Our Patch 5
The Level playing area is one of the oldest public spaces in Brighton.
The Level has a wonderful rich history stretching right back and has been the hub of Brighton for somewhat over 300 years. It’s also taken on so many guises in its time, in fact everything from Agriculture land to a cricket field for none other than The Prince of Wales himself. It has even been an Army base during its time. During the Second World War, there were Nissen huts built on the ground where the records were kept with a large number of people working there. Long after the war finished, the outline of these nissen huts could still be seen.
On the 13th March 1929 Bertie Maclean presented proposals to the Brighton Parks and Gardens Department Committee for a children’s playground to be built at the level for children of all ages. He suggested the area of some three acres could be used. He stressed that as was practically a continuation of the Valley Gardens that the design that was needed to keep the continuity, especially considering the number of the public who passed through the valley every day.
Amusements with a medium of attractiveness
Maclaren tried to combine the children’s amusements with a medium of attractiveness; the aim of the design being to make it as picturesque as possible. The main idea was to have as many children as possible to use it for their play in a safe way. The plan that was put forward was to be symmetrical with a central axis. The scheme had an ornamental model boating pool at the very centre which was approximately 18 inches deep with two stone bridges. The design also to include a curved stone pergola on either side of the pool, with a long seat at the rear of the building which would give very good shelter in inclement weather. The idea being was that one shelter was for boys and the other for girls, but why did he want the boys and girls separated, people couldn’t see the sense in that. The play equipment was identical for both the boys and the girls. There were play areas for children under the age of 14 and a play are for the older children.
Merry-go-Rounds and whirling platforms
The playground equipment for the children consisted of ‘Merry-go-Rounds,’ ’whirling platforms,’ ‘Ocean wave,’ ‘pendulum see-saws,’ two slides of different heights,’ ‘plank-swings,’ and finally, horizontal and parallel bars.’ This was a very good selection to keep children happy and occupied. In the years of the 1930’s and 40’s, the Level play area was by far the best play area in Brighton and Hove and as a result was always full of children who were really enjoying the amenities provided for the. Many of the older park users can recall that a strict rule was in operation about where adults could go. They could not enter the southern area unless accompanied by a child/children. The rule also stated that only children under 14 years of age could use the playground. There was a park-keeper who kept any sort of trouble to a minimum.
In 1932 a plan of improvements was introduced to the Level facilities, however, they were never implemented Even to this day the layout of the Level largely remains unchanged, the northern part still being grassland where families enjoy to sit and watch their young children play while the southern part is still taken up with being the play area.
Strangely, and unlike the towns of the industrial north, Brighton was rather slow in realising that parks and open spaces are essential to the health and well-being of its citizens as Brighton had relied on the sea water to do that job for them, without giving much thought to parks with their trees, bushes and flowers.
Modernisation of Brighton’s parks
Two of Brighton’s local men can be held responsible for the purchasing and most certainly the modernisation of Brighton’s parks during the first three decades of the 20th Century. These men were Sir Herbert Carden, the three times Mayor of Brighton from 1916 to 1919. And of course Captain Bertie Hubbard MacLaren, the superintendent of Brighton’s Parks and Gardens from 1920 up to 1951.
The Level is one of the oldest public spaces in Brighton, the Level has a wonderful rich history and has been the hub of the City for over 300 years. It is also taken on many different guises through it has been used for so many different ways, from agriculture and to a cricket ground for Royalty and has even been used as an Army base during times of war.
This time line which helps to map out its varying times of its life.
1700’s The Level was open grassland set within agricultural landscape. The two streams which ran down the valleys of both London Road and Lewes Road converged together here and made the Level marshy land and would flood.
1791. Cricket was played on the Level from at least the mid-18th Century, the northern part of the Level was laid out as a cricket ground for the Prince of Wales in 1791.
1800’s Brighton Toy Fair was held at the Level. Pony racing took place on the Level. There was also a sheep fair selling South Downs Sheep.
1814. The Great Peace Festival to celebrate the overthrow of Napoleon Bonaparte took place in front of a huge crowd on the Level.
1817. The Level was now the only recreational area in the town. The Coronation of George IV was celebrated by the roasting of two bullocks at a public dinner at the Level.
1822. The present area of The Level was formally laid out by A. H. Wilds and Henry Phillips. Union Road was constructed to link the Ditchling and Lewes Roads. The land to the north was sold to James Ireland who then laid out The Royal Gardens.
1838. The Coronation of Queen Victoria was celebrated by a large public dinner with the roasting of a large ox and some sheep.
1844. An avenue of Elm Trees, which was a gift from the Earl of Chichester, was planted around the Level.
1855. A Public celebration to commemorate peace with Russia was held on the Level.
1865. The building at the southern entrance to the Level was a branch police station from about 1865 until 1919. Then following the use as a police building, it was then used as a main offices for the Brighton Parks Department.
1877. The Level was enclosed by railings and planted with nice shrubs.
1921. It was between 1921 and 1926 that the open market was held on Rose Walk, the Level.
1927. The Children’s playground was designed by Bertie Hubbard MacLaren was laid out with a boating pool, bridges and the Pergolas. MacLaren, the Parks and Gardens Superintendent. He had previously laid out Preston Park.
1939. A series of trenches were built on the northern half of The Level, close to Ditchling Road in preparation for the Second World War.
1944. Part of the Level was occupied by Royal Engineers and the Northern section was taken over by a number of Nissen Huts. The Army stayed on the Level until 1955.
1979. The Skating Park was built.
1983. Brighton Peace Camp, intended as a protest because of the arrest of some 44 women at the Greenham Common, remained on the Level for over two months.
1987. Many of the Elm Trees, that had been planted in 1844, as a gift from the Earl of Chichester were destroyed by the Great Storm. Replacement trees were subsequently planted, of different ages and species to avoid a repeatof such a wholesale loss again.
1990’s. Some new playground equipment was installed to replace the old ones.
2007. The Columns and Pergolas were taken down and removed.
In 2013 an exhibition was held of a series of black and white photographs was held charting the history of the Level. It was very well put together, a wonderful picture history of the Level. So much more interesting than writing or reading about it.
When I was 9 years old I used to spend a lot of my play time on the Level, although some time was spent playing in Queen’s Park. They both had ponds in them and water always fascinates young children. At this time, I lived in Grove Street, just off of Southover Street. In fact, I lived there from 1939 until 1957. However, in 1944 the Level offered something different to play on, something Queen’s Park didn’t offer. These were Army lorries, jeeps and small tanks.
The soldiers were very friendly and possibly we represented their own children living far away. They allowed us to climb all over the vehicles, if they got a few scratches on them – so what? (We didn’t know that they were parked there prior to going off to war, poor guys.) As soon as school finished we were off just as fast as we could down to the Level to be soldiers and if you were early enough you could be in charge of a tank, – a tank commander? It was the best fun any young child could have and enjoy.
One day in early June 1944, we came out of school and ran down the hill of Southover Street, and no Army vehicles, they had all gone. Al that was left was small piles of mud and greasy patches of oil. No vehicles, no soldiers – no nothing.
Of course, we didn’t fully understand but it was D-Day, they were going to France to start the freeing of France from the German occupation. We prayed for these soldiers that they will return safely to their families once the job was done. We could help wondering just how many of those wonderful young soldiers actually did return home at the end of the war.
However, what wonderful memories we have as well as enjoying wonderful toys but as young kids we really never knew the significance of those real toys, we were allowed to play on. Later, we knew why the soldiers weren’t too worried about a few scratches on their vehicles, probably a lot worse would happen to them maybe in a week or so’s time.
Researched and written by David Rowland, Author and Researcher.