TQ3104 : Brighton: shops on Sydney Street

taken 15 years ago, near to Brighton and Hove, Great Britain

Brighton: shops on Sydney Street
Brighton: shops on Sydney Street
Sydney Street History

Sydney Street is the northernmost shopping thoroughfare of the four streets that make up the North Laine shopping area lying between Gloucester Road to the south and Trafalgar Street to the north. Just under half way another road, Gloucester Street, heads east to Gloucester Place, the A23. The street was constructed in stages during the 1840s built on what was the Third Furlong of the former field known as the North Laine. The west side had been completed by the mid 1840s and the east side finished by 1850. The houses built were mainly low cost terraced housing though the street is interspersed with larger three story buildings a sign that it was developed by more than one builder. Brighton’s fringe had been creeping northwards from what is now Church Street since the 1820s and received a huge impetus by the arrival further up the hill of the railway in 1841.

The street was originally built for residential purposes interspersed with a few businesses, shops and pubs which would by and large remain the case up to the end of the 19th century. For example in 1899 the street contained three pubs, three furniture dealers, three drapers/clothiers and a few other businesses but few shops in the conventional sense. This gradually changed over the next twenty or so years with the development of London Road as a distinct shopping area. The link by foot between London Road and central Brighton would not follow what is now the A23 down the western side of the Old Steine but cut in through the back streets following the route from York Place, west up Trafalgar Street then south through Sydney Street, Kensington Gardens, Gardner Street and Bond Street until North Street was reached. Whilst the businesses relied on local custom it could also pick up trade from those using this route into town.

In 1899 only 15 businesses were operating in the street, by 1919 this had risen to 35 and by 1956 up to 40. Some businesses lasted a long time; Edward Long’s gasfitters operated in the same spot for 94 years, Gibson’s drapers and outfitters 80 years, EB Boys the leather merchants 83 years, the Co-operative clothing store in all its guises around 75 years. Also noticeable is the type of businesses remained constant despite ownership changes, the bakery at number 40 operated for just over 100 years, whilst the greengrocers at number 3 survived for 68 years. However, a distinctive side to the street was the growth of butchers, there was just one in 1912, two by the end of the 1920s, five by the outbreak of the Second World War and seven by 1960. In the pre supermarket days and before many of them owned freezing facilities Saturday afternoons would bring about an impromptu auction enabling many customers whose budgets were tight to pick up decent cuts of meat for bargain prices for Sunday lunch. All seven were still in situ in 1974 but had dropped to just two by the end of the 1980s with the last one going in 2001.

The last bakery went in 1975 though Forfars still operate from 20 Trafalgar Street on the corner of Sydney Street. The last greengrocer survived until the mid 1990s and the last fishmonger went at the beginning of that decade. The growth of supermarkets and the demolition of a large area of housing north of Trafalgar Street in the 1960s along with the proposed demolition of much of the North Laine in the 1970s meant a change in the type of retailing from the late 1960s onwards, cheap rents allowed smaller shops an opportunity with the 1980s seeing a growth in the second hand trade, particularly record shops where at one point there were five on the street trading in new or second hand goods. Antiques shops dealing in both items and clothing also came and went. Both were to eventually be undone by the growth of online trading with the last second had record shop closing in 2006 though Across the Tracks still trades on the corner at Gloucester Road.

Once the North Laine was saved from demolition the area witnessed another shift, cheap rents for shops and cheap rents for housing meant an influx of students into the area and with that the gradual evolution of shopping aimed towards a younger generation that was both cheap and not mainstream. This was noticeable in the street from the end of the 1980s onwards with the proliferation of vintage second hand clothing stores as well as during the last few years where there has been a growth of shops based on the fair trade and the green principle. The small nature of these businesses who have to encounter cyclical recessions along with rising rents and changes in fashion and taste means turnover is often great which has been noticeable since the 1980s where many shops seem to disappear after three years.

As long as Sydney Street remains different whether it is the colourful shop fronts or the items on sale it should prosper, it is very noticeable that even in the midst of a current recession there is only one empty shop in the street. The real danger would be the arrival of the multiple High Street stores who would most likely push rents up and change the character of the area. At present both Brighton council and the local traders association are against this move. Long may it continue.

