On Anarchy

BRIGHTON: Monuments of Radical History


Brighton’s reputation as a holiday resort beyond the aristocracy developed with the era of ‘mass travel’ – although the right to paid holidays only came to being in 1938, Brighton was opened up to popular tourism with the coming of the railway in 1841.

Brighton quickly developed a range of attractions to appeal to mass-tourism. It is a city of display. The Volks Railway was opened in 1883 – the first electric public railway; the Pier opened in 1823 (and is still the fifth most visited attraction in the UK); the Duke’s cinema – the UK’s oldest operating cinema – opened in 1910; there is roughly one pub for every 320 residents in the city (the highest pub-density in the UK today).

The Sussex Arms

Brighton’s radicalism is not just felt through the freedom of being a port city with a colourful past. It has a long history of political, grassroots and street activism. The Sussex Arms because gives a good view of the Brighton Lanes, which were once slum parts of the city, now a fashionable shopping district. One of the signal members of that radical history was Harry Cowley, a chimney sweep born in 1890. Affectionately known as ‘The Guv’nor’, Harry was self taught, and became a political organiser and campaigner until his death in the 1970s. He helped organise the unemployed, moved homeless families into squatted buildings after both world wars, was a key figure in confronting fascism in 1930s Brighton. He also campaigned for cheap food, mobilised pensioners, was involved in running social events and social centres and generally organising whatever was needed to provide practical aid for the poor and disadvantaged of the town.

The Pavilion Gardens

During the First World War, the Pavilion, along with other sites in Brighton, was transformed into a military hospital. From November 1914 to early 1916, recovering soldiers from the Imperial Indian Army were stationed there – the adjacent Dome (now a theatre) was equipped with an operating room and more beds. The Pavilion was partly used in Imperial efforts to convince potential Indian recruits that their wounded countrymen were being well treated: a series of photographs was produced, with the official sanction of the state, showing the resplendent rooms converted into hospital wards (few pictures were taken of the local workhouse, renamed the Kitchener Indian Hospital, now Brighton General Hospital, which housed the majority of wounded troops). The soldiers also received visits from Lord Kitchener in July 1915, and King George V in August of the same year who presented several soldiers with military honours. In 1916, the Indian Soldiers were moved on from Brighton after their redeployment in the Middle East. By that stage, roughly 14,000 wounded Indian servicemen had passed through the town’s hospitals. The Pavilion continued to be used as a hospital for wounded British soldiers until the end of the war in 1918.

Theatre Royal and the Dome

Brighton’s other histories of libertarian behaviour can be explored at the Brighton Dome and theatre. Brighton pioneered vaudeville theatre, with its populist political potential. The idea of vaudeville – probably a corruption of voix de ville – or voice of the city – was a string of often unrelated variety performances consisting of sketches, skits, magic, songs and dances. They were rowdy, noisy, anarchic and often overtly sexual. Although the famous music hall strike in London (1907), enthusiastically supported by Keir Hardie and Ben Tillott, did not affect Brighton, the theatres were places of political and sexual encounters. They were also used to recruit young men into the army during WWI (the height of music hall popularity), with songs like ‘Pack up your troubles’ and ‘It’s a long way to Tipperary’.


Brighton has a long history as a place of sexual freedom as political activism. There is evidence that Brighton was already a centre of what were described as ‘unmentionable crimes’ practiced by ‘improper characters in the habit of coming to Brighton’ by the time of the Napoleonic Wars, where many soldiers were garrisoned. In August 1822, George Wilson, a servant from Newcastle Upon Tyne, was accused by a guardsman he met in the pub of having offered him a sovereign and two shillings to go with him to the beach and ‘commit an unnatural crime’.

Suffragette City

The Brighton Women’s Social & Political Union was one of the most active regional branches of the Pankhurst-led organisation, whose motto was ‘Deeds not Words’. Paid organisers lodged in suffragette-friendly boarding houses – such as Sea View at 14 Victoria Road – and recruited local women to the cause. Between1907-1913 Brighton’s newspapers contained almost daily reports of suffragette antics.

A key tactic was for women to disrupt political meetings held at the Dome or Pavilion by repeatedly calling out questions concerning the vote. The Brighton Herald of 1907 reports unsympathetically on 18 women removed from the Dome using “gentle ju-jitsu” during a lecture by the Education Minister. The article mocks each woman in turn – one is described as having “a voice with a shrill squeak as though she were fleeing frightened from a nightmare of mice”, another “must have been crossed in love, or she would never have wasted her charms on the desert air of a Suffragette riot.”

The Jubilee Library

Brighton’s Jubilee Library opened on World Book Day, 3 March 2005. Before 2005, the city did not have a purpose-built central library, but there had been attempts to create one for more than a century. After several proposals in the postwar period came to nothing—including elaborate schemes which would have combined a library with ice rinks, exhibition halls, car parks and other developments—funding was secured in the late 1990s.

Private and subscription libraries had existed in Brighton for many years: they catered for rich visitors and performed a secondary function as fashionable social venues. The first, in Old Steine, opened in 1760 and survived until 1856.