An American’s day-frisk to view “the wonders of Brighton”

Nathaniel Parker Willis
Nathaniel Parker Willis

Nathaniel Parker Willis files his latest travel bulletin dated September 14, 1839.

“I have taken what is called in England a frisk, and passed one day very delightfully with Wallack at Brighton.”

Regency Square, from Ackermann's panorama of Brighton, 1833

Regency Square, from Ackermann's panorama of Brighton, 1833

Nathaniel Parker Willis, American editor and writer, aged 33, files his latest travel bulletin to his New York periodical The Corsair, issue dated September 14, 1839. His host, James W.Wallack, the Anglo-American actor-manager, was currently staying with his family in Brighton.

Our pre-railway stage-coaching day-tripper enthuses: “Brighton is like a great city, built entire, and at one job, to order. “It is fresh and modern all over. It looks finished, too, for there is no sign of building, and in that it is unlike an American city.

"Wallack did the honours of the town with great kindness, lionising us in his ‘leathern convenience’ from end to end of the superb ‘cliffs’ – which cliffs are broad streets, beautifully Macadamised, with rows of palaces on one side, and the surf of the sea on the other.”

He continues: “The most magnificent feature in this long terrace is a succession of squares, receding from the beach, and with one side open to the sea.

“The houses are of a very highly ornamented style of building, and surmounted with balconies, low windows and belvideres, so as to command from every room and chamber a prospect of the sea.

“These three-sided squares are all large, with an enclosed park in the centre, and in such a windy place as Brighton, form very snug and sheltered promenades to the slender-legged invalid and the sail carrying dame.”

Newly built Kemp Town, “though standing a hundred feet above the beach, has subterranean passages running under the street, and connecting every house with baths on the sea.”

This was a slight exaggeration: there was ever only one tunnel, from the Lewes Crescent gardens, constructed in 1830. “This is the finest bit of Brighton in point of architecture, and in one of its plainest houses lives the Duke of Devonshire.” That was 1 Lewes Crescent, where the 6th duke lived from 1828 to 1858; Duke’s Mound is named after him.

"The other features of the cliffs are small phaetons to let for children, drawn each by a pair of goats, well groomed and appointed; hand carriages for invalids [probably the ‘fly-by-nights’]; all sorts of pony chaises spattering about with fat ladies, and furnished invariably with the smallest conceivable boy behind; any quantity of lumbering ‘double flys’ or two-horse coaches, drawn by one wretched skeleton of an animal, and occupied usually by a fat cit and his numerous family; great numbers of remarkably single-looking ladies, hanging to their parasols with one hand and fighting the wind out of their petticoats with the other; yellow-visaged East Indians forgetting their livers while they watch the struggles of these unwilling aeronauts; here and there a dandy, looking blue and damp with the chill of the salt air; and all along the beach, half in the water and half in the sand, in singular contrast to all the townishness, groups of rough sailors cleaning their boats, drying their nets, and cooking their messes on cross sticks, apparently unconscious of the luxury and magnificence on the other side of the street, as if it were a mirage on the horizon.”

As for the Pavilion, “all you can see of it from the street is a great number of peaked balloons, some small and some large, which peer above the shrubbery and wall, like the tops of the castors beyond a dish of salad.”

After a damp but enjoyable ride, Willis and Wallack end their excursion round the “wonders of Brighton”, possibly at Mutton’s famous restaurant, with “turtle-soup, turbot, and turkey. This was a glorious dinner, gloriously done justice to.”