Brighton: Written by an American in 1881

The "biggest thing" in English watering-places is Brighton, which is sometimes called London-by-the-Sea, and which in size and solidity corresponds with the great metropolis, and is a worthy and appropriate "annex" to London. It is practically no farther from Belgravia than Coney Island is from Madison Square. The fast trains whirl down to it in a little more than an hour, at a cost to the passengers of from eight shillings, second class, to twelve shillings, first class. A business man may leave his office in the city at a late hour in the afternoon, and have time for dinner and a walk on the pier or a drive along the King's Road before dark.


 Brighton Beach
Brighton is London repeated on a small scale, without the smoke and the slums, and with a purer atmosphere, though with scarcely less of a crowd. The shops are London shops, the actors at the theatre belong to London companies, the faces and dresses have become familiar in the Strand or Piccadilly, and the Cockney dialect, with its soft drawl and misused aspirates, is heard oftener than any other. Like London, too, its social life is sustained by many classes circulating collectively, but not associating with one another.  In one quarter of Brighton royalty is no rarity, while in another the one day tourist, or the tradesman spending a two-weeks' holiday, smokes pipe and eats his shrimps without feeling the disparity, and without realizing that Brighton was not made especially for the enjoyment of his own class.

But though practically incorporated with it, Brighton is fifty miles away from London, and lying between the two are undulating English landscapes with many shady lanes and ancient villages, through which the train flies when it is once beyond the spacious limits of London. Under the Box Hill Tunnel, over the lofty spans of the Seven Bridges, through deep and friable cuttings of chalk and limestone—this is the way to London-by-the-Sea; and as we come nearer to it the land is hillier, the foliage less abundant, and flocks of sheep are seen fattening on the nutritious grasses of the breezy South Downs.

What sort of a place is it where the big metropolis of London airs itself? There are so few who have not seen it, and made up their minds about it, that any one with a first impression to record has something out of the common; it is one of the sights, like Westminster Abbey and the Tower of London, which every Englishman feels it incumbent upon him to include in his experience, and among all the passengers we alone, apparently, are entering the unknown. Visions of what it will be like follow each other in our expectations, and when, with a precursory screech, the engine flashes it upon us, it is wholly different from anything we have imagined.  In that part where the depot is, its appearance is so unlike what anticipation has made it that it provokes a smile. No sea is visible, no fine houses, no massive hotels, no wide streets. The colder and stronger air and the mists flying overhead give some assurance that the sea is not far away, but we walk a mile or more before we hear it falling on the beach with a sharp, reiterated hiss.

