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The Sale of a Pleasure Palace by the Sea

By Philip Morgan

The Prince Regent, who became George IV, created the Estate at the cost of £1.2 million (£145 million in today’s money.) He paid his last visit to the Pavilion in March 1827, three years before his death in June 1830. His brother William IV inherited and was a regular visitor before he died in 1837. Queen Victoria then succeeded him and her last visit was in 1845. The Royal Pavilion was shut and stripped. It was recorded that the Department of Woods and Forests, which had responsibility for the Estate, ‘had set so liberal an interpretation of the word ‘fixtures’, that in carrying off the pier-glasses, grates and marble chimney-pieces, their agents had nearly carried off the building itself.’

On 21 June 1849, a bill was presented in Parliament to: ‘…sell or otherwise dispose of or to pull down the same, and to sell the materials thereof, and to sell demise, or otherwise dispose of the land and hereditaments aforesaid comprising the site of the said Royal Pavilion and the lawns and grounds thereof and to apply the residue of all money received in and towards the expenses incurred or to be incurred of repairing, improving and enlarging Her Majesty’s Palace Called Buckingham Palace.’

It seemed that the Department of Woods and Forests was happy to sell to the highest bidder.

And Thomas Cubitt, who was one of the most significant property developers in the country and lived in Brighton, was rumoured to have offered £100,000 (£10 million)

However, Lewis Slight, who was Clerk to the Commissioners of Brighton, was determined the Estate should belong to the citizens of Brighton.

The local government structure at the time was:

  • The Incumbent: Vicar of Brighton, Henry Wagner

  • The Vestry Committee: all male ratepayers who owned £10 or more of property: approximately 3,000 people.

  • The Commissioners: 112 wealthy men: elected by the vestry committee.

  • The Clerk to the Commissioners: Lewis Slight, who was employed full-time and salaried.

So, Lewis Slight effectively ran the place, as will become apparent.

This structure administered everything we would associate with local government and had the power to set and collect local rates.

A bill for the public sale of the Estate was presented in Parliament on 21 June 1849. Lewis Slight went up to London to oppose it. However, following a chat with the solicitor for Woods and Forests, he came to a deal whereby he would withdraw his objections if the Crown agreed to sell the property to the inhabitants of Brighton. The solicitor said the government wanted £55,000, but Slight got it down to £53,000 (£6.4 million.) This was presented to the Vestry committee on 27 July and unanimously approved.

A bill now needed to be passed by the Vestry committee to authorise the transaction. However, at a meeting on 19 December, Mr Cox, feeling that the property wasn’t worth the money, moved an amendment “That the bill now presented is disapproved of and that a memorial be presented to the Commissioners of Woods and Forests expressing the desire of the Vestry that no further step be taken in the matter.” Mr Slight then spoke.

“I have now great pleasure and pride in showing you the contract which was signed by the Commissioners of Woods and Forests. It was signed in London yesterday (bear in mind this Vestry meeting was supposed to be about whether or not the contract was acceptable). I signed it. I have great pleasure and pride in submitting to you this agreement because whatever may be the decision of the inhabitants at the meeting, they cannot deprive me of the pleasure which I feel in placing the property within your reach.” There was outrage by the opponents of the purchase, so it was decided there should be a town poll. This was open to all ratepayers in the town who owned £10 or more worth of property. The poll was to take place on Friday 21st and Sat 22 December.

At the end of the first day:

FOR THE MOTION TO PURCHASE TO PROCEED 406.

FOR THE AMENDMENT 555. So it looked like the town would not buy the Estate. However on the morning of the 22nd, the police called on all the ratepayers’ houses with notices laying out the advantages of the purchase. At the end of that day: FOR THE MOTION TO PURCHASE 1343. FOR THE AMENDMENT 1307.

So, the motion to purchase won by 36 votes.

Guess who had instructed the police to perform their public duty? Lewis Slight, of course. At the meeting acknowledging the result, Mr Cox said, “this small majority had been obtained by the exertions of Mr Slight. They all knew that the police were at work at seven o’clock in that morning delivering circulars, and this was a part of the indecent conduct of Mr Slight, who moreover signed the contract the day before the Vestry meeting was held and that this was one of his tricks.”

On 17 June, the commissioners completed a loan of £60,000 from the Bank of England at the rate of 4% – £53,000 for the purchase and £7,000 for repairs etc. (£7.25 million.)The loan to be paid off on 24 June 1870. On 18 June 1850, they signed the deeds. They tore down the walls around the Estate and put benches in the gardens. On 28 June 1850, Mr Slight was given the honour of opening the gates of the Royal Pavilion Estate to the townspeople of Brighton. Over the next six days, 27,7000 people came to see the Pavilion and the Estate. And on 21 January 1851, there was a grand ball to celebrate the re-opening of the refurbished Royal Pavilion.

And The Royal Pavilion Estate is still the roperty of the citizens of Brighton thanks to the arrogance and determination of Mr Lewis Slight.

Posted in History on May 01, 2023