In Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice, the Bennet’s younger daughters are cast down when the officers of the Militia move south and become encamped at Brighton. Lydia, the wayward youngest daughter, follows them, then elopes with the charming cad Wykham. Mr Darcy, the hero, induces Wykham to marry Lydia, thus preventing her ‘ruin’, and in the process wins the hand of her older sister Elizabeth.
It’s a book I have re-read many times and it was one of my mother’s favourites. Yet, despite having lived in Brighton for almost fifty years, I realised I still didn’t know where the soldiers would have been encamped, or what they wore and how they lived. There is no standing display that I have seen in any local museum providing information about uniforms, barracks, weaponry, training, conditions or social life. And yet this is a time in which local people must have lived in fear of French invasion.
I looked out Sue Berry’s book on Georgian Brighton. Until I read it I had no idea how many soldiers were present in Brighton in the 18th and 19th centuries. It seems Brighton’s population rose by 40% between 1801 and 1811 and doubled between 1901 and 1821, the period of the later part of the Napoleonic Wars.
Regular soldiers were based in several different places including barracks at Preston and near the Pavilion, between Church Street and North Road (behind what is now the King and Queen pub). The Militia did not serve in Brighton every year, and so they had to make do with large tented encampments in places such as Wick to the west of Brighton and Preston to the north.
Officers lived comfortably, but the conditions for ordinary soldiers were not good. There was at least one mutiny at a camp near East Blatchington, which resulted in convicted soldiers being flogged, and in two cases, executed. The punishments took place at Goldstone Bottom, which according to Berry, became a tourist attraction for a time – until this interest was suppressed by authorities suspicious of public sympathy with rebellious views.
The presence of our beautiful Royal Pavilion encourages us to over-commemorate the self-indulgent life of George IV. I would like to see the city’s museums and tourism industry focus a bit more on the life of the soldiers who came and went at that time and the wider life of the community that supported them, including the aristocrats and wealthy merchants who financed them and the impoverished women and men who serviced them as servants, farmers, fisherfolk, tradespeople, seamstresses and prostitutes.
For example, just focusing on the soldiers, how lovely it would be if we could have museum displays; trips to see the sites of former barracks and encampments and commemorative sites (including the site of the tragic executions at Goldstone Bottom); and perhaps even tours along the sea front undertaken by horse and carriage.