“It was a bachelor’s pad for having outrageous parties. Practicality and ease of maintenance didn’t enter into the equation,” says Geoff Greenwood, as we prepare to set off on a tour of the Brighton Pavilion basement and tunnel. “The statistics of a stay with George are mind-bending. When he turned up for a two or three-month stay, they had to do some washing. 1,487 muslin blinds, 8,891 towels (if one was missing they knew about it), 487 bed sheets and 644 pillow cases. Most of them being hand washed and dried up at the drying fields at Seven Dials. It must have turned the area white. It must have looked like it was snowing and people would have said ‘George must be turning up in town’.
“This was the interesting thing about the Pavilion; the ratio of staff to visitors was so unusual. If you had a fashionable London house you probably employed between ten and twelve staff, which would cost you between £4,000 and £6,000 a year. A humongous amount of money in Regency times. But it pales into insignificance when you think that George is entertaining 24 guests and employing 156 staff when he’s in residence. Most of the activity going on down below us, and most of them accessing the building via these discreet passage ways. The staff could move backwards and forwards from the riding stables all the way down to the great kitchens without being seen.”
Heading down into the basement, we pass doors marked ‘undercroft’, ‘woodstore’ and ‘foul linen store’, then huge terracotta pipes that head off in all directions before arriving at the site of the original 1821 Nash Boiler. “George was obsessed with new technologies, and so the plumbing was state of the art.”
We segue into the Second World War, when the basement and tunnel were used for air-raid shelters; there’s a map of the bombs dropped on Brighton and photographs from the time, one depicting a huge bomb crater just yards from the Pavilion. Next we pass the ‘band room’. Naturally, George had a 46-piece band that he retained for his entertainment, at a cost of £8,000 a year.
Then we enter the subterranean passage which stretches 60 metres from the north end of the Pavilion to what was then the riding stables. It was built in 1821, at a cost of £1,783.01. “What the penny was for, I haven’t a clue,” muses Geoff. “This was supposedly used as an escape route for George in times of trouble. There are stories that he was embarrassed to go out publicly and didn’t really want to be seen.”
It’s a fascinating tour. Geoff has worked at the Pavilion for around twenty years, and has as many stories about life below stairs as he does about the goings on above. “These are little snippets of another world. This spiral staircase led up to George’s principal private secretary, Sir Benjamin Bloomfield. It’s rather fun to think of a housemaid scurrying up the stairs to confess that one of her 8,891 hand towels was missing and Bloomfield would be going ‘WHAT!!??’ This is the real Downton Abbey.”
Mondays until the 25th of September, 4.15-5.15pm, brightonmuseums.org.uk