Archive for January, 2007

Preston Circus Fire Station

In the early 1800s, the Parish of Brighton possessed just a single basic fire engine and fires were generally attended to by fire inusurance companies. Having just been shown around Preston Circus Fire Station by my friend, firefighter Mark White, I can happily confirm that the situation has now changed somewhat!

Fortunately, the 1825 Brighton Town Act allowed town commissioners to provide more fire engines. This led to the 1831 formation of the Brighton Fire Establishment which consisted of 3 fire engines, 1 salaried engineer and 28 men who were paid for attending fires. The local fire service has taken various names and forms over the years. It is now called East Sussex Fire & Rescue Service and is overseen by East Sussex Fire Authority which is made up of Councillors from both Brighton & Hove City Council and East Sussex County Council.

The junction at Preston Circus was widened in 1901 to allow tram lines to be laid between Beaconsfield Villas and Viaduct Road. For this to take place, it was necessary to demolish much of the large Amber Ale Brewery. Some of the remains became a fire station at this time. Interestingly, the Aquarium roundabout (by the Palace Pier) of 1925 along with those at Seven Dials and Preston Circus which followed soon afterwards are amongst the first in the country.

Brighton & Hove is today covered by stations at Preston Circus, Hove and Roedean which have 3, 2 and 1 fire engines respectively. The current Portland stone and brick Preston Circus Fire Station nestles between the Duke of York’s Picturehouse and the Railway Mission. It was designed by Graeme Highet and opened in 1938 by Earl Winterton when Charles Birch was Chief Officer of the Brighton County Borough Fire Brigade. Thankfully, many of the adorable internal Art Deco features have survived well including terrazzo and parquet floors, intricate banisters and brass door fittings. Coloured bulbs, corresponding to different emergencies, are scattered everywhere for obvious reasons. I was asked to mention that the station’s six poles are amongst the biggest in the country!

Our local firefighters have had a tough time over the years and many lives have been lost. But when Mark and the rest of the team had to jump into action to attend a fire (just as my tour was ending fortunately), I knew that the residents of Brighton & Hove were in safe hands.

Balcombe Viaduct

Although it is generally acknowledged that the views from it are amongst the best in Sussex, many people don’t actually realise that the Balcombe Viaduct itself is stunning.

Most of my time on the morning trains to Victoria is spent reading and I don’t like being disturbed. However, when the train passes Haywards Heath, I know that I need to keep watch. The second that the train passes a pair of stone pavilions on either side, I know that I should be looking up. It’s the point on the journey where everyone on the train is doing the same thing – looking from one side of the train to the other, like spectators at a tennis match, savouring the stunning view before the opportunity ends when the train passes four more stone pavilions. Whenever I fly back from anywhere, be it to Gatwick or Heathrow, I know that I’m nearly home when I see the marvellous countryside within the idyllic Ouse valley.

The Grade II* Listed Balcombe Viaduct has 37 semi-circular arches made of 11 million bricks! It is 1,475 ft long and 96 ft high. It was built over the River Ouse in 1839-41 by John Rastrick and David Mocatta as part of the original London to Brighton line that also included the nearby Balcombe tunnel and tunnels at Merstham, Haywards Heath, Clayton and Patcham. Although there have been relatively small changes made since, such as trains now running mainly to Victoria instead of just to London bridge, the line remains intact and the Viaduct is used more than ever before.

Several months ago, I took a trip out to the Balcombe Viaduct by car with several friends. I was surprised to find that the Ouse is now just a tiny stream and nearly fell in as we walked through some tall plants! Balcombe itself is a small village with a population of around 1800 not far from Haywards Heath. In fact, as we didn’t have a decent map, we just followed the railway line north from Haywards Heath to find it. Balcombe does have a station of its own on the London to Brighton line so it’s not at all hard to reach. I thoroughly recommend it.

So, if you do happen to find yourself on the train between Brighton and London, be sure to keep an eye out for the stone pavilions…then sit back and briefly relax!

Max Miller Marine Parade Plaque

Bearing in mind that many local heroes don’t get a single plaque after they pass away, which great Brightonian now has two blue plaques, a stone tablet, a bronze statue and a double decker bus dedicated to his memory?

The unveiling of the new plaque dedicated to the late comedian, Max Miller, at 160 Marine Parade was hilarious. And with Michael Aspel and Roy Hudd doing the unveiling, I expected nothing less! The first plaque dedicated to Max is on 25 Burlington Street, off the Kemp Town seafront, where he lived from 1948 until his death there in 1963. Max, often referred to as ‘the pure gold of the music hall’, was born in 1894 at 43 Hereford Street (a possible site for a third plaque?!) as Thomas Henry Sargent. He began developing his stand-up skills whilst serving in the army during the First World War in front of fellow soldiers. The stone tablet that I mentioned is at the Downs Crematorium on Bear Road though, and I do apologise, I’m not too sure where the Max Miller bus is presently but it’s likely to be around town somewhere!

