Archive for November, 2011

St Aubyn’s Mansions Plaques

The Seaside Smile, as performed by music hall artiste Vesta Tilley, would have been an appropriate accompaniment to the recent grand unveiling of two commemorative plaques at St Aubyn’s Mansions in Hove.

Vesta Tilley was once a resident of St Aubyn’s Mansions as was Dame Clara Butt. The unveiling ceremony in August to show off the two new blue plaques to commemorate the ladies’ respective stays at the building was carried out by the Deputy Mayor, Cllr Geoff Wells, and was, indeed, a fun occasion. It was not until afterwards though that it was discovered that Vesta’s plaque featured an incorrect date.

St Aubyn’s Mansions is the mustard-coloured mansion block on the Hove seafront adjacent to the King Alfred site. It was built in 1899 to the designs of Lainson & Sons as part of an ambitious scheme that was never completed. It consists of four principal floors with two flats per floor; eight in total.

“Vesta Tilley (Lady de Frece) 1864 – 1952 Music Hall Artiste Lived Here” is the inscription on the plaque to the right of the building’s front door. Vesta bought 8 St Aubyn’s Mansions, on the top floor, in 1947, aged 83, as a holiday home. She became ‘Lady de Frece’ when her husband, the music hall owner Walter de Frece, was knighted in 1919 for services to the war effort. The couple’s honeymoon after their marriage in 1890 was spent at the Grand Hotel in Brighton and Clara regularly performed at the Hippodrome on Middle Street.

“Dame Clara Butt (1872-1936) Recitalist and Concert Singer Lived Here” reads the inscription on the plaque to the left. Dame Clara lived in 4 St Aubyn’s Mansions, on the first floor, from 1903 to around 1906 with her husband, Kennerly Rumford. Her grand piano was kept in their large hallway.

The plaques were paid for by both the residents of St Aubyn’s Mansion and Brighton & Hove City Council. Thankfully, the type of commemorative plaque favoured by the council weathers well. The two St Aubyn’s plaques need to be extremely durable. After all, St Aubyn’s Mansions is one of the closest buildings to the sea in the whole of the city.

November saw the replacement of Dama Clara’s first plaque with a second which states her correct birth date of ‘1872’ instead of ‘1848’. I certainly smiled. Perhaps Vesta was looking on with a smile too – a ‘Seaside Smile’.


Montpelier & Clifton Hill Association Awards 2011

This year’s Montpelier & Clifton Hill Association (MCHA) awards ceremony was a most pleasant occasion – but something rather important was sadly missing.

The MCHA covers one of Brighton’s most desirable districts, the Montpelier & Clifton Hill Conservation Area between Western Road and Seven Dials. Each year, the Association is supposed to presents a blue plate to the winner of the awards’ residential category.

This year’s residential winners were Jon Sharpe and Angela Oliver for the complete renovation of their gleaming white detached Regency-style house at 3 Powis Villas. The work included total interior refurbishment along with a huge amount of exterior plastering using lime render. It is immediately apparent that every detail has been painstakingly researched, resulting in a well-deserved win.

The winner of the commercial category was HR Developments, a local firm run by Paul Hazeldine and Dave Roberts, for the restoration of 90 Montpelier Villas. I referred to this building as the ‘Scooby Doo House’ in my recent column on this delightful double-fronted structure. Partly due to its dreadful condition, but mainly due to its distinctive black porch, I always saw this detached building as a creepy house on a hill. With its new paintjob and tidy garden, it’s now not scary at all.

The runner-up in the residential category was Adam Jones whose house at 21 Clifton Hill was completely transformed by the removal of a most conspicuous Tudor-style façade. The result is a joy to behold. The runner-up in the commercial category was Ray Charmac for the return of a pair of semi-detached Italianate residences, 6 and 7 Powis Villas, to their original use as separate houses after a long spell as part of the Royal Alexandra Hospital estate.

The Chairman of the Regency Society, my friend Mary McKean, presented certificates to all of the winners at this year’s ceremony. But missing was the blue plate. In fact, a whole series of plates that are yet to be presented to deserving winners, dated from 2010 to 2020, are no longer in the possession of the Association. Well, the Association still has that of 2019 (not too useful in 2011!).

In a story that would be hard to make up, Roger Amerena, whose latest bankruptcy led to removal from the position of Chairman of the MCHA, is withholding the plates from the Association for reasons known only to himself. Court proceedings are being prepared – watch this space.


Preston Manor in Mourning

Having recently attended A Victorian House in Mourning at Preston Manor, I am fully aware that death in Victorian times was a grand affair.

The visit included both a thought-provoking talk, and a dramatic re-enactment of the aftermath of a death. The illustrated talk was given by Sarah Tobias whom I know from her popular well-known Art Deco course at the old Connaught Centre in Hove.

When diseases such as cholera and measles could kill so easily, it is not surprising that if a child survived to one then survival was considered just a possibility. But the horror of an infant dying was countered by the splendour of the customs before, during and after the funeral. It sounds ghastly today but it was not uncommon for a photograph of a dead child in a state of serenity to be kept as a memento by parents. It seems strange to say it but I have to admit that the photograph that I was shown was beautiful – though equally gruesome.