Looking to the east from the train as it enters the station, we see a compact region of houses, with a pale drab effect, apparently built in terraces, which in the twilight seem like the benches of an immense amphitheatre, and leaving the depot, we come out on a hilly and narrow street, with a preponderating number of economical restaurants and taverns, whose tariffs are profusely displayed in the windows and at the doors. Most of the buildings are old, and many of them have bulging fronts and bay or oriel windows; the common material is brick or stucco, and when it is the latter, it is painted the customary drab or a less objectionable lemon-color. The eating-houses divide the occupation of the street with small shops of all sorts, wine and liquor vaults, and some boarding-houses with cards in the windows announcing apartments to let. Branching from it are other winding streets, going up hill on one side of the artery, and down on the other, and in between are many small alleys and courts, a few feet wide, which, enticing the stranger into them by their air of mystery and antiquity, or appealing to his sense of the picturesque by their peaked gables, galleried fronts, scarlet tiles, and clustered chimney-pots, involve him in a labyrinth of old shops and old houses, to extricate himself from which is nearly as easy as a Chinese puzzle. This is in the heart of Brighton, and these old by­ways were serviceable to those who knew them long before London had appropriated and reconstructed the fishing village for its recreation. There are second stories overlapping first stories, and dormer windows, like hooded sun-bonnets, on the sunken roofs. A favorite style of architecture is a plaster surface to the walls, with stones as large as a man's foot imbedded in it for ornament; and the same sort of stones is used in the pavement, which slopes into an open gutter. Neither in the main streets nor in the complicated tributaries are there any distinguishing signs of a watering-place; the "local atmosphere" is singularly uncharacteristic; tourists stare into the shop windows, and crowd the sidewalks, and for all that is obvious to the contrary, we might be in some country town on market-day. 
 Brighton Beach
Eventually, however, we reach the bottom of the hill, and there before us lays the sea, chafing against a long, narrow, and pebbly beach, with nothing between it and the horizon. There is a masonry wall all along the waterfront, extending from which are many sloping jetties to prevent the encroachment of currents, which before now have eaten away good slices of the town. The jetties divide the beach into sections, and the sections are of varying levels, the pebbles having been heaped up several feet higher in some than in others. From the seawall inward is an excellent macadamized road, an ample promenade, and spaces of grass, flowers, and shrubbery, fronting upon which is a continuous line of buildings, forming a street over three miles long, without a sign of shabbiness from end to end. There are modern hotels six and seven stories high, old-fashioned taverns with bay-windows and an air of fastidious cleanliness, rows of dwelling-houses which it is not extravagant to call palatial, handsome shops with costly displays in the windows, and bathing establishments scarcely smaller than the largest hotels. Toward the western end the parapet is from six to sixteen feet above the beach, the town, being built up from it in a lateral valley. Farther east the street curves up a cliff, with a smooth and white escarpment, where it is over sixty feet above the level of the beach. Here and there the street debouches into a crescent or square of luxurious dwelling-houses, with enclosed parks and gardens. The architecture is that of Mayfair and Belgravia.
 Brighton Beach
The Brighton Aquarium is built under the cliff, and its picturesque clock tower and arched entrance are practically all of it that is above ground. It is an enchanted domain below, where in crepuscular avenues the silent and lithe creatures of the deep come and stare and gasp at us with stoic unconcern, and seem to dissolve in the water that contains them. An hour in the aquarium will supply all the accessories of nightmare for a month: we have been thrice devoured by a lobster with eyes like black globular beads; the scallops have danced to our whistling in uneasy dreams; and a sturgeon has haunted us with the demonic pertinacity of De Quincey's Malay.
Brighton beach
It is to be remembered that with the exception of the crescents and squares and intersecting streets, there is no break in the three miles of buildings which abut on the sea; the houses, shops, baths, and hotels are set together without any unoccupied lots between them. But to fully comprehend the extent of Brighton, one should go out on the pier, and then the place may be seen in its complex and substantial entirety. Compared to it, the most crowded American watering-place— Coney Island, Atlantic City, or Long Branch—is nothing more than a camp. It is veritably, and not in any fancifulness of nomenclature, a city by the sea— a city modeled on London, and having the structural permanency of the metropolis. It is not built on the banks of a river, nor at the head of a gulf, nor in the shelter of a bay. It is immediately on the coast; the chalk cliffs, with their grassy summits, are at either side of it, and the water is never more than a few yards from the esplanade. The solidity and compactness of the frontage of buildings, and the heights covered with houses, are things which must excite the wonder of any one who sees them for the first time.
Brighton beach
Brighton is not busy for a few summer months only, and then left to the gales, the fishermen, and the coastguard. Though the fashionable season does not begin until late in September or early in October, the tourists crowd it from the early summer until late in the year. From August to December the climate is most salubrious—warm, elastic, and bracing. An east wind keeps visitors away in the first months of the year, and the place is then deserted except by a mere handful of people — about one hundred and four thousand — who constitute the resident population.
