Archive for November, 2007

Charles Augustin Busby Plaque

Charles Augustin Busby was born in 1786 but it wasn’t until this year that he, perhaps the greatest of our local architects, was honoured with a plaque of his own.

Busby didn’t live long – he died in 1834 – though during his short life he did work prolifically. He can take the credit for building both the Kemp Town and Brunswick Town estates. Both were self-contained settlements that were separated from the nearest buildings by open fields. He also designed Gothic House (known as the old Debenhams building) opposite Waitrose on Western Road along with many others. Two blue plaques have in fact been installed for Busby this year (the first cracked!) on what was once his family home, 2 Lansdowne Place. The development, originally named Stanhope Place after his son, was his last work in the area. The plaque was unveiled by Brighton & Hove City’s mayor, Carol Theobald.

Much has been written incorrectly about Busby’s relationship with Amon Wilds and, his son, Amon Henry Wilds. For many years it was believed that Wilds Snr worked jointly with Busby on the Kemp Town development which includes Sussex Square and Lewes Crescent. However, I can confirm that Busby worked solely with Wilds Jnr. On Brunswick Town, which includes Brunswick Square and Brunswick Terrace, he worked alone. Busby’s great rival was Charles Barry. St. Andrew’s Church on Waterloo Street was built by Barry adjacent to Brunswick Town much to Busby’s annoyance. Barry was chosen over the Busby/Wilds Jnr partnership to design both St. Peter’s Church and the Royal Sussex County Hospital. Barry became Sir Charles after designing the Houses of Parliament, one of the greatest buildings of all time.

Wilds Snr is buried in St. Nicholas’s Churchyard in a beautiful grave with a giant shell motif that was designed by his son. However, Busby’s final resting place cannot be confirmed. He was buried within the grounds of St. Andrew’s Old Church in Hove (not to be confused with St. Andrew’s Church beside Brunswick Town). Either a road or a building is now above him and the whereabouts of his tombstone is not known. I have heard though that some of the stones became steps to front doors in the Cliftonville development which was built soon after the graveyard was mangled.

Some good news is that Wilds Jnr’s grave has recently been unearthed and I will be writing about it shortly.

West Pier

It’s hard to imagine Brighton having three piers at once when today it can’t even handle two.

The Chain Pier opened in 1823 by New Steine as principally a landing platform for large vessels. It closed in 1896 after having been declared unsafe but was then destroyed in a massive storm that same year. The West Pier opened in 1866 as a promenade pier though it was to change much over the years. The Palace Pier opened in 1899 though work actually commenced in 1889. So, for several years up to the destruction of the Chain Pier, there were three piers in Brighton. Admittedly, one wasn’t exactly complete. Hopefully, the term ‘Palace Pier’ has not confused any readers. The Palace Pier’s current owners, the Noble Organisation (who have no concept whatsoever of corporate responsibility for other reasons), are currently calling it ‘Brighton Pier’!

I wish that I had paid more attention to the West Pier before the fires, It was/is one of only two Grade I Listed piers in the country; the other being Clevedon Pier. As a point of principle, I struggle to understand how a Grade I Listed building can be treated so badly. Heads should roll. It was opened by the mayor at the time, Henry Martin at a cost of £27,000 and a length of 1,115 feet. Its large pavilion was added in 1893 which was converted into a theatre in 1903. It was cut in half in 1940 to prevent enemy landings and then never really recovered. Richard Attenborough’s great film, ‘Oh! What a Lovely War’, was filmed there but it still closed in 1975. Fires in March and May 2003 reduced the Pier to just a skeletal frame and a storm in June 2004 led to its sad collapse.

Birch built his first pier in Margate in 1853 and went on to design others in Eastbourne, Bournemouth and Hastings – a total of 14, in fact. His piers were fixed to the sea bed using his patented cast-iron screw-piles. He died in 1884 as one of the finest engineers of the Victorian era.

This column is intended as the first in a series that will hopefully end with some good news. I have been discussing with a responsible local builder his plans for a new West Pier. His proposal, unlike previous suggestions, contains no view-spoiling shore development. Watch this space for more news soon.

