North Laine History

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As part of the book launch of a novel set in 1950s Brighton (My Policeman) I was asked to give an introductory talk on the background to the local setting. The author had no specific year in mind but gave 1957 as a starting point. Having searched through the Brighton & Hove Gazette for that year, week by week, I selected a range of news material, both serious (eg Brighton police corruption hearings) and less so (eg Ken Dodd appearing at the Hippodrome).

Article on public lives

As anyone who has ever done such research will know, there is ample opportunity for the topic to spread and the mind to wander through the curious world of 1950s Brighton. Inevitably there were items of North Laine interest that caught my eye. One such was an article ‘Public Lives’ which looked at local people (not as today just ‘celebrities’). In May of that year it featured Mrs Lucy Orchard.

Mrs Lucy Orchard

The article read:

“Mrs Lucy Orchard started work in Sayers electrical shop, North Road, in 1914. In 1957 at the age of 68 she is still going strong as Brighton’s leading electrical ‘character’ and she has no intention of retiring. She is director of the firm now but she still works a 14 hour day, six days a week, gets down to some bookwork on Sundays and is often seen at seven o’clock in the morning cleaning the steps of the shop. She has a special interest in the place because she lives with her husband over the shop. Known as ‘Orch’ to the regular customers - and that means most of the district’s handymen - Mrs Orchard admitted: ‘We’re an artful sort of shop. We always stock the odd bits and bobs that nobody else seems to bother with. I think that’s the secret of our success.’ In her 43 years in the business Mrs Orchard has built up a vast working knowledge of electrical gadgets, and of course her home is just full of them. She has electrical fires, an electrical cooker, an electrical iron and lots of other devices. ‘I find them labour saving and efficient’ she said with an almost straight face. ‘My work is my hobby…I shall never retire.’ ”

Points worthy of comment

There are several points worth commenting on here.

At that time North Laine was still a major factor in the town's employment structure. In the immediate area were the station and railway goods yards, many grocery warehouse distribution depots, the GPO sorting office and of course the publisher and printer of the Gazette in Robert Street. Backing up the main employers were a myriad of small, often family concerns, of which Sayers was but one, reminiscent of today’s North Laine. Sayers, ‘electrical engineers and contractors’, was located at 13-15 North Road.

The hardware store Bennetts was also in North Road

The area was cleared for redevelopment but lay between North Place and Jubilee Street. Nearby was the well-known hardware store Bennetts. Both of these enterprises reflected the character of the area, one of small firms supplying others with a range of practical goods, which in 1957 in North Road would include Duckett & Styles printers; Gates & Sons builders, decorators and shop fitters; and the aforementioned Bennetts, who traded from a variety of locations in the road and were variously described as cabinet and builders’ ironmongers; blindmakers, upholsterers and warehousemen; tool dealers; woodware stores; and bathroom fittings.

Other interesting enterprises in the road

Further along the road were the myriad enterprises which made the area then so distinctive and were a forerunner of its attraction to 21st century Brighton & Hove. Within a short walk, just on North Road alone, were G T Geary wool stores; the Foreign Birds & Tropical Fish Company pet stores; and rather alarmingly next door E Williams fish fryer! Amongst myriad dining rooms, public houses and second-hand furniture dealers were Cheethams wood turners, Lionel Freeman picture restorer, Mrs Mearns picture frame maker and Lawes paper merchants. The Grand Theatre at the top of the road presaged something of a decline in the diverse businesses, as the same year a small item in the paper noted: “After several years of speculation regarding the future of the Grand Theatre, there is now the possibility of it becoming a furniture factory, [for] Bevan Funnell manufacturers of reproduction furniture.”

Different kinds of food traders

A direct link with that period and a nice example of landscapes having ‘continuity and change’ is the enterprise at 73 North Road: Misses W & J Diplock, truck proprietresses. This is now Diplock’s Yard, a prime example of the contemporary city ‘foodie culture’, but in 1957 the repository of the street traders’ trucks, rented out weekly to the barrow-boys.

North Road was typical of the area

At that time the term North Laine was known only to a tiny handful of historians. What we now know as North Laine was generally termed the ‘North Road district’ and this article does in some way reflect that the two terms could be transposed, as much of the character of the present North Laine can be discerned in the trading pattern of North Road in 1957.

[Previously published in the North Laine Runner, No 219, November/December 2012]

A Snapshot of North Laine in 1957

By Geoffrey Mead

From the Brighton and Hove Gazette, May 1957

Blackman St 1957

Jubilee St 1960

Jubilee St 1957

The corner of King St and Church St 1955

The Grand following the fire in 1961

All of the above photos are used with the permission of The Regency Society of Brighton & Hove