Nobody better embodied or, indeed, influenced the role of a Victorian mourner better than Queen Victoria herself. After Prince Albert’s death in 1861, her strict observance of mourning traditions included the avoidance of public appearances and the adornment of black clothes for the rest of her life. This extreme interpretation of established customs changed the way that normal people embraced the ritual of grievance. Victorian standard practices included the draping of furniture with black, the covering of mirrors, the stopping of clocks, and the shutting of blinds.

My tour of the set-piece dramatisation in Preston Manor started with a conversation with a dressmaker called Miss Hartington who had turned up at the house following the death of a guest in the hope of securing an order for mourning clothing. It all takes place following the marriage of Eleanor Stanford to Captain Macdonald. Rather fittingly, letters of the period suggest that bad feeling existed due to Eleanor not mourning for long enough after the death of William Stanford, her first husband.

Like in a game of Cluedo, responsibility for the guest’s death is denied. The cook blames the maid (“It was the cocoa.”) and vice versa (“It was them eggs.”). To decide for yourself, visit on Saturday 26th November at either 11:30am or 2:30pm. If death in the house is not enough, there is always the pet cemetery behind.

See www.brighton-hove-museums.org.uk for details.


Ashton Memorial

On my way home from Edinburgh, the subject of last week’s column, I took the opportunity to visit Lancaster to see one of England’s greatest follies.

Brighton & Hove has more than its fair share of ornamental edifices. From the ornate clock towers in Preston Park and Blaker’s Park to the ornamental arches of St Nicholas’ Churchyard and the Royal Pavilion, we are blessed locally with many curious decorative structures. But not one compares to the Ashton Memorial.

James Williamson (later Lord Ashton) and his father, also called James Williamson, were hugely successful Lancaster-based oil cloth producers. In 1877, they transformed the open moorlands and former stone quarries above the city into the magnificent Williamson Park.

A temple, palm house and fountain that were designed by respected architect Sir John Belcher were added to the park in 1904. It was Belcher’s model of the proposed Ashton Memorial that was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1906. Its construction began the next year and it opened in 1909 as a memorial to Lord Ashton’s family.

The 150ft tower looms over the glorious surrounding parkland but also above Lancaster itself and the distant Morecambe bay. In true Edwardian Baroque splendour, there are huge columns with Doric and Composite capitals along with an immense copper dome. The Portland stone structure features two huge domed rooms, one above the other, with various staircases and balconies. A black, white and red marble floor greets guests before they climb to the viewing gallery and enjoy the panoramic views. Small signs embedded in the gallery’s stone balustrade point to notable landmarks including Lancaster Castle, Blackpool Tower and even the Isle of Man.

The Ashton Memorial was conceived as a solid stone structure but cheaper materials were used in places such as brick, steel and concrete. By 1920, major repairs were necessary. I can actually remember it being closed when I played as a child nearby whilst visiting Lancaster to see my grandmother. It opened again in 1987. My dad used to tell me how he remembered it as a child. Whilst at school, he witnessed the dome burning, as did many other residents, when the memorial was badly damaged by fire in 1962.

It’s a truism that buildings within childhood memories appear much smaller in person than envisaged. The Ashton Memorial, around which I once loved to play, looked even bigger when I returned to explore again.


Underneath Edinburgh

I can clearly recall how stories of subterranean Brighton fuelled my initial interest in local history.

Whether it was tales of tunnels around the Pavilion or the myriad of underground chambers belonging to Southern Water, I was always keen to learn more. In fact, it was the famous tour of Brighton’s sewers that really sparked my curiosity.

It is indeed true that there is a tunnel leading from the Pavilion to the Dome, that there are all sorts of vaults beneath the coastal roads, and that Europe’s largest stormwater storage tunnel (20 ft high and 3 miles long) runs beneath the seafront. For every story that turns out to be true though, there is another that has, well, no foundation. I suspected that the same would be the case with Edinburgh’s legendary underground city.

On my latest trip to Scotland’s capital, I set out to see for myself what really exists below ground. I knew that its subterranean areas are said to be in the area of the Old Town; in particular, in the vicinity of the Royal Mile that runs from Edinburgh Castle to Holyrood Palace. The Royal Mile runs along a ridge between two valleys and, from it, a great number of passageways ran off it steeply down each side. The ground floors of the buildings on the Royal Mile obviously fronted the street but were high up above ground at the backs as the structures extended backwards over extremely steep terrain. It is here that the underground city is still evident.

I visited Mary King’s Close (essentially a tourist attraction) which extends beneath Edinburgh’s City Chambers. The Chambers were designed by Robert and James Adam in 1753 as the Royal Exchange and built directly above several old streets, including Mary King’s Close. The old network of streets was forgotten but it is ever so easy to imagine now what the warren of slim tunnels and tiny dwellings must have been like 400 years ago. The tour invites further curiosity and is both frightening and exciting in equal measures.

Subterranean Edinburgh is said to be evident in other places too, such as the vaults beneath the South Bridge which dates back to 1785. The network of rooms was rediscovered quite by accident during the 1980s by Norrie Rowan, the former Scottish rugby internationalist, whilst refurbishing a pub.

Who knows what else exists underneath Edinburgh and, indeed, below Brighton?