Celebrating Greater Brighton, 90 years ago today!

30 May 2018

By Kate Elms

Ninety years ago this week, Brighton was in party mood. On the 1 April 1928, thanks to growth that had made the town one of the most densely populated in the country outside London, the borough was enlarged to incorporate the parishes of Preston, Rottingdean and Ovingdean, plus parts of Falmer, Patcham and West Blatchington. To mark the creation of ‘Greater Brighton’, a week of celebration was arranged, starting on Tuesday 29 May. The mayors and town clerks of all the county boroughs in Great Britain and Northern Ireland were invited, plus a delegation from Paris, and a dazzling programme of events was put together for guests and local people. There were grand banquets, sporting contests, firework displays and a pageant involving one thousand performers, to name just a few of the highlights. The culmination of the week was a visit from the Duke and Duchess of York (later King George VI and Queen Elizabeth), who laid the foundation stones for the pylons to be erected at the new borough boundary and unveiled a carved stone seat at Devil’s Dyke, which had recently been acquired by Brighton Corporation.

These celebratory events have been recorded with great care in a scrapbook held in our archives. We can’t be sure of its provenance, but it’s possible that it was compiled by Henry Roberts, who moved to Brighton in 1906 to take up a post at the public library. He subsequently became director not just of that institution but of the town’s museums and art galleries and, after the war, was appointed the first director of the Royal Pavilion Estate. He later added director of the Publicity Department to his cv, and an excellent publicist he was, too. Our collections include a number of scrapbooks that document Roberts’ activities – mounting art exhibitions, attending library conferences, contributing to the local war effort – and this one shows the same meticulous attention to detail. Starting with a series of articles written by the town’s departmental chiefs and published in The Municipal Journal & Public Works Engineer, it includes newspaper cuttings about the Greater Brighton celebrations, correspondence, draft speeches, menus and invitations to luncheons and dinners, and other documents and ephemera that bring the occasion and the era to life.

Clearly this was a moment of great civic pride. The Royal Pavilion, the Dome and the grand seafront hotels all played a prominent role, as did the local piers, theatres, cinemas and dance halls, which laid on gala performances and entertainment for the whole town. Preston Park hosted athletics, horse shows, dancing, a fire brigade display and more, while guests were taken on official visits to Rottingdean, Moulsecoomb and Falmer, part of the newly created Greater Brighton. The proceedings were captured in a wonderful series of photographs, many of which appeared in the local papers. Although much of the focus was on the distinguished guests, the images also capture the carnival atmosphere in the streets and the crowds of local people either taking part in or watching the displays or processions.

Crowds gathered in celebration at Patcham

Crowds gathered in celebration at Patcham

It was reported that a time capsule was buried with the foundation stones of the Pylons, containing coins, a copies of two local papers, the Brighton Herald and the Sussex Daily News, and a book recording the ceremony itself. We don’t keep coins in our archives but we have a wonderful collection of newspapers that includes both titles, and you couldn’t wish for a better account of the celebrations than this scrapbook, which can be ordered by registered members and viewed in our Reading Room. It also contains detailed, visual coverage of the reopening of Brighton’s Aquarium in 1929, but that’s another story!

A second, smaller scrapbook containing programmes and ephemera relating to the celebrations (including an illustrated description of the Pageant) is also available to order and view in the Reading Room.


William Moon, pioneering teacher and author of Light for the Blind

13 December 2017

By Kate Elms

Our disability history display, with Moon's Light for the Blind in the centre of the middle shelf

Our disability history display, featuring William Moon’s Light for the Blind

The Keep’s reception area has been transformed this year by the arrival of three glass display cases, giving us the opportunity to show more of the wonderful material in our care. For conservation reasons, we often use scanned copies of documents or photographs in our displays, but under certain circumstances – after discussion with our conservator – we are able to feature original archives for short periods of time.

The display created to mark Disability History Month includes a first edition from our rare book collections of Light for the Blind, written by William Moon and first published in 1873. Moon was a Brighton man who played a key role in improving literacy for blind and visually impaired people in the 19th century through the development of his embossed ‘Moon’ alphabet.

