Thursday, 12 July 2012

The Lion and Unicorn, Brighton - Once a House of Repute in Sussex

Like many thousands of pubs up and down the country before their ‘improvement’ during the interwar period, if the Lion and Unicorn was “a house of repute”, it was not for the reasons thought desirable by the brewery or licensing justices. In a letter dated 6th September 1926 to the town’s Licensing Justices, the Chief Constable of Brighton, Charles Griffin, wrote concerning this Kemp Town Brewery pub, “on the occasion of the inspection of the premises the bar was filled with customers, and the heat was oppressive. The smell from the urinal, which is now situated practically in the centre of the ground floor, was quite noticeable.”
As can be adduced by the architect’s plans of the period, Griffin might have added that the WC and urinal was also next to the central staircase and a Kitchen and the Recreation Room, as well as being adjacent to the Private Bar, all to the right side of the south, Sussex Street end of the premises. There was no supervision of the Private Bar from the bar counter to the left, which served a Public Bar, Bottle & Jug and Bar Parlour. Beyond this, at the north end of the ground floor was located the tenant’s private Sitting Room, Kitchen and Scullery and the rear yard.

Proposals for the improvement of the pub had already been drawn up by 7th September 1924 by the KTB in-house architects J. L. Denman & Son. These can be summarised from letters and plans of the period as follows:

(i) The removal of the central staircase, WC and urinal and of the present ground floor partitions, creating along the south, Sussex Street end a larger Public Bar to the left and Recreation Room to the right; (ii) the extension of the premises to the north by the incorporation of a small cottage, No. 3 Claremont Place to provide a Private Bar at the north-west and to create new and greatly improved public urinal in the extended north-east yard, including the erection of lavatory accommodation for women; (iii) the placing of the serving counter at the centre of the ground floor to afford supervision of all the ground floor bars; (iv) a new staircase formed at the north end, from the ground to first floor, thus separating the tenant’s upstairs private accommodation from the rest of the premises; (v) at the side of the public bar facing Claremont Place (i.e. at the west wall) it is proposed to make a small passage to the bar counter, for use as a Bottle & Jug department (although this was re situated on the south side when the alterations took place in 1927).

The south west corner of the building was set back or recessed at the time of the renovations and is facing us on the photograph taken from the brewery’s (c. 1932) book “Houses” of Repute in Sussex, from which the following passage is taken:

“The Lion & Unicorn in Sussex Street shows how restraint in design can serve good taste – an outstanding example of admirable effect gained by the most simple means – largely a matter of laying bricks with some thought instead of in a purely mechanical fashion” (c. 1932, p. 28)

“Restraint” and “good taste” are here conveyed in “admirable effect” though Denman’s favoured neo-Georgian motifs: portico entrances, elongated sash windows and modelled panels coursing along the brickwork below the pediment. Of the doorways, incidentally, that on the far left is the lobby to the Private Bar, the centre is the lobby entrance to the Public Bar and at the right is accessed the Bottle & Jug, eventually constructed at the south end of the premises and entered though a lobby between the Public Bar and Recreation Room. The tenant by the time of the completion of these improvements was a William Herbert Peters.

The ideology of public house improvement was driven by a faith in ‘environmentalism’: the belief that larger, more salubrious surroundings effected in good design, with decent provision of seating and catering, would enable a corresponding restraint in the attitudes and behaviour of the customers. Notwithstanding this general objective, some more specific themes of desirability keep arising in archived discussions of the time, these being: first, to allow supervision of the whole licensed premises from the serving counter; second, to wholly separate access to the tenant’s private accommodation from that to the licensed part of the premises; third, to improve sanitary accommodation, which often included the provision of ladies’ lavatories for the first time; fourth, to balance the outcome of such advances against concerns that an increase in beer consumption, and thus drunkenness, could be facilitated. For as the Chief Constable somewhat ambivalently ended his aforementioned letter of 6th September 1926 regarding the proposed improvements to the Lion and Unicorn: “if sanctioned, drinking facilities will be greatly increased, but a great improvement would be effected”.

The Lion and Unicorn was once known locally as “The Blue House”, although none of the reasons put forward to explain this colloquialism – that it was frequented by off-duty members of the police force, that it had blue tiles or was painted blue, or that the language used by the customers was ‘blue’ – is particularly convincing. Certainly, Denman-designed pubs placed emphasis on their brickwork and not tiles.

The landscape of this area of Brighton, from Edward Street to Albion Hill, was dramatically transformed by post-war redevelopment. Buildings, pubs, even whole streets were swept away by ‘slum clearance schemes’. The top part of Sussex Street survives as does Denman’s building that used to be the Lion and Unicorn. With the addition of a second floor, the pub was converted several years ago into private housing.


Kemp Town Brewery (n.d. but c. 1932), In and Around Brighton: “Houses” of Repute in Sussex, Cheltenham: Ed J. Burrow & Co.

National Archives, East Sussex Record Office, Brighton Borough Petty Sessional Division, PTS/2/9/334,

No comments:

Post a Comment

Note: only a member of this blog may post a comment.