You’re a postcard collector, I hear. I collect images of Brighton, whether prints, maps, postcards or photos, from the eighteenth century to the present day. I have a ridiculous number of images – over 30,000 – which I am always busy digitising and captioning.
A bit like the James Gray collection, held by the Regency Society? I limit myself to Brighton, while James’ collection includes Hove and Portslade and suchlike. I used to take pictures for James, who I knew for twenty years before he died. He’d want somewhere recorded for posterity, before it was demolished. Brighton used to be more industrial… There’s a whole section relating to industry in Brighton in my new book. In 1891 the railway works produced a locomotive engine, from scratch, every month, employing over 2,500 people; there were still 650 people at work there in 1952. Allen West, along the Lewes Road, employed 3,000 workers, making electrical switches. Cox’s pill factory, also in Lewes Road, was a big employer until the 70s…
And this, presumably, altered the city’s demographics? Its purpose keeps shifting. Brighton has been a resort since the early 1700s. But once it was a royal town. It’s been a military base, then an industrial town; now it’s a university city, catering for young people who are here for a limited period of time and don’t particularly care about the long-term infrastructure of the place.
Do you think much of the change is for the better? It’s difficult to think of any post-war buildings and developments that are of any significance. When you think of all the detail and nuance that went into pre-war buildings, and compare them to what’s gone up since… In the past, buildings were made to make you stop and look at them. Now they barely warrant a glance as you walk by.What disappeared buildings, in particular, do you lament? So many! Brighton used to be so different. Let’s take 1960, as an example. Just thinking about entertainment: there were still five full-sized purpose-built theatres; there were thirteen single-screen cinemas; The Hippodrome was up and running; there was the SS Brighton, a highly-popular ice rink at the bottom of West Street, home to the famous Brighton Tigers. And of course, Brighton still had the West Pier.
Why were people so keen to pull things down in the 60s? When Harold Wilson came to power, he promised a technological revolution on a large scale. There were high-speed trains, oil rigs and by the end of the decade, men on the moon. So when they put up the first high-rise blocks in the 60s, no-one batted an eyelid. This was the future, a brave new world.Any post-war buildings you do like? The Jubilee Library isn’t bad. Duke’s Lane is a good redevelopment. And the 1970s Amex ‘wedding cake’ soon became a landmark building. But of course, that’s recently gone.
Photo: Brighton Railway Works, 1912
Lost Brighton at The Keep, 26th June, 5.30pm, £5.