The local historian Anthony Dale lived on the Estate and wrote a pocket-sized ‘History’ which has since been updated to the early 1990s. This can be purchased, price £3, from the office of Jonathan Rolls, agents for the company Kemp Town Enclosures Limited.
What follows is just a short summary:
Thomas Read Kemp, MP for Lewes, owned the land on which the Estate was built and started what was, for its time, an enormously ambitious plan to build houses that could accommodate all the servants and paraphernalia of wealthy families who came to Brighton for the fashionable summer season. He decided, immodestly, that it would be called Kemp Town.
Despite early financial difficulties and some alterations to the original plan, the land was laid out in 1823 by the architects Amon Wilds and Charles Busby, who were responsible for many of the new Regency suburbs of Brighton. Thomas Cubitt, working together with Henry Kendall, a surveyor and pupil of John Nash, developed part of the estate.
Arundel Terrace was built first and was a success, but Kemp lacked the funds to do more than build the facades of Lewes Crescent, Sussex Square and Chichester Terrace. Buyers would build as they pleased behind the uniform facades (so every house is differently laid out). Kemp’s expenditure on developing the estate outpaced his income from the sale of house plots and when he found himself unable to pay his creditors he fled to France, beyond the reach of English law and his creditors. By that time there was a significant number of wealthy owners already in place, and they made plans for the Gardens, sharing equally the expense.
Thomas Kemp intended the gardens to be the focus of his new housing development and enclosed them with railings at his own expense in 1821. The south garden was originally divided into two by a road which linked the two arcs of Lewes Crescent, but this was removed in 1828 to unify the two gardens. That same year Henry Phillips, a local botanist and landscape gardener and the author of Sylva Florifera, drew up plans for the gardens which were presented to the first meeting of the Kemp Town Enclosures Committee. His scheme, for which he was paid £371.10s.8d, included shrubberies with untrimmed shrubs giving an informal appearance, mounded to provide privacy and protection. Thomas Cubitt, who built 37 of the 105 houses on the estate and who lived at 13 Lewes Crescent, was appointed to “superintend the general works and improvements.” Some 20,000 plants, including semi-mature trees, shrubs and flowering plants, were subsequently ordered and planted under Phillips’ supervision, and gravel walks were put down. Costs were covered by subscriptions from the freeholders.
A tunnel was constructed under Marine Parade to provide direct access to the Esplanade, with its formal terraces and grassy slopes, and the seashore itself. Two cottages were built at the entrance to the tunnel, one for the head gardener and the other for the Constable. A plaque can be found mounted on the wall of the tunnel with the inscription:
DUTY OF THE CONSTABLE
to be constantly on the premises, and to keep the whole of the place free from intrusion of all persons whose conduct or appearance seem to justify their exclusion, and if any of the company require his assistance and protection he will attend immediately on the ringing of the BELL.
Throughout the nineteenth century the gardens were well used, with summer picnics on the Slopes (south of Marine Parade) very popular. In 1878 the gardens were extensively replanted; four tennis courts were provided in the south garden in 1886 and a croquet lawn was laid out in the north garden which remained in use until 1935. The enormous amount of grass required a primitive mowing machine, which was pulled by a donkey; the proprietors bought one each spring and sold it in the late autumn.
William George Spencer Cavendish, the sixth Earl of Devonshire, bought two houses at the corner of Lewes Crescent and Chichester Terrace, overlooking the sea and the gardens, and was a frequent visitor. William IV and Queen Adelaide, and later Victoria and Albert, enjoyed walking in the gardens on their visits to Brighton and the area was set aside for the exclusive pleasure of Edward VII in 1908 when he was staying with his daughter at 1 Lewes Crescent.
The 1914-18 war hugely damaged the endowments and spending power of the leisured classes, and houses began to be divided into flats. The maintenance was high and Brighton was no longer the fashionable place to come for the summer season. Nonetheless, reports of the interwar period tell of carefree picnics, lots of tennis and a largely unchanged social structure.
The real horror, so far as the Estate was concerned, was World War Two. Invasion was expected anywhere on the coast between Dover and Brighton. The Slopes and the southern half of the South Garden were requisitioned by the Army, the North Garden by the Fire Service and Arundel Terrace Garden by the Admiralty. The cast-iron garden railings were taken away to be melted down for ‘the war effort’ but it is doubtful they were ever used. The redoubtable Mrs Dorothy Dale, Anthony Dale’s mother, used her money and energy to organise a chestnut paling fence round the much diminished South Garden, which remained in place until the 1960s when the railings were reinstated by residential subscription.
During the 1940/50s, by which time most of the houses had been divided into flats, payment of the garden rate was voluntary, with residents being given a key on payment of a garden rate fixed by the Committee. Locks were changed every spring to ensure that residents paid up.
After the war the estate and Gardens were in sorry shape. It took a long time to arrange the cleaning-up of the wartime military installations and even longer to collect the damages from the authorities to enable the Gardens to be put back into use.
The Estate was practically valueless – whole houses in Lewes Crescent could be bought for £2000 – and the incomes from investments of the former leisured classes were devastated by inflation. The whole Estate, valued in 1894 at £500,000, was probably worth less than £250,000 in the late 1940s. Today the value of the Estate is between £150 and £200 million. These numbers are unadjusted for inflation but show the huge recovery in values over the past half-century.
Gradually the Gardens were cleaned up, and new railings (steel rather than cast iron, because of cost) were installed in the 1960s. The resident population diversified, with students renting rooms and almost all houses being converted into flats, but the burden of maintenance was heavy and houses remained generally undermaintained.
The Great Storm of 1987 did untold damage. More than 30 huge Monterrey Cypress trees were uprooted and many others ripped to pieces. Consequently there was little shelter from the wind and the garden started to decline rapidly.
As the UK economy grew in the 1980s and 1990s and Brighton became newly fashionable for young people and commuters, the standard of maintenance rose and the Estate and Gardens began, for the first time since the 1930s, to look worthy of the Grade One listing. Many families with children moved in. New railings for Arundel and Chichester Terraces, and some fine gateposts, were funded by residents with contributions from Brighton Council and English Heritage. The Gardens returned to their original status. The Estate was again wealthy enough to pay for really first-class Gardens by subscriptions from virtually all the freeholders.
The Gardens have used their new prosperity to catch up on maintenance and to plant bulbs and plants appropriate to the seaside location. A big windbreak planted in the 1980s in the south-west corner has greatly helped the Garden surmount the perennial problem of gale-force south-west winds. The shape of trees in the South Garden, all bent from the wind, testifies to the force of the gales.
Other improvements include a section designed for small children, new and repaired seats and tables and the replacement of the Southern Railings. The Garden is now a big contributor to the value of the estate.