be interested to know that the Racing Stand in Brighton was burned down in 1803, and was replaced by a rather rickety structure which was still in use during our favorite decade.

Another popular sport in the area was cricket, so much so that a cricket bat-maker was listed among the tradesmen of the city. It turns out that the Brighton area was one of the first places in which cricket was played in Britain, beginning in the mid-eighteenth century. Though it seems that women were prohibited from match play, many women in Brighton routinely played cricket in casual games. Some of the more important matches which took place there over the years are detailed in this article. Though Bishop mentions both cock-fighting and bull-baiting, he also notes that those sports were both going out of fashion by the turn of the nineteenth century.

Bishop devotes an entire article to the Steine or Steyne, a Brighton landmark. Originally, this open area was used by local fishermen to air and dry their nets. As the city developed, it became a fashionable place to promenade, though it fell out of favor for that purpose in Victorian times. Many of the significant events which took place in this area of the city are chronicled in this article. A number of shops and circulating libraries were situated along the Steine during the Regency, most of them attractive to the bon ton of that time. Even before the Regency, the Steine was ringed by many of the most elegant and stately houses in the city, the residences of prominent people. In fact, Mrs. Fitzherbert, the morganatic wife of the Prince of Wales, lived in a fine house on the Steine until her death, in 1837. The next article focuses on the "Notable Houses on the Steine." Through the course of the nineteenth century, some of them were converted into hotels, but during the Regency, most of them were still private homes.

Once the Prince of Wales began to visit Brighton regularly, many people followed suit. Therefore, there was a tremendous need for lodgings and, by the end of the eighteenth century, the city could boast a large number of inns and public houses. The next article addresses those many places of accommodation. The concept of the hotel seems to have developed near the end of the Regency era, probably based on European models. Hotels were different from inns in that many of them were located in the city centre, most had a restaurant in which patrons could order from a menu with a selection of regularly available dishes. Some of these hotels did not offer accommodations for their patrons’ horses. Inns in the early nineteenth century were somewhat different. They tended to be located at some distance from the fashionable centre of town, though they offered meals, the patrons had to be satisfied with whatever was cooking in the kitchen when they ordered. However, most inns also offered accommodation for their patrons’ horses and the servants who cared for them.

Many of the inns in this article are mentioned by name, often with some historical anecdotes of events which took place on those premises. It seems that one of the inns, The Rising Sun, was haunted and Bishop relates the tale of the ghost, Old Strike-A-Light, which lurked there. Another of the inns, known as The Spread Eagle, was re-named The Sussex Arms, in 1816. This name change, unknown to a character in a Regency romance, might lead to any number of amusing consequences. But one of my favorite anecdotes is about a public house known as The King and Queen. It seems there was a small hole, of about ten inches square, in the back wall of the building which connected to the wall of the soldier’s barracks next door. Bishop estimated that large quantities of beer, ale and other spirits were passed though that hole over the years, before it was discovered and closed with an iron door.

The next article is on sea bathing, which, according to Bishop, laid the foundation for the long-term prosperity of Brighton. Certainly, once the Prince of Wales began to spend time there, often sea bathing for his health, or simply for recreation, many people also took up the practice. This enabled some of the locals to develop prosperous businesses linked to this activity. It seems that many of the men who were hired to assist bathers deplored the change in men’s hair fashions near the end of the eighteenth century. At that time, men began wearing their hair short and the bathing assistants found it much more difficult to pull a man from the sea if he was in distress without his queue, or pony tail. A few people also began drinking sea water, again, primarily for their health. This article provides many details about sea bathing as well as other cold pool bathing activities which a Regency author may find quite useful to work into a romance.

However, Regency authors may find the next article, "The Coaching Era," even more useful. This article includes details on the history of coach travel to and from the Brighton area since the mid-eighteenth century and well into the nineteenth, when the railroad eventually made coach travel obsolete. Historical anecdotes include several accidents, a clever and never solved robbery of a coach and an explanation of the transition in the coaching business which took place between 1811 and 1819. Many of the coaching companies strived for ever faster speeds, basing their fares on how quickly they could arrive at their destinations. And many of the coaches were given names which indicated their swift travel, such as The Dart, The Alert and The Rocket. Another interesting bit of information was that these coaches were very often the first carriers of news along their routes. The coachman often shouted the news to those along the road as they traveled along. In addition, many people congregated at the coaching offices when a coach was due in, in order to get the latest news from the coachman. Quite a few of the anecdotes in this article may provide inspiration to a Regency author.

The next article, "The Railway and Its Growth" will not be discussed here, as it does not pertain to the Regency. However the article which follows it, on the Post Office, is of some interest, as it does cover the early history of the Brighton Post Office system. This includes details on schedules and postal rates, which can add veracity to a novel set during the period. The last section of the article focuses on the introduction of telegraphy in Brighton, which will be of little interest to Regency authors.

