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Fishermen, beach huts and a castle: Sussex in early photographs (1890-1910)

Fishermen, beach huts, iconic hotels, high street scenes and a fine 15th century castle. Six historic early photographs of Sussex:

· East Parade, Bognor Regis

· The Metropole Hotel and the Grand Hotel, Brighton

· South Street, Worthing

· High Street, Battle

· Herstmonceux Castle

· The beach and fish market, East Cliff, Hastings

from the pages of one of our early photography books.

These beautiful early photographs of Sussex are included in The British Isles in Colour: Southern England and the Channel Islands. The book features the counties of Hampshire, Sussex, Kent, Berkshire, Oxford, Buckinghamshire and Essex, plus London.

The photographs

Bognor Regis

East Parade, Bognor Regis

It is quite likely that this image was taken by Francis Frith as there is another very similar image in his collection probably taken on the same day, sometime between 1880 and 1890 (cf. Francis Frith’s Travels: a photographic journey through Victorian Britain, Text by Derek Wilson in association with the Francis Frith Collection, London: Dent & Sons, 1985). The picture would then have been licensed to the Detroit Photographic Company, together with many others of his black and white photographs. The original legend for this image reads ‘East parade, Bognor, England’ because the honorific ‘Regis’ was not added until 1929 upon the stay of King George V. The numerous bathing huts, used for changing into swimming suits before being rolled into the sea in order to make a dignified entrance into the waves, are a notable feature. The stationary one on the upper left may have been used in the modern sense of a beach hut. Alongside Brighton, Bognor was a most fashionable and genteel resort. In popular locations local fishermen combined their commercial fishing activities with pleasure trips for holiday makers, giving them the opportunity of an additional income, and the boats visible could have been for this purpose.


The Metropole Hotel and the Grand Hotel, Brighton

This image of two of Brighton’s iconic hotels must have been taken after 1890 as that was the year hotel on the left, The Metropole, was built. Its architect was Alfred Waterhouse, an exponent of the Victorian Gothic Revival whose other important buildings include the Natural History Museum in London (1881), the Cruciform Building of the University College Hospital (1906), London, the Liverpool Royal Infirmary (1889), the Manchester Town Hall (1877) and the North Western Hotel, Lime Street, Liverpool (1868–71). The six-storey Metropole was strikingly built using red bricks from the Rowlands Castle Brickworks, a location in East Hampshire were pottery and bricks had been made since Roman times. The brick and terracotta façade was shocking to onlookers at the time as it broke away from the customary white (stucco) buildings of the English seafront favoured during the Regency period. Waterhouse’s Metropole included many luxury features including a ballroom and Turkish baths. The characteristic spire and French pavilion roof were removed in 1960. Today the hotel is part of the Hilton chain, but due respect is still paid to its august architect in the form of the Waterhouse Bar & Terrace. To the Metropole’s right on the picture is the earlier Grand Hotel, designed in Italianate style by John Whichcord, Jr. for the upper classes in 1864. Built over 18th century coastal fortifications, an example of its exclusivity was its remarkable ‘Ascending Omnibus’ or hydraulically powered lift, one of only three in existence in the country at the time, and the first outside London. The Grand remains an expensive and exclusive hotel, but sadly its memory will always be associated with the IRA bombing of 1984, which killed five people during The Conservative Party Conference that was being held there. It was rebuilt in 1986 and since then its refurbishment in 2013 has added considerable width of the building visible of the 1890s.

This view would be difficult to recreate today as the photograph was taken from the West Pier, which was destroyed beyond repair in 2003 after two fires. Opened in 1866, it was built to attract tourists to the town and reached its height of popularity between 1916 and 1919 when a concert hall was added, but after World War 2 it fell into decline and was closed in 1975. Although it was the first pier to gain Grade 1 listed status it fell into disrepair and was largely derelict by the 2000s.


