If, like me, you thought the most famous person who ever lived in Kemptown was Patsy Palmer, then it’s time to think again. The Regency Society have recently published a series of ‘Plaque Trails’ - guides to the hundred or so commemorative plaques dotted around the city, celebrating the great and the good who lived here before they let the likes of us move in. The first of these walks (imaginatively entitled ‘Plaque Trail 1’) is dedicated to our very own Kemptown, and is available to download for free from the society’s website (www.regencysociety.org).

Being an historical ignoramus with time on my hands and an aversion to paying for stuff, this walk was right up my street (literally), so on a sunny Monday afternoon last week I printed out the guide and took a step back in time.

You might expect a Plaque Trail to lead straight to the nearest dentist, but this one began at Harry Ramsden’s near the Sealife Centre. First stop (if you could still walk after the fish & chips) was the nearby Legends Hotel & Nightclub on the corner of Camelford Street, down which can be found a plaque dedicated to George Jacob Holyoake, a social reformer who has the dubious honour of being the last person in Britain to be convicted for blasphemy in a public lecture, a crime for which he spent six months in prison in 1841. His plaque was paid for by the Co-operative Society, possibly using Green Shield Stamps (or possibly not).

Further along the seafront, on the corner of Rock Place, is the plaque of Sir Samuel Brown, designer of England’s first ever pleasure pier, known as The Chain Pier, which jutted out to sea opposite the New Steine until 1896 when it was destroyed by a storm. This achievement pales into insignificance, however, when you continue along Marine Parade and encounter the work of a more modern designer, who has decorated the lamp post between Wyndham Street and Charlotte Street with the words “Don’t Step in Piss”. I may e-mail the Regency Society and suggest they add it to the next edition.

Watching where I stepped, I ducked into Marine Gardens where I located a plaque erected by the British Film Institute to honour Dame Flora Robson, one of our greatest actresses, who not only lived here, but, according to the inscription, “lived here happily. Possibly thanks to the informative warning signs.

Back to the seafront, I continued along to number 79, the former home of Terrence Rattigan, playwright, screenwriter and the man responsible for ‘Goodbye, Mr Chips’. Which is what I said when I left Harry Ramsden’s.

Close by is Royal Crescent, once home to Laurence Olivier (or “Laurence Baron Olivier of Brighton” as the plaque refers to him), who owned both numbers 4 and 5. Which is a bit excessive if you ask me. You could fit my entire flat on just one of the four floors. As it happens, number 4 has just been sold for £1.6 million, so if you were looking for a bigger place around the corner, I’m afraid you’ve missed your chance.

Past Royal Crescent, on the corner of Burlington Street lies the home of George Canning, former Prime Minister, and one of the greatest Foreign Secretaries we’ve ever had. At least until Margaret Beckett. The guide says “Take a good look at his plaque as it is one of the few designed by Eric Gill in the 1920s which is still in anything like its original state”. Unfortunately a previous trailblazer seems to have taken more than just a good look, as the plaque itself is missing, with a hole in the wall (and I don’t mean a cash machine) where it once stood.

A little further up Burlington Street, however, the plaque to music hall comedian and original Cheeky Chappie, Max Miller, is still very much in place. Although it does look a bit like a dinner plate. I don’t think Eric Gill had a hand in that one.

Back down at Marine Parade I passed the memorial to Sir Herbert Carden, often referred to as the Father of Modern Brighton, before making my way along the seafront to number 3, Percival Terrace, former home of Sir James Knowles, architect, writer and founder of The Metaphysical Society, who also designed Leicester Square in London. His plaque stood next to a wide open living room window, so I didn’t linger for fear of being arrested as a peeping Tom.

Two doors down at number 5 lived Herbert Spencer, the philosopher who first coined the phrase “survival of the fittest”. Sadly his plaque wasn’t as fit as he would have liked, and has barely survived, having been eroded by the weather to the point of destruction. Either that or it’s been attacked with acid by a militant creationist.

Making my way into Lewes Crescent, I arrived at the plaque of Thomas Cubitt, who built Osborne House on the Isle of Wight, the east front of Buckingham Palace and was the main builder of Kemp Town. Yes indeed, your flat could have been knocked up by the man who built the Queen’s balcony. He also happens to be the great-great-grandfather of Camilla Parker-Bowles, so if you ever wondered where she got her looks, now you know.

Crossing Eastern Road brought me to 11 Sussex Square, where the Rev Charles Lutwidge Dodgson, better known as Lewis Carroll, was a frequent visitor. The author of ‘Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland’, he is famous for writing ‘Literary Nonsense’. Much like myself. Without the literary bit.

Further around the square is the former home of Thomas Read Kemp, property developer and of course the father of Kemp Town. His achievements seem to have inspired the current owners of the house to do some building of their own, as on the day of my visit the blue plaque was obscured by scaffolding, with a burly workman (possibly a member of the Cubitt family) standing nearby.

Back down the eastern side of Sussex Square I passed the plaque of Antony Dale, founder of the Regency Society, and without whom I wouldn’t have been following this trail, before arriving at the home of Lord Elwyn-Jones, former Attorney General under Harold Wilson, and the man who prosecuted Ian Brady and Myra Hindley. He also served as junior British Counsel at the Nuremberg Trials, so his working life doesn’t sound like a barrel of laughs.

Next door at number 18, Lewes Crescent lived Dame Anna Neagle, star of stage and screen, and her husband Herbert Wilcox, who produced most of her films. A few doors further down was the original location of Roedean School which opened in October 1885 with, according to the plaque, “two teachers and ten pupils”. No wonder people pay to go private.

Having covered close to twenty local luminaries, the Plaque Trail comes to an end just around the corner at 5, Arundel Terrace, long-time home of William Harrison Ainsworth, author of thirty-nine novels, and the man who first romanticised Dick Turpin. Thus making him indirectly responsible for ‘Stand & Deliver’ by Adam & The Ants. He might be an historically important figure, but personally I’d strike him off the list for that alone.

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Published in The Kemptown Rag on 27th April 2007

Blazing a Trail
by Phil Gardner
   Phil Gardner 2007