The history of this village runs through a good many centuries, and introduces not a few interesting persons. Thackeray has said that George the Fourth invented Brighton, and in one sense this preeminent blackguard of a prince developed it by giving it his royal patronage; but to say nothing of the Romans, who have left their foot-prints and some other things in the neighborhood, it was the scene of several historic episodes long before the dissipated Hanoverian's time. On the night of October 14, 1651, a tall, swarthy young man with a companion slipped into the George Inn and said he would wait to meet a sea-faring acquaintance. In earlier days the host had been employed in one of the London palaces, and he recognized in his seedy visitor Prince Charles, son of the monarch who more than two years before had been beheaded at Whitehall. After the battle of Worcester the young king had experienced many adventures, and worn many disguises; there was a price upon his head; but the innkeeper, either from loyalty or discretion, did not offer to molest the fugitive or his companion. The captain of a collier, Nicholas Tettersell, then appeared, and took Charles and his companion, who was the Earl of Rochester, on board his vessel, and landed them in France, for which service many things were promised. The Restoration came, but none of the gifts, and Tettersell therefore sailed into the Thames and moored off Whitehall, where his dingy bark attracted the attention of the king, who, being thus reminded, gave the captain a ring, a perpetual annuity of £100 a year, and took the collier into the navy under the name of the Lucky Escape.
Brighton at this time was a small fishing village, named after Brighthelm, a Saxon bishop; and in 1703 it was destroyed by a storm, some of the houses being found buried in the sand fifteen feet below the surface a century later. Dr. Johnson, the Thrales, and Goldsmith visited the village which replaced the old one. A noted physician endorsed the place; and in 1781 the Prince of Wales (George IV) bought a house for himself, and entered upon a course of profligacy which drove the more decent visitors away. The prince ("Prinny", as he was called by his intimates) built the Royal Pavilion, a preposterous edifice, with reminiscences of Russia, Algiers, and Constantinople in its architecture—a medley of domes, campaniles, and pinnacles, which is still one of the shows of the City by the Sea.
The Royal Pavilion
Among the Prince of Wales' boon companions were three men nicknamed Hellgate, Newgate, and Cripplegate, and their sister, who, for obvious reasons, was called Billingsgate. There was also Sir John Lade, who had been a stableman, and his wife, whose accomplishments may be judged from the fact that to swear like Letty Lade was the ambition of all the other inmates of the Pavilion. Mrs. Fitzherbert had a house fronting on the Old Steyne, a pretty square, the name of which Thackeray has adopted for his villainous old marquis, and when the prince was in his most innocent moods he was to be found in her drawing-room. Chancellor Thurlow, Warren Hastings, Sheridan, and Sir Philip Francis, one of the supposed authors of the Junius Letters, were among the more reputable guests. These and the prince passed away; Mrs. Fitzherbert died here, and Brighton then attracted a better class of customers than, excepting a few, it had known in the associates and followers of George the Fourth. Thackeray was fond of Brighton. “One of the best physicians our city has ever known is Dr. Brighton,” he has written in the Newcomes. “Hail, thou purveyor of shrimps and honest preserver of South Down mutton! There is no mutton so good as Brighton mutton; no flies so pleasant as Brighton flies; nor any cliff so pleasant to ride on; no shops so beautiful to look at as the Brighton gimcrack shops, the fruit shop, and the market." 
Brighton beach
If the people are heavy in their mirth, and the bathing accommodations are not what they might be, and if the architecture is monotonous and the weather capricious, still the crowd is always so restless, and is made up of so many elements, that it is entertaining, and the longer one stays in Brighton, the more one is apt to like it, and to be impressed with its size. The beach is of no great width, and except toward the east, and where there are some detached masses of rock coated with moss and sea-weed, and a space of sand, which is left wet and spongy at low water, it is formed of pebbles, reddish and amber in color, upon which the water breaks with a force that piles them up in furrows and terraces.
Brighton beach
The everlasting rattle, as the waves pour over the rocks, is like a fusillade of rifles when the wind is blowing from the sea, and at other times it is comforting, and sways the listener into a mood of pensive laziness. The rocks are safer to rest on than the sand, and lying on them, or sitting on one of the benches, which are placed a few yards apart, we can see how the crowd engages itself.  It seems natural that the benches should be provided for the benefit of visitors by the corporation, but they are a part of a private endeavor, and no sooner is a seat taken than a beach-man with a scarlet tan on his face like that which Nicholl paints, and a blue Guernsey shirt, touches his fur cap and demands a penny.
Brighton beach
The pitch of the beach is steep, and the bathing-vans are lowered to the water's edge by ropes attached to windlasses near the sea-wall, which are worked like a ship's capstan. The vans and bathing-places for women are far apart from those reserved for men, but any exhibition which either sex makes of itself is open to the gaze of the spectators on the beach, who are in no way fenced off from the bathers. The men have the best of it. They are allowed to bathe in drawers, and can plunge off one of the small boats that patrol the front of the beach; while the women have to endure a variety of discomforts which far outweigh any possible compensation.
Brighton beach
But there are other amusements than bathing. A fleet of sloops is drawn up, high and dry on the pebbles, at the margin of the water, and with a shilling to pay, it is possible to go to sea in one of them for an hour—an inducement hoarsely reiterated by their crews, while the prospect of getting wet and seasick without additional charge is delicately left unmentioned, though it is something of a certainty. The departure of the boats is effected in a novel and exciting manner.  They have all sails set, and are gradually loaded while lying on the beach.  Brighton BeachOne passenger after another is beguiled on board with the assurance that the moment he embarks the vessel will be dispatched. The testimony as to which is the fastest and finest boat out of Brighton is shouted out by the solicitors. "Come, gents, come," the captain persuasively cries, “Come and 'ave a nice jolly sail.” “Come on, come on,” his mate repeats; “A nice sail of ten miles for a shilling!” When all the seats are taken, and twenty or more passengers are on board, a stranger wonders how she is to be launched; but though it seems to be hazardous, it is usually done without any difficulty. The beachmen put their shoulders to the stern and gunwale, and with a little pushing she glides over the slope of loose pebbles as over rollers, and plunges deep into the surf, her passengers screaming with excitement as a sea breaks over the bow; she recovers in a moment, her head lifting to meet the next wave, and with filling sails she dances out by the end of the pier, beyond which the passengers may be left to their own emotions.