Born in 1818, William Moon lost sight in one eye at the age of four, after contracting scarlet fever. The sight in his other eye was also affected and it gradually deteriorated until, by the age of 21, he was totally blind. By this time, Moon had moved to Brighton, where he abandoned his original plan to become a minister and, instead, dedicated his life to helping blind adults and children learn to read.

The Asylum for the Blind, which opened in Eastern Road in 1861

The Asylum for the Blind, which opened in Eastern Road in 1861

While his sight was failing, Moon had begun to familiarise himself with the embossed reading codes that were available in England in the 1830s. Before long, he assembled a group of blind or partially sighted pupils, which later evolved into a class within the Brighton Institution for the Deaf and Dumb in Egremont Place. After a number of years, and changes of address, a more permanent home for Moon’s teaching groups was found at the Asylum for the Blind in Eastern Road, which opened on 22 October 1861.

The existing embossed reading systems were complex and Moon found them difficult for some of his pupils to grasp, particularly those whose hands were calloused and insensitive from manual labour. So he set about creating a simpler Moon ‘alphabet’ based on modified Roman letters. This, he claimed, was so effective that, ‘a lad who had in vain for five years endeavoured to learn by the other systems, could in ten days read easy sentences.’

Not content with teaching, Moon was also producing embossed books, including the Bible, at his home in Queen’s Road. In 1856, his friend and benefactor Sir Charles Lowther, who was also blind, laid the foundation stone for a printing press next-door. These premises were subsequently expanded and used for the production of not just text, but also illustrations and maps, giving those who were blind from birth a means to visualise things that they would never have seen. Queen Victoria’s portrait is said to have been a particular favourite.

The Moon alphabet, a simple embossed system

The Moon alphabet, a simple embossed system

Books were also printed in foreign languages and sent to libraries around the world. Sir Charles Lowther himself took 2,000 volumes to New York for distribution across the US. Alongside this impressive enterprise, Moon developed Home Teaching Societies; these operated in the UK and Ireland as well as Australia, America and elsewhere, and involved trained teachers of Moon’s methods visiting the blind who were isolated in their own homes, and teaching them to read.

The collections held at The Keep by the Brighton’s Royal Pavilion & Museums feature an interesting mix of material relating to William Moon, including books, pamphlets, annual reports, newspaper cuttings and ephemera. 19th-century bookseller W J Smith, whose own premises were just down the road from Moon’s, in North Street,  recorded many of Moon’s milestones in one of his wonderful scrapbooks, alongside information relating to other local individuals and institutions from the same period.

Although the Moon alphabet was overtaken in popularity by Braille, William Moon is remembered for his pioneering work concerning the welfare and education of blind people. He died in October 1894.



Exploring Brighton’s LBGTQ history and the local campaign against Section 28

21 September 2017

By Kate Elms

LGBTQ history has been in the spotlight this year as 2017 marks the 50th anniversary of the Sexual Offences Act, which brought about the partial decriminalisation of male homosexuality. It’s a milestone that has been celebrated by organisations such as the BBC, the National Trust, Tate Britain and indeed Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, whose display of the groundbreaking Museum of Transology is part of a wider programme of exhibitions and events created with Brighton & Hove’s LGBTQ communities.

Campaigning newsletter from our archives (OUR 123/1)

Campaigning newsletter from our archives (OUR 123/1)

1967 was just a start, however. Homophobic discrimination remained, and research indicates that the remaining anti-gay laws were enforced more aggressively than ever. There was new legislation, too. In 1987, Margaret Thatcher’s government introduced Clause 28, an addition to the Local Government Act 1986, which forbade the ‘promotion’ of homosexuality in schools. Controversial from the start, it galvanised the gay rights movement, which was gaining support in London, Manchester and elsewhere; was opposed by teaching unions, charities and other organisations; and divided the Conservative Party. It was eventually repealed in 2003.

