In a walk, we discover Brighton’s European past all around us

Geoffrey Mead, a local geographer, points out a feature during the EuroWalk. Photo credit: Tamsin Shasha

The streets of Brighton are steeped in European influences, as 25 of us discovered on a guided ‘EuroWalk’, organised by the Festival of Europe. Many of us had trodden the city’s streets for decades without noticing the clues. But they are there if you know where to look.

Take, for example, the building on East Street, currently home to the All Saints clothing store. It is easy to be transfixed by the banks of sewing machines but raising your eyes to above the window display you see remnants of an ornate balcony. In the 1880s the building housed The Café Royale, which under its Italian owner Mr Gallizia, was a magnet for visitors from London.

From Sugar to Sherman

Another ‘who knew?’ moment was in West Street where we learned that the Sugarmans, a German Jewish family, arrived early in the 20th century and set up, appropriately, as confectioners. One family member, when he started making shirts changed his name to Sherman and developed the famous Ben Sherman brand. The family of our guide, Geoffrey Mead, a local geographer, may well have known Mr Sherman and the Sugarmans – they lived and worked for generations in nearby Bond Street.

As well as Europeans in the hospitality businesses – German waiters and musicians and French chefs – Brighton was also a focus for photographers. They came from France, Italy and Germany, attracted by the quality of light and many settled here. And it was in Brighton that the first commercially successful photographic process called Daguerreotype, invented by the Frenchman Louis Daguerre, was practised and developed. 

Louis Daguerre – his pioneering method was seized on by early Brighton photographers

During the early 1800s, daguerreotype images required sitters to keep still for 20 minutes, although by the early 1840s exposure time had been reduced to 20 seconds. Many of the buildings along the north side of Western Road, where there are now shops, would have witnessed the frustrations of Victorian parents trying to still their fidgeting children. 

There was a lightbulb moment for a participant of the walk ‘Aha! This explains the representation of photography on the Hove Plinth’ (a sculpture erected in 2018 celebrating Hove’s past and present).

Time for a beer

Not everything is as it might appear in Brighton. We learned that the Black Lion pub on Black Lion Street might look to be a very old building, but in fact was completely rebuilt in 1974. However, the blue plaque confirms it was the site where a Flemish brewer, Deryk Carver, brought over his knowledge of the brewing process from Belgium in the 16th century. Although we have much to thank him for, at the time his efforts in the brewing industry were not appreciated by the new wave of Catholicism sweeping the country and he was burned at the stake in Lewes in 1555.

A stone plaque celebrates the life of Deryk Carver, brewer – and martyr. Photo credit: Tamsin Shasha

This story was one of several where links between the UK and its European neighbours seemed decidedly strained. In a number of raids, the French torched and ransacked the town during the 100 years’ war. But many of those invading forces stayed and settled and in fact Brighton’s reputation began to grow as a place of dissidents, somewhere where difference was tolerated and sanctuary found. 

Brighton remains attractive and welcoming to outsiders and those who celebrate diversity and freedom. So it is fitting that the city should be among those chosen for the inaugural events this year of a nationwide festival which says it is  “founded on shared cultures and values, inviting exchanges which transcend borders of every kind”. 

To find out more about the events this year throughout the UK, check out the Festival of Europe website.

The group at the end of their walk, which celebrated Brighton’s European past. Photo credit: Tamsin Shasha

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