South Street, Worthing

The old Town Hall, which opened for meetings of the Town Commissioners in 1835, at the junction of South Street, Warwick Street and Chapel Road is the centre piece of this photograph. Permission for the building and maintenance of the Town Clock was granted in a Parliamentary Act of 1821. Sadly, this classical style building, with its tower and portico, for so long the focus of the town, was demolished in 1966. It had become redundant by in 1933 when a new Town Hall was built further to the north on Chapel Road making the fine building in the picture obsolete. Francis Frith took photographs of this vista in 1895, 1899 and 1919. The one entitled ‘South Street 1899’ is the closest to our Photochrom version. The one he sold to be made into a Photochrom though seems more exciting as it includes the man to the right on stilts! The Francis Frith Collection informs us that underneath the Town Hall building there were prison cells and a hand-operated fire engine. South Street has undergone a number of ‘upgrades’ since then and would be unrecognisable to the stilt-walker today.


High Street, Battle

Obviously evoking an era before the domination of the motorcar, this picture of Battle High Street with its carts and horses is thoroughly nostalgic. According to Martin Andrew, author of Sussex Photographic Memories (2000) the plot boundaries of the high street go back to the late 11th century. The high street remains largely unchanged with the Abbey Hotel still going strong, a Grade II listed hotel, bar and restaurant offering Shepherd Neame beer. The Georgian building boasts eight bedrooms with many overlooking the Abbey. In 1901 Census Thomas Turner, 61, appears as a ‘Licensed Victualler’ at the Abbey Hotel together with his wife and three daughters. A similar picture to the one above taken from a little further back on the road which reveals another building and announcements such as ‘luncheons and tea’ is dated in the Frith archives as 1910. The long High Street, which as the name implies is also the main road passing through the town, provided Frith with several photographic opportunities.

Herstmonceux Castle

Herstmonceux Castle

This image of an overgrown Herstmonceux Castle in the 1890s looks very different to the attraction of today. The castle was stripped out and abandoned in the 1770s, which explains its ruinous state in the image. Listed as Grade II* on the Register of Historic Parks and Gardens, this local gem harks back to the 15th century. It is regarded as one of the finest early brick buildings in England. In 1320 Maud de Monceux married the lord of the manor giving the castle the second part of its name; the Anglo-Saxon ‘hyrst’ of the first part means a wooded hill. When Sir Roger Fiennes, a knight who had fought with Henry V in Agincourt,became appointed Treasurer to the Household of Henry VI, the receipt of a royal grant enabled him to convert his manor house into a luxurious military-style castle in 1441. Beautiful even as a ruin, it became a popular visitor attraction, prompting the interest of many eminent photographers to immortalise it. This picture is most likely derived from a black and white original by George Washington Wilson with an estimated date of 1896. Francis Frith, Carl Norman and others also took evocative photographs of this castle. Today its renowned formal gardens and parkland and magnificent moated castle refurbished by Queen’s University Ontario, who own the site, have replaced its romantic desolation.


The beach and fish market, East Cliff, Hastings

This beautiful shingle beach is called The Stade, which in Anglo-Saxon means landing place. Though this image has not been identified it could be a coloured version of a photograph by noted Hastings photographer George Woods who took many fascinating images of fishermen, the beach at Hastings and local life in the 1890s. The fish market was established in the Victorian period and the fishing fleet is the largest beach-launched fishing fleet in the UK today. The fishermen’s net ‘shops’, the tall, black, wooden, weather-proof buildings behind the fishing boats, were built to store the nets and protect them. The fishing nets were traditionally dried on the beach before storage. The Stade is still a thriving fishing beach today, praised for its sound environmental practices including the protection of young cod. A fishermen’s museum in the town gives visitors more details of the importance of the fishing community to Hastings.

More images for you to explore

These beautiful early photographs of Sussex are from a selection of images included in The British Isles in Colour: Southern England and the Channel Islands.

The book features the counties of Hampshire and the Isle of Wight, Sussex, Kent, Berkshire, Oxford, Buckinghamshire and Essex, plus London.

See inside the book:

For more images of Southern England see this book's product page.

Or our Isle of Wight gallery (you will need to scroll down a bit). It is so lovely we called it An Ode to the Isle of Wight.

Photochrom photography

Photochrom photography is an early type of colour photography mainly used for early postcards. The introduction of this book gives more details on the technique.


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