33 Palmeira Mansions

I was first given a tour of 33 Palmeira Mansions by local historian and tour guide, Jackie Marsh-Hobbs, several years ago at a time when I couldn’t appreciate the significance of the building – the materials, the craftsmanship. 

Palmeira Mansions consist of two terraces of townhouses, symmetrical about Palmeira Avenue, facing the sea just above Palmeira Square and the famous Floral Clock. They were designed by Henry Jones Lanchester in the Renaissance style and built in 1883/4 to high specifications. However, Arthur William Mason, the owner of No. 33, saw fit to take things further. The rest of Palmeira Mansions and, indeed, Palmeira Square itself are Grade II Listed. However, No. 33′s importance is recognised by its Grade II* status.

Mason rented 11 Palmeira Mansions before he bought No.33 in 1889. His fortune came from his father’s ink manufacturing business which he and his brothers floated on the stock market earlier that year. This gave him the means to completely transform the interior of the six storey building using the finest materials. A heavy front door leads to an entrance vestibule that was added to the building by Mason. A stained glass window features the family coat of arms, which Mason himself commissioned, with the words ‘Facta Non Verba’ – Deeds Not Words. The vestibule leads to a grand hallway that has been lined with orange, green and black swathes of marble and Derbyshire alabaster, formed by combining the original entrance vestibule and hallway.

The hallway features an imposing staircase but, overall, is rather dark due to the unsympathetic addition of partition walls upstairs, in front of a massive window. Again, the ceiling, perhaps Hove’s most impresive, of the original the dining room on the ground floor at the front of the building (so easily viewed fronm the street) is not as it should be. The room is now a student common room. Preserving the history of the building is important for today’s owners, the English Language Centre, but they have a business to run as well.

I recently met Jackie for another tour of 33 Palmeira Mansions to hear about the formation of the Friends of 33 Palmeira Mansions. The group will raise funding for the restoration of the building’s original features; continue researching the history of the house and its contents; and raise public awareness of this hidden treasure. E-mail Jackie on to join, help or donate.

Theatre Royal

Brighton’s first theatre was a barn on Castle Square. From 1764, a theatre company returned annually but the seasons weren’t as long as one might expect – the barn was required for the harvest!

Things have come a long way since 1764. The first permanent theatre opened on North Street in 1774 but closed not long after in 1787. Its licence was transferred to a new Theatre on Duke Street which became the ‘Theatre Royal’ in 1805 following a visit by the Prince of Wales (who later became the Prince Regent and King George IV). Hewitt Cobb became its owner and he built a replacement Theatre Royal on New Road. It was built in 1806-7 at a cost of £12,000 with a capacity of around 1,200 on one of the plots that had been sold off by the Prince to finance the construction of New Road.

A number of buildings have been incorporated into the Theatre Royal complex over the years and little remains of the original structure. 1894 saw great exterior change at a cost of £14,000. The rendered facade of the original building at 11-12 New Road was replaced with today’s red brick frontage which has octagonal turrets and copper domes. 9 New Road was incorporated as a new entrance lobby and box office. 35 Bond Street was acquired and turned into a new stage door. The history of the distinctive colonnade, or ‘Royal Colonnade’ as it is known, deserves a column of its own. The stunning yet warren-like interior has also evolved over the years and the last great works programme took place in 1927. Unsurprisingly, the building is Grade II Listed.

Today, the Theatre Royal is owned by the Ambassador Theatre Group, the largest theatre group in the West End. And, this year is a significant year – the Theatre Royal’s 200th birthday. Various celebrations have taken place throughout the year as a result. Also, 2007 has seen the opening of a revamped New Road. Technically, it has not been pedestrianised as cars are still allowed though they really do now take the back seat. Theatres took a knock in the 1930s when ‘talkies’ were introduced yet today, 200 years later, live shows couldn’t be more popular.

To see more of the Theatre Royal, arrange a backstage tour by popping in and speaking to helpful staff. Or, more logically, just book a ticket to a show!