We’ve written before on this blog about the way LGBTQ history is represented, both locally and nationally, in our archive, and you can read those posts again here. As part of our autumn programme of talks, we’re delighted to welcome broadcaster and activist Melita Dennett to The Keep discuss the campaign against Section 28 in Brighton in the late 1980s. ‘The Brighton campaign,’ she explains, ‘was one of the biggest and liveliest in the UK, and it led to a blossoming of queer activism, including the start of the modern-day Brighton Pride.’ Book your place now!

Section 28: Promoting Prejudice, a talk by Melita Dennett, will take place at The Keep, Woollards Way, Brighton BN1 9BP, on Tuesday 10 October, 5.30-6.30pm, price £3 (pay on the door). Booking recommended; to reserve a place, see the events pages of our website or call 01273 482349.


Introducing The Argus Glass-plate Negatives

7 June 2016

By Kate Elms and Emma Skinner

The Keep’s conservation volunteers

The newspaper archive is one of The Keep’s best-loved local history resources – it’s rare for a day to go by without at least a handful of people coming through our doors to search through back issues of The Argus or one of the other Brighton and East Sussex papers that we keep on microfilm in our Reference Room. What we have never been able to offer, however, is the opportunity to view the photographs accompanying the published articles and reports, which range from events of national importance to family weddings and local sporting encounters. But thanks to some of our wonderful volunteers, we’ve taken the first steps to making digital copies of some of these images more accessible.

The Keep holds a substantial collection of glass-plate negatives from The Argus‘s photographic archive. Some came directly from the paper to East Sussex Record Office, others were part of Brighton Museum’s local history collection and have recently been integrated with ESRO’s holdings. They date from the early 1930s to the early 1960s and, potentially, offer a tantalising visual record of Brighton’s history at this time. However, before any of these images can be viewed, there is an enormous amount of work to be done.

The first phase, now complete, took place in our conservation studio, where a dedicated group of volunteers have been meeting every Thursday for the past 18 months to clean the negatives. Around 15 people have been involved in the project, some coming for a few months, others just in the school holidays or in between paid work. A core group have come in nearly every week since September 2014. Over the weeks, they all gained confidence in their manual handling of these fragile items and, after a few boxes, became highly adept at cleaning, documenting and repackaging something in the region of 40,000 glass plates.

The conservation process initially required assessment of the boxes in which the negatives had been stored in the delivery area of The Argus‘s office in Hollingbury. The completion of documentation is a core conservation task and serves to record all treatment carried out on the plates themselves. Gelatin silver glass plates are covered with a gelatin coating containing silver particles making up a negative photographic image. They are prone to silver mirroring (bloom) and delamination, whereby the emulsion comes away from the base caused by extremes in relative humidity and poor storage conditions.

The plates were lightly brushed on both sides to remove surface dirt, and then cleaned on the glass side only with cotton wool and a small amount of water. It was often challenging to tell the glass side from the emulsion side and, for the first few weeks, the volunteers would need a second opinion before they became confident in telling them apart. Once cleaned, the glass plates were repackaged; with nearly half of the original boxes damaged beyond repair, new ones were made with acid-free card. Gloves were worn at all times, and extra care had to be taken handling cracked or broken plates. These were packaged separately, with the contents clearly marked that extra precautions should be taken until further conservation treatment could be carried out.

We originally predicted it would take three years to complete this project, and so to finish in just 18 months is a testament to the hard work and commitment of our conservation volunteers. They did admit, however, that they were pleased they never saw the archive in its entirety at the beginning as it would have been overwhelming to see the extent of the task ahead!

An extract from one of the negative registers

The next step, which will be equally challenging and time-consuming, involves matching the numbered negatives to their corresponding entries in the negative registers. The registers were completed by Argus staff at the time the photographs were taken, providing details of their subject, where and when they were taken, and where and when they were published (the registers also refer to photographs published in the Brighton Gazette and Sussex Daily News). While one dedicated volunteer transcribes the registers, creating digital records that can later be uploaded to The Keep’s online catalogue, another is scanning the negatives themselves – one numbered box at a time – creating an archive of fantastic images.

