|Administrative / biographical background:
History of local government in Brighton from 1580
The Twelve and the vestry
The principal manor in the parish of Brighton, the manor of Brighton-Lewes, was a demesne manor of the Barony of Lewes. The barony was partitioned amongst heirs in 1439. That portion including Brighton by the later 16th century had passed to the Nevill family, lords Abergavenny. Brighton, along with Patcham, comprised the Hundred of Whalesbone, with Lord Abergavenny's steward presiding at the court leet, but the leet was still owned in portions by the lords of the barony.
In 1580, in response to a petition from Brighton's inhabitants, the Privy Council appointed two commissioners to enquire into, and to regulate, the arrangements for taxing the profits of fishing to contribute to the town's public expenses. The commissioners' orders, 'the Ancient Customs', established new, or confirmed existing, arrangements for the town's governance by, in effect, a select vestry; these were revised in 1619. The members were:
* the constable, who was appointed annually by the steward at the court leet for the hundred; and
* the Twelve, being eight fisherman and four landsmen appointed by the commissioners, as assistants to the constable 'in every public cause', with vacancies being filled by the constable and the remaining members, subject to the approval of the steward at the court leet.
In addition two substantial fishermen and one substantial landsman were to be chosen each year as churchwardens by the constable, the vicar or curate and 'the chief of the town' (presumably the Twelve). The revised customs of 1619 also provided for two headboroughs to be appointed at the court leet, probably confirming long-established practice. The originals of the customs are still with Howlett & Clarke of Brighton, solicitors; but those for 1580 are printed in C. Webb, and A. E. Wilson, eds, Elizabethan Brighton. The Ancient Customs of Brighthelmston 1580 (Brighton: John Beal, 1952), and the revisions of 1619 in P. Dunvan, History of Lewes and Brighthelmston (Lewes: William Lee, 1795), 516-23. For minutes of the court leet, see DYK 1121 for 1587-1594 and ACC 3597/1 and 3 for 1577 and 1613-1621 (extracts printed in W. C. Renshaw, 'Notes relating to the Hundred of Whalesbone', Sussex Notes & Queries 5 (2) (1934): 39-44).
A central purpose of the Ancient Customs was to set the liability to finance the town's expenses in the ratio two thirds on the fishermen (to be paid by formulae applied to the profits of each boat in each fishery) and one third on the landsmen (to be paid by the more usual property rate). When the most profitable fishery, for herring in the North Sea, collapsed around 1690, if not before, these proportions ceased to be tenable, and in 1699 Quarter Sessions ordered a new rate book, assessing both lands and stocks, as the sole basis for local taxation. The Twelve may by then have fallen into disuse, as the last known reference to them is from 1641. By 1690, the town's affairs were in the hands of a vestry comprising the constable, three churchwardens, four headboroughs and four overseers of the poor, and so that continued until 1773 (see the earliest surviving vestry book, 1683-1750 and then intermittently to 1829, HOW 34/16, and the overseers' rate book, 1744-1761, AMS 5889; and generally S. Farrant and J.H. Farrant, 'Brighton, 1580-1820: from Tudor town to Regency resort', Sussex Archaeological Collections 118 (1980), 331-50).
Brighton Improvement Commissioners, 1773-1855
The Brighton Improvement Commissioners were established by an Act of 1773, which gave them powers of paving, lighting and cleansing the roads of the town, of holding a market, of defending the town against the sea, of nuisance prevention and removal and of levying duties on coal. They were also empowered to raise rates and to borrow money. As the town grew, the Commissioners felt the need of wider powers and gained a further Act in 1810. This gave them control of poor law administration in the town: the Directors and Guardians of the Poor were to be nominated by the Commissioners from among their number, and the Act sanctioned the building of a larger workhouse or infirmary or the enlargement of the existing building.
The Brighton Improvement Act 1825 further enlarged the Commissioners' powers, increased their ability to borrow and (due to representations of a committee appointed by the vestry) made them more answerable to the ratepayers of the town. Commissioners were now to retire in rotation and the Act stipulated that records, proceedings and accounts were to be kept and to be available for inspection by ratepayers. The Act allowed for the acquisition of land at Bartholomews for a town hall, for the enlargement and diversification of the market and for the widening and improvement of streets around Old Steine. But the Act returned poor-law administration to the vestry which was to appoint the directors and guardians, an arrangement which persisted until 1930. The formation of unions under the Poor Law Amendment Act 1834 passed Brighton by, leading to the anomalous incorporation of Hove into Steyning Union.
Between 1773 and 1854, therefore, the local government of Brighton was divided between the vestry and the improvement commissioners. The vestry's records are in HOW 33-39, the commissioners' are in this catalogue at DB/B/44, 58, 60-73 and DB/D/5. The records of the directors and guardians of the poor, which are slight before 1902 and continue to 1930, are mainly in R/S. The commissioners' records from 1789, and the vestry's from 1790, provide the basis for Anthony Dale, Brighton town and Brighton people (Chichester: Phillimore, 1976). The court leet continued to meet for the sole purpose of appointing the constable and headboroughs, until 1855 (ACC 2953/55).
The improvement commissioners opposed Brighton's incorporation as a borough, but once it had taken place in 1854 they petitioned Parliament for a bill for the transfer of their powers to the borough council: this took place the following year.
Borough of Brighton, 1854-1997
In 1854 the town obtained its first charter of incorporation and the government was vested in the mayor, 12 aldermen and 36 councillors. The corporation controlled the new police force; a coroner was appointed and a commission of the peace with a separate court of quarter sessions established. In 1873 part of Preston parish was included in the borough. Brighton became a county borough under the Local Government Act of 1887, and by the Brighton Corporation Act of 1927 its boundaries were enlarged to include part of the parishes of Patcham, West Blatchington and Falmer, and the parishes of Ovingdean and Rottingdean (a small part of Patcham had been added in 1923). Stanmer and the remainder of Falmer were absorbed in 1952. Records inherited by the borough from predecessor rural district councils and parishes are:
Chailey RDC, DB/D/55
Newhaven RDC DB/B/55, DB/D/56
Patcham Parish Council, DB/B/56
Rottingdean Parish Council, DB/B/54
Steyning (East) RDC, DB/B/57, DB/D/57
The Brighton Burial Board was set up as the result of the Burial Act 1854 and the Corporation acted as a burial authority.
The functions of the directors and guardians of the poor passed to the borough in 1930 and were exercised by its Public Assistance Committee.
In 1974, Brighton lost its status as a county borough and became a District within the Administrative County of East Sussex. Records of pre-1974 departments whose functions passed to other bodies in 1947 or 1974 are to be found in:
HC, R/C Brighton Borough Mental Hospital, Haywards Heath
SWA, ACC 7891 Water and drainage
R/R Engineer and Surveyor's
R/F Fire Brigade
R/S Public Assistance Committee; Warren Farm School; Lynton Remand Home; registers of residential establishments; Morley Street Day Nursery
R/W Weights and Measures
In April 1997, the districts of Brighton and Hove were merged into Brighton and Hove Council as a new unitary authority. In 2001 Brighton and Hove was designated a city.
The best history of Brighton down to the mid-20th century remains E. W. Gilbert, Brighton, Old Ocean's Bauble (London: Methuen, 1954; repr. with minor corrections, 1968), but T. Carder, The encyclopaedia of Brighton (Lewes: East Sussex County Library, 1990), is a valuable compendium.