For fans of Max Miller, or ‘the cheeky chappie’ as he is also known, the past couple of years have certainly been an eventful period. Many showbiz stars, including Sir Norman Wisdom, flocked to the grounds of the Royal Pavilion opposite the Theatre Royal in May 2005for the unveiling of Max’s £30,000 bronze statue. The statue is excellent though it was originally rather badly positioned. Thankfully, this oversight will be corrected as part of the New Road pedestrianisation works. The latest good news is that the beautiful Hippodrome on Middle Street, where Max performed, may again become a live music venue.

Although the Max Miller Appreciation Society were responsible for the Marine Parade plaque, Brighton & Hove City Council now has a plaques committee of its own. Perhaps unsurprisingly, funding hasn’t exactly rolled in but there are plans in the pipeline to create a plaque for Charles Augustin Busby, the architect behind Kemp Town and Brunswick Town. These ideas, along with the schemes from Walk of Fame (at the Marina) and Brighton & Hove Buses, are brilliant ways to ensure that the great are not forgotten.

See the Max Miller Appreciation Society’s website,, for more information on Max and the Society. As Max used to say, “They’ll never be another!”.

Hangleton Manor 2

The second column that I ever wrote was about Hangleton Manor. So what has compelled me to write about it again (in what is my ninety-fifth column)?

Hangleton Manor is the oldest surviving domestic building in Brighton & Hove. It was built during the 1540s for Richard Bellingham, soon after he had acquired the Lordship of the Manor. An earlier manor, thought to have been built slightly to the north, has simply vanished without trace. Hangleton had a population of 200-250 in 1086 (as recorded in the Domesday Book) but was hit particularly hard by the Black Death. By 1428, the number of inhabitants had dropped to just 2. In 1597, the Bellinghams sold Hangleton Manor to Thomas Sackville whose family, quite unbelievably, owned it until 1967 – that’s 370 years!

Once inside the Manor’s gravel car-park, the surrounding stone buildings don’t give away much to suggest that we’re now in the 21st century. After entering a low entrance, a turn to the left leads to the ‘Commandment Room’, so named after the inscription of a version of the Ten Commandments that have been carved into the wall. The stunning plaster ceiling in that same room features sixty heraldic emblems of families, including the Bellinghams, connected with the area. It is hard to describe everything fully here.

Hangleton Manor broke with its farming roots in 1930 after which time it became variously a house, a hotel, a country club and a restaurant. It was used by the military during the Second World War, as were many buildings in Hove and Brighton, which didn’t help its condition. Despite receiving Grade II* Listed status in 1956, many feared that it would be demolished. Every one of its 1,077 panes of glass had been smashed. After years of dereliction it was sold and turned into a public house. Much of what Hangleton Manor is today is down to the care and attention put into the work by Frank and Jenny Saunders since 1982. In my second column I did state that the nearby Hangleton Manor Dovecote, restored during the 1980s, will get a future column of its own and it will – just don’t ask me when!

In 2005, Hangleton Manor was bought from Jenny Saunders and the new owners have done an excellent job in making it look even better though sightings of the resident ghosts have still yet to be confirmed.

Brighton Old Police Cells Museum

Why is ‘POLICE’ emblazoned across the frosted windows by the Bartholomews entrance of Brighton Town Hall? But, it wasn’t until I was shown around the building’s dusty basement, when it was still full of old files and before it became the slick museum that it is today, that I discovered the reason.

The foundation stone of Brighton Town Hall was laid in 1830 by Thomas Read Kemp. It was designed by Thomas Cooper as the headquarters of the Brighton Town Commissioners. Cooper was also responsible for the original beautiful Bedford Hotel, one of Brighton’s greatest ever buildings, which was replaced with an ugly tower during the 1960s that is today the Holiday Inn. The Town Hall is classically proportioned with many great features including giant Ionic columns and grand staircases. Its architectural importance was recognised in 1971 when it received Grade II Listed status.

Brighton Borough Police was formed in 1838 and moved straight into the basement of Brighton Town Hall. From 1897-9, their premises were enlarged as part of a large interior reconstruction. In 1907, a bicycle was purchased! Today, Brighton & Hove City Council meets in the Town Hall. Brighton Police, however, moved into larger premises on John Street in 1965. The Sussex Constabulary was formed in 1968 when the Police Forces of Brighton, East Sussex, West Sussex, Eastbourne and Hastings were amalgamated.

Customarily, each Mayor of Brighton & Hove takes on a single project during their year as head of the Council. When Cllr Pat Drake was Mayor two years ago, she lovingly saw to it, with the help of former officers John Dibley, David Rowland and Norman Cooper, that the old station was transformed into a museum. From the graffiti in the cells by mods and rockers to the many examples of old uniforms, the museum is full of many great exhibits. Since opening to the public, it has been a hit but is to get better still having just received £10,000 from the Lottery. Visit Brighton Town Hall or telephone 01273 290000 for more information on tours.

The best bit of the tour is the story of the murder of Brighton’s first Chief Constable, Henry Solomon, in 1844. Solomon was killed in the Town Hall by a carpet thief, John Lawrence, whom he was interviewing. Lawrence grabbed a poker from a fireplace, which is still there, and smashed Solomon’s skull. Lawrence was hung soon after.