The two strands of work are being carried out simultaneously and, when the job is done, it should be possible to search for images using a keyword, name or date. This is because the cataloguing process will cross-reference entries in the negative register with the scans of the negatives themselves. It’s a huge task – so please don’t inundate us with requests for specific photographs as we’re not at that stage yet – but it’s certainly a worthwhile one. Tests carried out so far suggest that the quality of these images is superb – although glass-plate negatives were disappearing from consumer use by the 1920s, some professional photographers continued to use them until about 1970 for this very reason.

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

Young women in 1950s Brighton, an image from The Argus archive

We would not be able to undertake projects of this scale at The Keep without the time and skills offered to us by volunteers. We hope, in return, that they enjoy their time with us while developing their knowledge and skills, meeting other people who are interested in local history, and helping look after the wealth of material held in our archive.

Updates on progress with the Argus negatives will be posted on our blog and social media channels – watch this space!

Bringing Cézanne back to Brighton

13 April 2016

Sue Wood, guest blogger and Brighton resident, writes about her research at The Keep

Last October on my MA Art History and Curating course at Sussex University, I was set a fascinating brief: to source an acquisition for a museum of my choice from anywhere in the world. The dream element of the brief was that, as it was a student project, money was no object and I was expected to aim high in my theoretical acquisition. I did however need to justify why my choice was right for my museum.

Invitation to the opening of the exhibition of French art, June 1910

Invitation to the opening of the exhibition of French art, June 1910

Over the summer I had been reading a fair bit about the history of public museums in the UK and I came across an intriguing reference to the groundbreaking French Art exhibition that was staged at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery in 1910. Predating Roger Fry’s Post Impressionist exhibition in London by a matter of months, the exhibition included paintings by a number of artists who are now household names, including Monet, Degas, Renoir and Cézanne. Could I source one of these paintings and ‘return’ it to Brighton? As a long-term resident of the city, I liked the idea of acquiring a painting that could form an impressive centrepiece to an exhibition publicising Brighton Museum’s innovative history.

Crucial to my research was the French Art catalogue from the 1910 exhibition, which would enable me to identify the paintings displayed. It was time for a visit to The Keep. My MA group had had an afternoon where we were introduced to the archive and shown how to search online for items of interest. However, when I tried this I initially only found some general material about the museum and the Royal Pavilion, and it wasn’t until I consulted the very knowledgeable staff at The Keep that I was directed to the photocopy of the catalogue. I was also able to copy an article written by the museum’s director, Henry D. Roberts, in 1911 for the Museums Journal, which gave a detailed account of the staging of the exhibition.

Armed with copies of these documents, I was able to start my detective work and try to track down the present whereabouts of the paintings from the exhibition. Some titles were so generic it was impossible to identify them – Monet’s ‘Storm at Sea’ for example – and others in the show were not for sale. I quickly came to realise that there was a ‘what might have been’ element to this project, as the Henry Roberts article detailed how the Fine Arts Committee had ‘purchased for our own galleries a magnificent canvas by Gaston La Touche, entitled ‘Swans at Play’. This was on sale for £320, which was also the price of the Monet.

Cezanne's 1866 portrait of M Albin Valabregue. Image courtesy of The National Gallery of Art, Washington

Cezanne’s 1866 portrait of Antony Valabrègue. Courtesy National Gallery of Art, Washington

A more expensive painting at the exhibition, which returned to Paris unsold, was described in the catalogue as ‘Portrait of M. Albin Valabrègue’ by Paul Cézanne. This, four years after Cézanne’s death, was being offered for sale by M. Vollard, Cézanne’s Parisian dealer, for £600. An online search soon revealed that this was a painting of Cezanne’s friend from Aix-en-Provence, Antony Valabrègue, of whom Cézanne had painted two portraits, one in 1866 and one c.1871. The later portrait, now in the Getty Museum, had already been sold at this point by Vollard to Comte Armand Doria; the 1866 one, however, was at Vollard’s gallery and wasn’t sold to Auguste Pellerin, a keen collector of Cézanne’s work, until 1911. I had found my painting!