The boats, with bunting flying, and their white canvas shining, are going and coming constantly, and the pleading of their crews for customers drowns the sibilant noise of the sea. As they return from their trips they come full on to the beach with all sail set, and with an impetus that seems sure to throw them on their beam ends. Until a spectator becomes used to it, the speed with which, they head in is alarming; but as they strike, the force simply carries them up the pebbles without injury, and a hawser being cast ashore, it is spun, around one of the windlasses, by which the boats are hauled out of the reach of the surf, only a little water being shipped over the stern in the mean time.
The Brighton, crowd is usually well-behaved under most circumstances, but that noisy and unwholesome creation of modern English life, the London 'Arry, is here among the rest. He is dressed in fancy materials of loud patterns; he wears big gilt rings and a heavy gilt watch chain, with nothing at the end of it; his shirt is crumpled, and spotted with tobacco juice and relics of the dinner table, and he always seems to have come out of a debauch. Wherever 'Arry goes he has his picture taken, as many other public characters have theirs; and we see one of the itinerant photographers who abound at the English sea-side, and practice their art for his enjoyment with a battered old camera under extraordinary difficulties, posing him on a capstan that his sweet image may be perpetuated. He has a cigar in the extreme corner of his mouth, his crimson necktie is drawn into four blades like the arms of a windmill, and his hat is placed so far to one side that it might have been designed to cover his right ear. When he is told to smile, his mouth expands fabulously. “That's fine, old man!” exclaims the photographer, in a burst of serious admiration, and 'Arry cheerfully puts a shilling into his hand in payment.
East of the Chain Pier, which was built nearly sixty years ago there is a low reach of smooth beach, upon which, when the tide is out, the figures of the girls tracing their names in the moist sand, and the children paddling in the shallow water, look like silhouettes. The pier is black also, and in the distance the blue-white cliffs loom up that form the southern wall of England. A crowd of mud-larks, with their breeches rolled up over their thighs, and their sleeves above their elbows, beseech the passerby to throw a “copper” into the water; and if their solicitations are gratified, they scramble for the coin, unconscious of their clothes, and indifferent to the wet. This is great fun for 'Arry, though it is not often that he contributes any money.  Only people of a romantic nature turn come down to the sands, and to see the crowd one must be on the new pier when the band is playing. There are unnaturally elongated soldiers, with bulging chests enveloped in red jackets, and silly little caps stuck on the sides of their heads; there are shop-boys who have come from London for the day, and young collegians with "trenchers" on, from the many educational establishments in the neighborhood; there are well-dressed elderly gentlemen with a military air, and some compactly built young fellows, with the high color that comes from exposure, dressed in shaggy-looking Tweeds; there are gentlemen whose costume shows that it is the absorbing business of their lives, and pinchbeck imitators of them who are pitiably fatuous in their ambition; there are voluminous elderly ladies, with a lobster-like complexion that once, no doubt, was the peachy glow and bloom which we admire in the faces of the crowds of supple, active, athletic girls who wear glove-like bodices, and who outnumber all others on the pier. Some are afoot, and many are in Bath-chairs. There is an old dowager who sits in serene majesty in a Bath-chair, large and serious, and sharing the vehicle with a snappy terrier, attended by a meek little man, despairing yet submissive, and drawn by a jaded servant, who is nearly overcome by her avoir­dupois. There is also a fragile invalid, a pale girl, with a remote look in her eyes; and in another chair comes a gigantic man, whose massive frame is ill matched with the emaciation of his face. Suffering edges along by the side of exuberant health, and the poor old hack dragging the invalid's chair times his step as nearly as he can to the music of the opera bouffe. It is not a gay crowd, but it is made up of many classes; there are Germans and French in it. The activity is constant, and out of the coffee-room window of our tavern in the King's Road we see a procession all day long.

It is an old-fashioned tavern, from which coaches start to London every day, and in which the beds have four posts and heavy curtains, and the waiters are senatorial in manner, and nothing can be had without a delay of an hour or more. The customers are plethoric old gentlemen who have sat in the same corners and done the same things during most of their natural lives. The old tavern was the genuine article. Some Americans doubt whether the real old-fashioned tavern has an existence, but this was one; and in the good old-fashioned way, when the day of reckoning came, we were presented with an account based on the most liberal scale (in the land­lord's favor), and as we departed, all the servants, from the boots to the head waiter, stood in a row before us, with “a look” in their faces that made fees for services never done more compulsory than any item in the bill. 

Brighton is midway between a score of other watering-places more or less supported by London patronage; but only Brighton is known as "London-by-the-Sea."

PHOTOS: Library of Congress, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08556, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08554, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08045, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08044, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08043, LC-DIG-ppmsc-08042.






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