Rob Marks explores Brighton’s maritime history to discover that once the resort was a thriving fishing port
All at Sea
Head to the Fishing Quarter in the Kings Road seafront arches
ong before Brighton became a fashionable resort for the well-to-do it was a town that had prospered
from its thriving fishing industry. Its fisheries were actually recorded as early as 1086 in the Doomsday Book.
The earliest fishing settlement existed along the foreshore below the cliff and above the high water mark. These would have been a jumbled assortment of humble dwellings, constructed mainly of wood, together with workshops, capstans and net shops.
As the fishing industry
prospered, and numbers of fishermen grew, the community moved above the cliff top into what has now become known as the Old Town. A few stubborn members of the community still clung resolutely to their lowly dwellings on the foreshore until they were eventually destroyed by erosion and heavy storms.
Although many of their
original features and facades have changed down the years, several old fishermen’s cottages can still be found around South Lane. The three
little cottages in Black Lion Lane were almost certainly owned by fishing folk at one time or another. Some sources claim the buildings date from as early as around 1560. Interestingly, the Cricketers, in Black Lion Street, was originally called the Last and Fish Cart; a ‘last’ equalling 10,000 fish.
It would be misleading to believe that
Brighton’s fishing industry went into decline during Regency times. Fishing actually reached its peak in around 1560 and shortly thereafter began to wane.
In 1601 a
fleet of sixty five boats sailed for the Yarmouth fare to seize its catch. However, as is so often the case today, restrictive practises were introduced to protect the Yarmouth fishing industry. The fisherman also suffered assaults from the many French pirate ships that entered our waters in those days. After fourteen fishing vessels were seized in 1626 the fishermen were
“Brighton’s fishing industry was to enter its final death throes when the town became a playground for the upper classes”
Yep - it’s a giant lobster!
forced into petitioning parliament for protection from these marauding mariners. Other factors including increased erosion of the foreshore and a general slump in demand for fish added to the decline. Many fishermen thus began moving into coastal cargo trading in order to make a living. Then, in 1705, the lower town was completely destroyed by heavy storms and the fishing industry, along with the town, reached an all time low.
in 1770 it was claimed that over 300 fishermen
and 100 boats were still operational. The catch was seasonal and varied. Oysters were dredged in the spring and mackerel during the early summer months of May, June and July. Lobsters and prawns were also caught in mid-summer, flat fish trawled in August, whiting around October and herring in the autumn. These bountiful catches were sold at the fish market, which was situated on the foreshore just below East Street.
Brighton’s fishing industry,
however, was to enter its final death throes when the town became a playground for the upper classes.
A late Victorian postcard shows holiday-makers sharing the beach with the town’s on-shore fishing fleet
Disputes arose in 1776 and again in 1822 over the use of the Steine. This had long been an area where fishermen could mend their boats, dry nets, cure fish and even keep cattle. The fishermen fought bitterly to evoke their ancient rights, but these practises were defeated by the town’s commissioners. Subsequently this area of common land was drained and landscaped to make a place for the rich on which to promenade. Nevertheless, the fishermen struggled on and a total of 48 vessels were still working the foreshore in the late 1940’s. By the 1960’s, however, it was different story. The amount of fish landed on Brighton beach was less than a ton per annum.
Although only a handful of fishing vessels operate today fishing boats arrive daily and you can sample locally caught fish and shellfish in the Fishing Quarter on the seafront. Here you will also find the fascinating Brighton Fishing Museum housing a wealth of photographs, paintings and memorabilia of seafront life and which proudly commemorates the history and heritage of a once thriving industry that gave birth to our city.
Find out more about Brighton’s maritime history at the free Brighton Fishing Museum, 201 Kings Road Arches, Brighton, BN1 1NB | 01273 723 064 | www. brightonfishingmuseum.org.uk
Photos by Julia Claxton
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