As my research continued, I became ever more fascinated both by the history of the Cézanne painting and by Brighton Museum’s innovative and enterprising director, Henry Roberts. It was his vision and drive that led to the French Art exhibition being the first of many temporary shows of other nations’ art including Sweden and Italy and I felt privileged on my next visit to The Keep to be able to read his scrapbook of 1910. This massive volume was Henry Roberts’ personal archive of all of the newspaper cuttings and exhibition ephemera related to his work, all neatly cut out, glued into place and dated. His passion for education shone through and there were many accounts of his lectures and efforts to make the museum more accessible to all.

I was in danger of getting sidetracked here though, and needed to keep my focus on the painting. I discovered through reading his letters that Cézanne submitted it to the Paris salon of 1866, and was delighted when it was refused. Its subsequent rejection in Brighton in favour of the ‘magnificent’ Swans at Play suggested to me that there would be a rather splendid symmetry in returning it to Brighton from the National Gallery of Art in Washington, where it now resides. The very helpful Keeper of Fine Art and the paintings conservator there were thankfully excited rather than offended by my plan and offered me considerable help by e-mail. By the time I submitted my project I think I had almost convinced myself that ‘Brighton’s Lost Cézanne’ was on its way back here to celebrate its 150-year anniversary in 2016.

Above: extracts from Henry Roberts’ scrapbook, showing the mixed reaction to the paintings on show





International Women’s Day: Mrs Mary Philadelphia Merrifield (1804-1889)

8 March 2016

By Emma Skinner

ACC 8642/1/19 Mary P MerrifieldMrs Mary Philadelphia Merrifield was one of only a handful of women who established themselves as experts in their field at a time when science and academia were dominated by men. An accomplished linguist, a specialist in Old Master paintings and having written on topics such as colour pigmentation and the art of dress, Merrifield was a diverse and ambitious scholar. By the end of her life she was considered an authority on seaweeds and had papers published in various scientific journals including the Annals of Botany and Journal of Linnaen Society. Her interests reflected the Victorian sense of enquiry towards understanding the natural world and curiosity for collecting.

Commissioned by the Royal Commission on Fine Arts under Robert Peel’s government, Mary undertook research trips to France and Northern Italy accompanied by her son, Charles Watkins Merrifield, who assisted with transcribing and copying manuscripts from some of Europe’s most prestigious libraries. The results of these trips were consolidated in 1845 for her book The Art of Fresco Painting in the Middle Ages and the Renaissance, which consisted of an introduction to the chemical structure of colour pigments and translations of extracts from well-respected historical writers on Renaissance art and architecture including Vitruvius, Leon Battista Alberti and Vasari. In 1847 Mary was made an honorary member of the Academy of Fine Arts in Bologna, awarded for her research into Italian art history.


Her influence on local history is equally remarkable. During her travels, Mary wrote regularly to her husband and parents back in England. Here at The Keep we hold ten booklets of transcripts of the surviving letters sent to 4 Grand Parade Brighton, which can be ordered to view in the Reading Room. When she returned to the Sussex coast she wrote Brighton, Past and Present: A Handbook for Visitors and Residents which was full of lively Regency anecdotes and, in 1860, her study of the county’s flora and fauna entitled A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton and its Vicinity. In this quotation Merrifield’s admiration for the South Downs is unequivocal:

In their general outlines, the Downs, like all mountain ranges of the chalk formation, are rounded in their forms, and though in their natural state destitute of trees, they possess a beauty peculiarly their own, in the long serpentine lines into which they fall, the variety and harmony of their colours, passing from blue in the distance through grey, to the warmer tints of green, broken orange and russet. (A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton, 1864, p.21)

There was a decisive shift in her curiosity after this date from the visual arts to botany and marine life. Mary assisted in the display and arrangement of the natural history exhibits at Brighton Museum and some of her seaweed specimens are now in the care of the Booth Museum.

