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1789: A Trip to Brighton

'A View at Brighthelmstone', by Thomas Rowlandson, Coloured Aquatint 1790.

The following is from Rowlandson's 'Sketches on the Road' 1789

In 1789 Brighton was still known as Brighthelmstone, nearly as it had been designated about 1081 in Domesday Book (Bristelmestune); not to rely on the vague authority which relates that, AD 693, 'this year also Drythelm retired from the world' (Saxon Chronicle), the topographer remorselessly localising him thus: '693, Brighthelm was slain on the Down immediately above Brighthelmstone, to which place he gave his name.’

The prospects of this marine resort were in 1789 brilliant and encouraging; wealth was flowing freely into the town, and a golden title seemed to promise fortune to all who were lucky enough to participate:

Say why on Brighton’s church we see

A golden shark displayed ?

But that 'twas aptly meant to be

An emblem of its trade.

Nor could the thing so well be told

In any other way:

The town's a shark that lives on gold,

The company its prey.

The Prince of Wales, then a lighthearted, spendthrift youth, known to fame as 'Florizel' *, had by his patronage, made Brighthelmstone, from a freshly-discovered sea-bathing sanatorium, the most fashionable watering-place in the kingdom. George the Third was contented with the reposeful Weymouth, for his tastes were not exacting; but his pleasure-loving son and heir inaugurated a new Babylon by the sea, which, in his generation, combined the gaieties of London life with that freedom from restraint which was supposed to belong to rural felicity. By satirists Brighton was described as a sea without a ship, and a country without a tree ; witness 'The New Brighthelmstone Directory', 1770:

For now the feast ending, the ladies all rose.

And to dance on the green did challenge their beaux

Then, dancing in circle, they worship'd a tree,

Because trees at Brighton so seldom you see.

Brighton - country so truly desolate

Dr Johnson’s well-known growl will be remembered, which savours of ingratitude, after he had benefited by sea-bathing. In 1777 he wrote of the town and Downs to which Mrs Thrale had decoyed him, it was 'a country so truly desolate that if one had a mind to hang one’s self for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope.'

For summer delights and to taste the sweet air,

From business retir’d, let us thither repair,

writes West, in 1788, witness 'The Humours of Brighthelmstone'.

As soon as the season for bathing begins,

Whole families crowd to the taverns and inns.

When the Prince and the nobles of England come hither,

Then all the fine gentry come rumbling together;

In coaches and chaises, with two or with four.

they alight at the inns with a noise and a roar

In the brief space of four years, from 1784 to 1788, the new marine, retreat had distanced all competition in the favour of London.

'Tis said that in gaiety Brighton excels

'The pleasures of Margate and old Tunbridge Wells.

'Tis at Brighton, the mirror of watering-places.

Assemble their Honors, their Lordships, and Graces.

Nay, England’s first Prince, and the famous Dante Fitz!

And old friends meet new friends of fashion and wits.

As early as 1782 a series of drawings of the Steyne, by E. Lay, were dedicated to Mrs Fitzherbert, the fair dame alluded to above; in 1783 the Prince of Wales arrived on his first visit to Brighthelmstone - at the invitation of the Duke of Cumberland, himself a visitor deriving benefit from the sea air and bathing. Viewed in relation to the subsequent connection between the lady, the Heir Apparent, and the place, it has been hinted that the Royal Lothario did not come entirely out of dutiful motives — 'to see his uncle'.

The Prince's novel vehicle

When Rowlandson and his friend made their excursion to Brighthelmstone there was an excellent choice as to the routes by which the London-super-Mare of the day could be reached. As somewhat of a feat, the Prince of Wales had ridden thence to London and back, by way of Cuckfield, in ten hours; then he had a novel vehicle constructed for expeditious travelling, drawn by his new phaeton, with the string of three horses instead of the usual team of four; on other occasions, when expected to arrive in State, with his suite, at reasonable hours, while Brighton was illuminated, and a reception committee arrayed in honour of the event, he would appear at three or four o’clock in the morning of the following day, to the ruin of the anticipated festivities.

Choice of routes

In 1789 a post-chaise and four, with postilions, seems to have been considered the pleasantest way of reaching Brighthelmstone, though, besides this sumptuous mode of travelling, there was a choice between Davis and Co.’s 'Machine', from the 'Golden Cross', Charing Cross, Ibberson and Co.’s 'Light Post Coach', from the 'George and Blue Boar', Holborn, both via Lewes; the coach from the 'Swan with Two Necks', Lad Lane, via Reigate and Cuckfield; Wessen’s coach from the 'Spread Eagle', Gracechurch Street, vid Horsham and Shoreham ; Tucker’s 'Diligence', sundry waggons, and 'Flying Waggons', the latter occupying the best part of two days on the journey.

There were three main roads to Brighton; the post routes were via Croydon, Godstone, East Grinstead, Mares-ield, and Lewes, fifty-nine miles; and vid Epsom, Dorking,

Horsham, and Steyning, sixty-two miles. The most direct route, called 'The New Road', via Sutton, Reigate, Crawley, and Cuckfield, fifty-four miles, was that on which we are to follow Rowlandson's 'Excursion', as illustrated by his sketches, and set down in the 'Itinerary' by Henry Wigstead, the frequent companion of his travels.

From: The Graphic, 10 November 1888

*Note: Florizel is a fictional character in Shakespeare's The Winter's Tale. Florizel is the son of Polixenes – King of Bohemia. He falls in love with Perdita, and wishes to marry her. His father objects to the marriage, however, and warns Florizel that his inheritance will be revoked if he ever seeks Perdita again.

Illustration: 'A View at Brighthelmstone', by Thomas Rowlandson, Coloured Aquatint, 1790

Contributed by Malcolm Davison.


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