article-imageWest Pier, Brighton, 1890 (via

Britain’s most curious romances tend to have Brighton in common. For two hundred years, this town on the south coast, about an hour from London, has been the place where a shy country grows shameless.

In 1782, Brighton was a small, wholesome place, known for Dr. Russell’s healthy spring, and Dr. Aroister’s salt-baths. That year, Prince George – the future Prince Regent and King George IV – visited Brighton for the first time. It has never been wholesome since.

article-imageThe Regent’s Birthday, caricature by George Cruickshank (1812)

The Prince was a gigantic, lustful creature, and he made the town his own. Soon, both the Prince and the town were expanding – until Brighton became the center of fashionable English society, and the Prince was “a Caesar who,” as an anonymous 1816 pamphlet on The Humours of Brighton put it, “in flesh and bone, / Might weigh at least some twenty stone; / Proportion’d too in height and span, / A full-grown porpus [sic] of a man.”

article-imageThe Royal Pavilion, Brighton

Today in Brighton, at the end of an everyday British street, you may look up and find the high sand-colored domes of an Indian palace, plucked from the world of imagination – the Royal Pavilion. The Pavilion is Prince George’s doing. Completed in 1823, it was built to indulge his every desire.

The lamps are lotus-flowers, the walls a glowing red lacquer. Secret doors can be glimpsed, set into the paneling. Fearsome monsters and fairytale birds march around the walls, menaced by Chinese warriors, encircled by crimson velvet drapes. A dragon spits fire in the dining room, soaring over a gigantic chandelier – while from the wall, a Chinese boy stares with shy fascination at a goldfish, and the goldfish stares back. Louche couches line the rooms – fit to sprawl drunkenly on, while pawing the Continental aristocracy. For Prince George, this was a joyful past-time. According to The Humours of Brighton, he was not a man – as certain great ladies discovered to their cost – to get into a game of hunt-the-slipper with lightly:

Under each Austrian Archduchess’ bum,
In turn the hunter hunted;
And Austria’s Archduchesses both look’d glum,
Yet would not be affronted.

Even a Viennese finishing-school could not prepare someone for that.

The Prince’s gigantic appetites turned this little seaside town into something quite unique: for decades after his death, for thousands of Victorians, Brighton became a place of fantasy, where all the pleasures of a fairy-tale were close enough to touch. Arriving from fog-bound Victorian London, Brighton’s Pavilion seemed to be the Arabian Nights incarnate – the promise of another world. And the town filled with ever more astonishing diversions.

article-imageThe Brighton Seashore Electric Railway (via Brighton Museums)

Brightly-lit piers stretched out to sea, and raucous pleasure-gardens lined the shore. Strangest attraction of all was the Brighton and Rottingdean Seashore Electric Railway, which ran from Brighton straight through the sea to the nearby village of Rottingdean. Advertised as “a sea voyage on wheels,” its 45-ton “salt-water tram” was elevated above the waves on four gigantic spindly legs. Locals swiftly dubbed it the “Daddy Long-Legs.” 

Brighton was a place to fall in love absurdly, impractically – where one might escape from propriety, and into the arms of “an upholsterer named Ingledew and other persons,” as one Mrs. Kirby did in 1863 (according to a disapproving article in The Times that year). Desire became less apologetic, for Victorians – and a kiss on the pier with an eager upholsterer seemed mild indeed, compared to the domes of the Prince’s monumental lust, peeping over the trees. And some of Britain’s lovers, in this period, needed all the encouragement they could get. Courtships could be strangled, and pauses long and awkward. Take the Rev. John Brown, who featured in an 1890 manual to seaside Love and Courtship, by George Dutton:

He courted his lady-love for seven years without any progress. This state of things became intolerable, so one night he screwed up his courage and said, ‘Janet, we have been acquainted now for six years and more, and I’ve never gotten a kiss yet. Do you think I might take one?’ ‘Just as you like, John; only be becoming and proper with it,’ was the reply. ‘Surely, Janet, we will ask a blessing.’ The blessing was asked, the kiss taken, and the worthy divine exclaimed, ‘Oh, woman, but it is good.’

article-imagePhotochrom of the Brighton Pier (ca.1890-1900) (via Library of Congress)

In fading photographs, many of those nineteenth century couples stare into the camera with wide eyes and awestruck smiles – caught at the moment when the genie first squeezes himself out of the lamp, with a puff of purple smoke and the scent of every rich temptation.