North Laine

The North Laine is an area of central Brighton named after a former field and is home to what some refer to as the Bohemian quarter of the city and also refers to the four main shopping streets of the area; Bond Street, Gardner Street, Kemsington Gardens and Sydney Street. A laine was a Sussex term for a large field often but not exclusively bordering downland and regularly split into smaller holdings known as furlongs which themselves were split into even smaller strips known as ‘paul pieces’. This medieval set up survived within the old parish of Brighton well into the 19th century and was to have a profound influence on the street patterns established by the rapid expansion of the town from the 1840s onwards. The original boundary of the field called North Laine ran along what later became Church Street to the south, what are now the Old Steine and London Road (A23) to the east, New England Road the (A270) to the north and the crest of the hill to the west which contains St Nicholas’ church. The North Laine itself was split into smaller rectangular fields known as furlongs which were both numbered and named, First, Second, Third and Small Furlong for example. Within the furlongs were strips of land maybe 500 ft long but little more than 12 to 20 feet wide known as paul pieces which were farmed by individual lease or freeholders many of whom owned more than one but more often than not these were not contiguous. In order to access these individual strips paths between the furlongs existed known as leakways and often ran east to west.

As Brighton began expanding northwards in the 1820s these strips began to acquire a value as developmental land and were purchased and built on as and when they were acquired, to build a whole street required two adjacent paul pieces though often a developer would build one side of a street then await the sale of the land on the opposite for himself or another developer to complete. Furthermore, the existence of the leakways meant developers need not wait for land to become vacant in a specific order. For example, Kensington Gardens was constructed in the 1820s in the middle of the Second Furlong and remained surrounded by fields for a couple more decades. The leakways themselves became streets; North Road separates First and Second Furlong; Gloucester Road, second and third; Trafalgar Street, third and fourth; Cheapside, fourth and short; and Ann Street, short and crooked.

The slow move northwards was given huge impetus by the arrival of the railway and resulting works in the 1840s onwards which required housing for the new workers and within a decade the whole of the former North Laine had been developed into tightly packed streets that followed the old pattern of the former medieval field system. For many decades the area was a working class district containing workshops, small industries and the odd slum, part of the north west was demolished to make way for the new locomotive works and goods yard but little else changed with much of the area surviving the first large scale slum clearances of the 1930s before that was bought to a halt by the Second World War. It was in the postwar era when the more progressive elements within the town planning sphere decided that the housing stock had reached the end of its natural life and needed replacing. During the 1960s the whole neighbourhood bounded by the goods yard, London Road, New England Road and Trafalgar Street was demolished with many residents dispersed to new estates on the edge of town or into Theobald House a high rise block immediately to the north of Trafalgar Street with the rest of the area given over to office blocks, multi storey car parks or small business premises.

The planners then moved their gaze onto the rest of the North Laine and began plans to demolish much of it in order to build more multi storey car parks as well as a new flyover to bring the cars to them. It was at this point that residents and traders organised themselves and put their foot down and the name of North Laine was reborn appearing in the title of the community association that was set up in 1976. The brave new world of planning from the 1960s had given way to the less confident 1970s with the desire to preserve greater by those having witnessed the destruction and loss of the previous decade as well as influencing many of those within the decision making processes. By 1977 the local council had renamed it the North Laine Conservation Area and thus began a new chapter in the life of this part of Brighton. Initially the shops in the area still served local concerns and those following the route that linked the two main shopping areas of Brighton, the town centre and London Road. The threat of demolition had also meant the area was cheap to rent and attracted many small operators starting out (famously Anita Roddick began the Body Shop in Kensington Gardens) and others forced out through high rents elsewhere – the antiques trade in particular were forced into the area from The Lanes due to this. The North Laine traders have also fought tooth and nail to keep the main chains out of the area which they by and large have succeeded in doing though some such as Starbucks and Tesco have gained a small foothold through the new Jubilee Street development. Gradually, the retail trade has moved away from the butchers, bakers and greengrocers and the needs of everyday life towards the lifestyle based desires and services.

The North Laine remains a popular destination today for students, out of towners and locals looking for items not normally found on the high street and still retains the anything goes atmosphere that has been built up over the last thirty years or so.

Sue Berry - Georgian Brighton (Phillimore, 2005)
Tim Carder - The Encyclopedia of Brighton (Brighton Libraries, 1990)

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Grid Square
TQ3104, 1934 images   (more nearby search)
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Date Taken
Saturday, 25 November, 2006   (more nearby)
Wednesday, 25 February, 2015
Geographical Context
Business, Retail, Services  City, Town centre 
Place (from Tags)
Primary Subject of Photo
Subject Location
OSGB36: geotagged! TQ 3123 0475 [10m precision]
WGS84: 50:49.6454N 0:8.2846W
Camera Location
OSGB36: geotagged! TQ 3123 0475
View Direction
Northwest (about 315 degrees)
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