by Charles Edward Lamb

Kemptown today is spearheading Brighton's high-tech digital renaissance. Only a few 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-designers 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 about 250,000 years. Located on Whitehawk hill overlooking Brighton racetrack is 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".

Beorthelm's-tun, 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, in 1785 he married Miss Fitzherbert. By 1806 his ultimate indulgence, the transformation of a rural farmhouse into the ornate Royal Pavilion was complete. Brighton flourished.


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.

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.

Thomas Kemp's brainchild itself was completed in 1855. Sussex Square is larger than Grosvenor Square in London. It is the biggest crescent in Britain with a diameter two hundred feet greater than Bath Royal Crescent. Kemp's original estate remains probably the finest example 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 WW1, 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.


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 and a tunnel through the Race Hill. Sadly 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 to passengers, and in the 1960s cuts, the line vanished altogether, even for useful freight traffic. 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 serves as a mushroom farm.

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).

From the outbreak of WWII, Brighton became a no-go area. The beach was covered in mines and barbed wire and guns were sited in the parks. Children where evacuated as a precaution against bombing raids and possible invasion. Britain fought off the Luftwaffe, sunk the Bismarck, and thwarted operation Sealion (German Code-name for the planned invasion of Brighton's beaches). In the event, only twenty bombs fell on Kemptown. They caused no significant damage.

Post-war Kemptown has witnessed the development of modern estates and wholesale conversion of it's Regency buildings into flats. The fashion - and economy! - driven influx of political groups has served to broaden horizons and add to the cultural melting pot that is the Kemptown of today.

St. James's Street, the main thoroughfare from Brighton to Kemptown proper, boasts Brighton's first gay coffee shop. Deeper within Kemptown are hidden away music studios (for example those of The Levellers). Kemptown houses the UK headquarters of the visionary paradise-engineers at BLTC Research. Here too are the offices of a number of direct-action campaign groups, notably Justice?. Justice is a collective formed in the mid 1990s in opposition to the Criminal Justice Bill. They are 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.


Arundel Terrace

  • no5 Novelist William Harrison Ainsworth. 1853-1867.

Chichester Terrace
finished by Thomas Cubitt.

  • Chichester House. Novelist D.L. Murray.

Lewes Crescent

  • no13 Thomas Cubitt 1846-1855
  • no1 Sixth Duke of Devonshire 1828-1858 Princess Louise (daughter of Edward VII), Duke of Fife 1896-1924 visited by George VII 1908
  • no18 Actress Anna Neagle and Producer Herbert Wilcox 1953-1969
  • no17 Lord Frederick Elwyn Jones. Labour MP prosecutor at Nuremberg, Lord chancellor (1970's) 1909-1989

Sussex Square

  • no22 Thomas Reed Kemp 1827-1837
  • no11 Rev. Charles Dogran (Lewis Carol) 1874-1887
  • no19-20 First Marquis and Fifth Earl of Bristol. 1831-1859

THOMAS REED KEMP (1782-1844)

  • 1804 Studied theology at Cambridge. Married the year following graduation. (a marriage that was to produce four sons and six daughters.)
  • 1811 Inherited estates and became M.P for Lewes.
  • 1816 Resigned seat and founded a dissenting religious sect at St. James chapel.
  • 1817 Built trinity chapel, moved sect to new chapel.
  • 1823 Returned to orthodoxy. Re-elected M.P for Lewes. Idea for Kemptown estate. Approached architects Charles Busby and Amon Wilde. Thomas Cubitt to build. Town commissioner until 1825. £10,000 of land to Cubitt to repay debts.
  • 1827 Moved to 22 Sussex Square.
  • 1836 Built house in London.
  • 1837 Kemp flees to Paris to escape creditors.
  • 1844 Death in Paris. Buried in Piere-la-chaise graveyard. Estate conveyed to eldest son.

Written by Charles Edward Lamb, with subsequent additions

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