Temptations, of course, could be risky – and often had to be paid for in full. “The charge of adultery at Brighton” appears again and again in the most scandalous Victorian and Edwardian divorce proceedings, usually backed up by the most unreliable witnesses: doubtful servants, vanishing hotel guests, garrulous prostitutes. A good Brighton scandal sold newspapers by the thousand:

His Lordship dismissed the petition of Mrs. Clarice Ivy Pickett […] who sought the dissolution of her marriage with Mr. Francis Norman Pickett […] because she herself had committed adultery at Brighton with Mr. Walter Edward Parker, a dancing instructor.

As The Times reported, the snag – which Mrs. Pickett seems to have realized rather late – was that she had come to court to charge her husband with adultery, rather than vice versa.

Later British monarchs were not half so pleased as Prince George by the eager sea air. Queen Victoria visited Brighton only rarely – and left for good, after one too many strolls on the town’s old Chain Pier.

article-imageBrighton in 1912 (via october_song)

As London Society magazine described it (somewhat fancifully) in 1862, Brighton butchers would follow the Queen along the pier on her morning walks. If she paused for a moment, they would leap forward, falling on their knees and “kissing the hem of her garment.” The procession must have been a strange sight: a growing crowd of butchers, dashing out at the first sign of the Queen, wiping off what blood they could, with the little dumpy monarch at their head, whisking her dress away from them. It was not what the Queen wanted, not first thing in the morning – and she soon made her feelings known. Either the butchers backed off, or she wasn’t coming back. 

The next day, the butchers were there as usual. The Queen was not.

As twentieth century took shape, Brighton’s old gilded magic could not be sustained – not quite. Europe’s nobility moved on. The Pavilion grew down-at-heel. The romances, however, remained strange. 

In 1978, Brighton was transfixed by the very public end of a marriage. Mr. Christopher Hudson petitioned for divorce “on the grounds of unreasonable conduct by his wife, Deborah,” as The Times of January 17 reported. Ever since they were married, he complained, his favorite past-time had come to a standstill.  

article-imageMr. Hudson’s past-time was snail-training – and his snails won world-records. One gastropod in particular, an African Giant Snail which Hudson christened Gee Geronimo, was believed to be the largest snail in the world – fifteen and a half inches long, and weighing in at over two pounds. Hudson and Gee Geronimo toured extensively. The snail developed a taste for beer.

Deborah, the Associated Press reported, “complained the house was so full of snails her husband even had a bucket of them under their bed.” She did not contest the divorce. 

Brighton always did endings with style – swaggering through the aftermath of its adventures. In the nineteenth century, astonishing fancy-dress balls would take over the Pavilion for entire nights, the revelers only reluctantly dissipating at dawn. After one such night in 1871 (celebrated in Grand Fancy-Dress Ball, a book of verse), the early morning trains back to London were packed with “slaves, soldiers, Nubians, and maids / and Lamas, Buddhas, and Mandarins,” some of them busily transforming themselves for the workaday world, and for the offices which awaited them in London. While the Emperor of China might board at Brighton, Mr. Jones, accountant, would alight at London – with just a smear of greasepaint faint behind his ears, so that those who knew how to look might understand. Characters of every description shared breakfast-tables on those mornings, draining their tea-cups and trading final, conspiratorial smiles as the train steamed across the Thames, they folded up their false beards, and pulled on their hats.