The article on North Street, considered the principle business thoroughfare in Brighton for much of it history, will be of interest to Regency authors. In this article, Bishop goes back into the seventeenth century for some of the earliest information on North Street. But the bulk of the information presented here dates from 1800 or later. The history of the development of this street is nearly a microcosm of the development of Brighton itself. This article was followed by one on the various "Religious Edifices" along North Street. There was a large Friends (Quaker) Meeting House situated on this street, since it appears there was a substantial Quaker community in the city. There were a couple of other churches or chapels located along North Street, but it would seem that nineteenth-century Brighton was very similar to the city today, being one of the least religious cities in the United Kingdom.

The next two articles, one on William Fleet, John Bishop’s predecessor at the Brighton Herald, the other on the history of Brighton between 1850 to 1870, will probably be of limited interest to most Regency authors. However the last two article in this book, on the nearby towns of Hove and Preston, may provide interesting historical tidbits for a Regency author. In particular, it seems that Hove was a hotbed of smuggling through the Napoleonic Wars and right through the Regency, several instances of which are chronicled in the article on the town. Preston was the location of what had come to be known as The Prince’s Dairy, a pretty, rural area which was popular with the Prince Regent. He built the Dairy on the property between 1805 and 1806. The Dairy also seems to have been the residence of one of the Prince’s lesser-known paramours at about that same time. Bishop also reports that Preston authorities set up a turnpike gate on the coaching road which ran through it to Brighton. It seems many people were quite irritated by the fact that they had to stop at that gate to pay a toll before they could continue on their way to their destination.

The articles in this book are not written in a style which would suit many highly disciplined historians today. However, the chatty, anecdotal style provides a treasure trove of historical stories of daily life which could provide inspiration for many Regency authors. Though the primary focus of the articles was to be circa 1800, Bishop provides a generous portion of history from the sixteenth to the nineteenth century, which may well provide useful backstory for a romance set in Brighton and its environs during the Regency. In addition to the table of contents, this book also has an extensive index which makes it fairly easy to find the location of subjects of interest. The maps and other illustrations enable the reader to have a better picture of Brighton during the first half of the nineteenth century. There were eventually two editions of this book, the first, which was published in 1880, and the second, called the "People’s Edition," which was published, with some revisions and updates, in 1892.

Fortunately for those Regency authors and aficionados on a budget, both editions of A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, with Glances at the Present are available online for download at no cost. Both editions are available at the Internet Archive, however, the 1880 edition was digitized without most of the illustrations. Fortunately, the 1892 edition, which actually had even more illustrations, is available complete with those illustrations. Both of these editions can be found, in several formats, at the appropriate links, below:

  • A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, 1880 edition
  • A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time, 1892 edition

A copy of the People’s Edition, of 1892, is also available at Google Books, but only in .PDF file format. Unfortunately, like many of the books which were digitized by Google, several of the pages are warped or mangled to the point that they are illegible. But this edition of A Peep Into the Past: Brighton in the Olden Time does include the majority of the illustrations, and most of them are legible.

Dear Regency Authors, if you are planning to set one of your upcoming romances all, or in part, in Brighton, you might want to at least glance through this book to get a sense of what Brighton, and its environs, were like in the early nineteenth century. Many of the anecdotes contained within its pages may offer inspiration for plot points with an historical source. And, fortunately, you can add this charming book to your Regency research library without putting a dent in your budget.

About Kathryn Kane

Historian with a particular interest the English Regency era.   An avid reader of novels set in that time, holding strong opinions on the historical accuracy to be found in said novels.
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3 Responses to A Peep Into the Past:  Brighton in the Olden Time, by John George Bishop

  1. I also recommend ‘The Brighton Road’ by Charles Harper for a 19th century look into the past and the modern book The Coach Roads to Brighton by Geoffrey Hewlett, a man of dedication who walked them all! I used that with great efficacy in ‘Daisy’s Destiny’ in the Charity School series. And it must be remembered that the Pavilion did not reach its current form until 1808; Prinny took over a country house in IIRC 1787 and it is described as ‘Palladian’. There is an extant picture of it from the Steyne. I can’t insert the picture, I’m afraid but there’s a picture on this link:
    https://sbpc.regencysociety.org/the-pavilion-in-1788/
    – which I needed for Ace of Schemes, in the Georgian Gambles series

    • Kathryn Kane says:

      Thanks you for sharing your references! IMHO, it is always nice to know what sources are out there. Also, thank you for the link to the image of the Pavilion in the early days.

      From what I understand, the Royal Pavilion in Brighton was kind of an ongoing construction/remodeling project for the Prince for nearly two decades, beginning in the late eighteenth century. Years ago, I had a few days in Britain and did a day trip down from London to Brighton. My first stop was the Royal Pavilion, which was quite amazing, and that was before they began the big restoration project. It must have been quite stunning in its day.

      Regards,

      Kat

      • yes, there were two major phases to the building but tinkering with it was Prinny’s substitute for having lego to play with I suppose. No photograph ever prepares you for it in the landscape, any more than photos of the Palais Stoclet in Brussels can prepare you for the reality. [wrong period, I know, but a similar reaction of blinking, and a mild 'my goodness!' escaping the stiff upper lip.] I didn’t have time to go over the Pavilion when we were there, but I will go back some day as a tourist rather than a passer by with an hour to kill in tourism. Being half as far again from London as London is from Brighton it is a bit of a trek, but we DID take in Royal Tunbridge Wells on a whistle stop tour on the way back.

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