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Ocean’s Healing Waters The Story of The Royal Albion Hotel

Richard Russell (1687 – 1759) was a doctor who lived in Lewes. He wrote a book in 1750 which was translated into English in 1753. It became an instant bestseller and changed Brighton forever.

In it, he claimed that being dunked in the sea and then drinking the sea water was a cure for everything from leprosy to scurvy. He wrote that it was essential to drink half a pint of seawater at 5am every morning and then another half a pint after your daily bath in the sea if you wanted to stay fit and healthy. A great number of people who were desperate to be free of the chronic conditions they were plagued with seized on this ‘cure’. Brighton seawater was bottled and sold in London as a do-it-yourself treatment for those who couldn’t afford the trip to the seaside. As the reputation of Russell’s cure spread, people came from all over England to Brighton to take the ‘cure’ and be dunked in the sea. So many people came that in 1755 both the Old Ship Hotel and the Castle Inn were forced to expand. Russell decided to move from Lewes to Brighton to be closer to the two things essential to his business: the sea and his patients.

He bought some properties on the corner of the Steine and built Russell House, which he moved into in 1754. It was perfect; it was right by the sea and had plenty of space for the special patients to stay with him at no doubt a special price. Russell died in 1759 at the age of 72, having started a trend that set Brighton well on the road to what we see today. A plaque on the Royal Albion Hotel read: “On this site stood Russell House where lived Richard Russell. If you seek his monument, look around.”

After Russell’s death, Prince Henry Duke of Cumberland, the younger brother of George III and the Prince of Wales’s uncle, rented Russell House. Prince Henry, a man who attracted scandal, had started to visit Brighton in 1771. He brought with him what writers of the time called ‘the upper ten thousand,’ a bunch of young men who had too much spare time and too much cash. Inevitably a society developed to satisfy their and the Duke of Cumberland’s needs. In 1783 the Prince of Wales, the future Prince Regent, who shared his uncle’s “tastes for fine cuisine, gambling, the theatre, and general fast living including adultery,” started to visit him in Brighton in order to experience the discreet delights of the town which included in due course his mistress, Mrs Fitzherbert.

While he was staying with his uncle in Russell House in 1786 and with one would imagine his uncle’s active encouragement, the Prince of Wales bought a small farmhouse on the Steine which, after the expenditure of £502,797 6s. 10d. (£54 million in today’s money), became the Royal Pavilion.

After Prince Henry moved out of Russell House, it became a rooming house and then a mini amusement centre with a puppet theatre and a resident juggler before becoming derelict. It was bought by John Colbatch, a prominent Brighton entrepreneur, for £5000 and demolished in 1823. This now gave the Steine and, more importantly, the Royal Pavilion an uninterrupted sea view. The town commissioners wanted to buy the site and keep it empty for the good of the town. Colbatch offered it to them for £3,105, a hefty discount. But they couldn’t get their act together. So, he commissioned A. H. Wilds, who designed and built the Unitarian Church, Oriental and Sillwood Place and many other Brighton landmarks, to build the Albion Hotel, which opened on 5 August 1826. The hotel was an immediate success. Colbatch further boosted its reputation in 1841 by opening the Albion Rooms. This combined the functions of library, lecture theatre and museum. It became the base for the Brighton Royal Literary and Scientific Institution, which with Prince Albert as its patron, became the intellectual focus of the town. In about 1847, the five-story western wing was added, and its name was changed. This was a high point for the Albion. Brighton was the definition of a modern metropolis, and the now Royal Albion was its cultural heart.

But things change. Queen Victoria’s last visit to Brighton was in February 1845, and one of her reasons for abandoning the Royal Pavilion was that it didn’t have a sea view. The Royal Pavilion was shuttered and stripped of its contents. The town commissioners thought it would be a good idea to buy it for the town rather than let it be pulled down. John Colbatch opposed this. He claimed it would cost too much to maintain. But, he was also deeply concerned that it would become an unfair competitor to the Albion Rooms and drive it out of business, which it did. The Rooms went broke. Their accumulated contents of books and cultural artefacts ended up in the Royal Pavilion, where they became the foundation of the Brighton Museum.

The Royal Albion then went into a slow decline. It closed in 1900 and stayed empty until the flamboyant Harry Preston bought it in 1913 for £13,500

Sir Harry was a brilliant hotelier who raised the hotel to new heights. He totally refurbished it and welcomed authors like Hilaire Belloc, artists like Walter Sickert, actors like Sybil Thorndyke, entertainers like George Robey, boxers like Jack Dempsey and royalty like the Prince of Wales. For the second time in its life, the hotel became internationally known and the centre of Brighton’s cultural life.

After the death of Preston in 1936 and its requisition during the Second War, the hotel quietly retreated from the headlines, apart from the unwanted publicity of the fires.

However perhaps now after the 2023 fire it’s time for it to rise again like a phoenix from the ashes to achieve new heights.

Posted in History on Oct 01, 2023