An extract from 'A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton'

An extract from ‘A Sketch of the Natural History of Brighton’

A newspaper from 1857 reported that she was awarded a civil-list pension of £100 per year ‘in consideration of the valuable services she has rendered to literature and art’, and in tribute to her contribution to the advancement of late nineteenth century marine biology a species of marine algae was named after her. After the death of her husband John in 1877, Mary moved from Brighton to Cambridge and remained there until her death. Her correspondence relating to botany was donated to the Plant Sciences library in Cambridge. Mrs Merrifield’s extraordinary legacy lives on through her herbarium which now resides at the Natural History Museum in London and in her many published books, many of which can be viewed here at The Keep.

For the Merrifield family papers see our online catalogue and browse the hierarchy.

Stories from the Collections: Meet the Museum Chicken!

15 September 2015

By Shona Milton

Anyone who worked at Brighton Museum over the past 30 years and who had to make a trip out to the Museum Stores, will probably remember the first time they ever saw the Museum Chicken. Perched up on a top shelf, a stuffed chicken sat in a box, rather unnervingly giving the impression that it was keeping a beady eye on anyone working below. It wasn’t the first thing you’d expect to find behind the scenes at the Museum and raised the obvious questions, where did it come from and why was it in the Museum collection?

The Museum Chicken, nestled in its box in the store

The Museum Chicken, nestled in its box in the store

Visitors to the Local History Gallery will have seen the shop frontage for Beall’s Cork shop in Gardner Street recreated in the gallery. The chicken came from another Gardner Street shop, Bolton’s Egg Shop at No.17.   A long-running family business, Bolton’s had had a shop at No.17 Gardner Street since 1917 and, when it finally closed in 1984, a small collection of items from the shop including signage, invoices and receipts, photographs, newspaper cuttings and the chicken, which had once sat in the shop window, were deposited with Brighton Museum.

The chicken has been in the Museum stores since then. It is a favourite with Museum staff and remembered by Brighton residents who used to shop in the North Laine area. Messages on the My Brighton and Hove website page for Gardner Street http://www.mybrightonandhove.org.uk/page/gardner_street record memories of the shop and its window display, recalling it as being, somewhat unflatteringly, “rather scruffy”!

The Chicken at Bolton’s Egg Shop, as seen in the local press!

When the theme of “Food” was chosen for the Open Day at the new archive centre, The Keep (www.thekeep.info) on Saturday, 26th September, it seemed like a good opportunity to try and include our old favourite in the display of Brighton Museum material. All three partners at The Keep – East Sussex Record Office, the University of Sussex’s Special Collections and Brighton Museum & Art Gallery – will be exhibiting items from their collections on the day as part of the day’s events which include activities, stalls, talks and behind the scenes tours: http://www.thekeep.info/events/keep-eating-celebrate-food-through-the-ages-at-the-keeps-open-day/

While going through the egg shop material, choosing items for the display, more secrets about the chicken were revealed. A small, undated, newspaper cutting refers to the egg shop and the chicken. Not only does it turn out that the chicken is, in fact, a cockerel, it also reveals that it once appeared in a production at the Hippodrome! Unfortunately, it doesn’t tell us which one.

Clearly, an appearance at the Hippodrome was probably a career highlight for the chicken. However, after so many years on the shelf, it will be lovely to see it out in public again at The Keep’s Open Day.



The Keep News: new exhibitions in Brighton

11th July 2014

Brighton Museum & Art Gallery has organised two fascinating exhibitions to commemorate the outbreak of the First World War. The first, Dr Brighton’s War: Hospitals and Healing in Brighton during WW1, opened earlier this week on Brighton seafront. This visual display looks at the role the city and its military hospitals played in caring for and rehabilitating wounded soldiers. War Stories: Voices from the First World War, opens on 12 July at Brighton Museum & Art Gallery, and runs until 1 March 2015. Using diaries and letters, photographs and film, it brings to life the personal memories and experiences of 13 individuals touched by the impact of war. Material from The Keep collections features in both exhibitions and will ultimately return to our archives here.