When you last walked by the Clock Tower at the junction of North Street and Queens Road, did you feel the shudder of walking through slums? No, of course not. But you were, indeed, walking on slums of days gone past.
By the late 1820s, Brighton was buzzing. Above all, it was salubrious. Sea breezes refreshed you. Sea bathing cleansed you. In 1827, even a French aristocrat could speak highly of our fine city. On arriving at his hotel, Auguste, Count de la Garde found “scrupulous cleanliness which was most pleasing to the eye”. As he browsed the local shops, he was mightily impressed:
les boutiques sont riches et variées : celles où se vendent les fruits, la viande, le poisson, se font remarquer principalement par une recherche de propreté exquise qu’on devrait bien imiter partout;
[Here the shops are well-stocked and varied; those in which fruit, meat and fish are sold are remarkable, above all for their fastidious attention to cleanliness, which others, everywhere, would do well to emulate.]
From the Gloucester Hotel, the Count would have wandered down to the Steyne. For his little light shopping he would have made his way up North Street. He certainly admired the parish church on its airy hill. Altogether a delightful town.
On his way to the church, once he had reached the top of North Street, he would have seen a cluster of small buildings. Ah! The fishermen. The tradesmen. The labourers. He would have ignored these cramped quarters called Durham, France, Salmon Court and Mulberry Square. His mind was on higher matters.
The explosion of the population of Brighton in the first 50 years of the 19th century is well documented. It increased from roughly 7,000 in 1801 to over 65, 000 in 1851. Grand houses were built. Cottages for the better-off tradesmen and their families were built. But what was life like in the poverty-stricken courtyards and alleyways of Brighton over these years? Petty France is a good case in point.
First, why Petty France? Oliver Tate, on the My Brighton and Hove website, has a very convincing argument:
“Petty France, I would hazard a guess that the name has nothing to do with any French community in the area and everything to do with contemporary attitudes towards the French and their perceived lack of cleanliness. There are a lot of ‘French’ this and ‘French’ that are attached to urban place names and they seem to denote a certain scruffiness and/or bohemian flavour of an area more often than the presence of actual French people. I shouldn’t imagine that the original developers gave the area the name of Petty France.”
This might explain why a Frenchman might be so impressed with the cleanliness of Brighton: he was used to much worse conditions…
Whenever these tenements were built, it is certain that by 1779 a block of buildings already existed opposite the top of West Street. West Street was at the time the extreme limit of the town. At first, the houses of Petty France were probably relatively airy. Stretching behind them as far as Church Street to the north there were market gardens, an orchard and other open land.
Andy Grant points out on the My Brighton and Hove site that James Gregory was the one-time owner of Petty France. Alas, Mr Gregory seems to have lost all his property in 1826 following bankruptcy:
The properties passed into other hands.
Over the years, as the town spread, the market gardens to the north and west of North Street disappeared under new streets. But Petty France remained. Gradually, as it became hemmed in, conditions became worse and worse. By 1833, Mr Edwards, a Rev. Gentleman, gave a description of Air Street, which backed on to France (not as yet ‘Petty’):
“Mr. Edwards said that the Directors and Guardians were aware that his house was in the proximity of Air-street, and in passing down that thoroughfare he had frequently seen children coming out of the houses, apparently in the most deplorable state of destitution.”
Mr Edwards went on to reveal that just three houses in Air Street were home to
“65 persons! 40 children and 25 adults; and the stench from the crowded apartments was horrible… Forty persons were in the habit of using one vault not more than five feet deep. The partitions of the rooms were so slight, that what passed in one could easily be heard in the adjoining one…”
It is more likely that Mr Edwards was referring to Petty France and Durham (twins in poverty and dereliction) rather than Air Street itself. However, was the Rev. Gent. being as altruistic as he had appeared when speaking to the Directors and Guardians? The chair of the meeting thought not. He pointed out that:
“The meeting must be aware, that, for some time, there had been a treaty on foot for making a new route through Air-Street into North-street.”
In other words, if you want to knock down some buildings to build, let’s say, a shopping centre, you declare the old properties uninhabitable and, hey presto, the land suddenly becomes a clearance site. There is nothing new in Brighton.
By January 1841, the situation had, however, apparently become dire, according to the Brighton Gazette:
France does not seem to have become ‘Petty’ until later in the 1830s. The first appearance of Petty France in the census was in 1841. It was also its last. Petty France had been completely swept away by 1845 with the creation of Queen Road – the road destined to lead directly from the new railway station to the sea. The hovels that were France, Petty or otherwise, had gone.
In its place, to its west, rose the curved grandeur of the houses of North Street Quadrant, backing on to busy Air Street. To the east, appeared subsequent manifestations of the White Lion Hotel in Queens Road – the last demolished for road widening in 1974 after having served Richard Branson well as his first Virgin record store. To the south, the West Street stretched, as ever, to the sea. And at the core of that triangle, where Petty France had stood, the construction of the Jubilee Clock Tower in 1888 was to change everything:
“It was toward the end of last year  that the commencement was made with that elegant structure which now graces the centre of North Street Quadrant, having risen on the site of the old and somewhat ill-formed shelter.”
And so, as you pass beneath the clock tower, think of the destitute inhabitants of Petty France and of the labourers who, over the last 180 years, have demolished and built and demolished and rebuilt this busy heart of the city.