Old Police Cells Museum in context

Queen Victoria Wearing the Small Imperial Crown to Mark Her 66th Birthday

When the Town Hall was completed in 1834 Brighton had a population of about 40,000 and had been one of the largest towns in Sussex since the Middle Ages.


In 1285 it was regarded as sufficiently important to warrant its own constable and by the 14th century it had a weekly market and fair. The fishing industry was so successful that in the mid 17th century it was perhaps the largest town in Sussex.

As a health and spar resort Brighton prospered in the mid to late 18th century and with the patronage of the Prince Regent and the building of the Royal Pavilion it definitely became the place to be seen. The arrival of the railway in the 1840s ensured Brighton’s position as the premier Sussex town and now city.

Brighton has long had a varied reputation, from the playground of the Royals to the ‘drugs capital of Europe’. For many, it’s saucy seaside postcards and ‘dirty weekends’ and for others it’s a city of millionaires and gangsters. Noel Coward declared it a town of ‘piers, queers and racketeers’ and Keith Waterhouse said, ‘Brighton looks as though it’s a town helping the police with their enquiries’.

“Brighton today is a large, jolly, friendly seaside town in Sussex… but in the years between the two wars…there was another Brighton of dark alleyways and festering slums. From here, the poison of crime and violence and gang warfare began to spread … this is a story of that other Brighton- now happily no more” -Disclaimer that runs at the beginning of John Boulting’s Brighton Rock.

Racecourse, dog track, conference centre, millionaires, celebrities, film and TV stars, Shoreham and Gatwick airports, Shoreham and Newhaven harbours, proximity to the capital, rail links to Europe, miles of unguarded coastline, millions of tourists and holiday makers – Brighton has everything, which naturally includes a number of enterprising criminals.

Brighton’s had it’s fair share of notorious villains and appalling murders. Possibly its first recorded murder was the killing of her own baby by Anne Boon in 1759. She is said to have suffocated her child and thrown the poor soul into a pigsty. In 1792 the mail coach robbers, Rook and Howell, were captured, executed and placed in gibbets. In the 19th century John Lawrence, Percy Lefroy Mapleton and Christina Edmunds were all found guilty of horrendous murders and in the last century George Haigh and Tony Mancini became two of the most imfamous murderers in the country.


20th Century

In the 1920s and 1930s Brighton became notorious for a series of ‘trunk murders’ when disembowelled female bodies were discovered in two separate trunks at Charing Cross station in 1927 and two more bodies at Kings Cross and Brighton stations in 1934. Brighton quickly aquired the nickname of, ‘Queen of Slaughtering Places’ and a reputation as the crime capital of England.

Novelists, TV producers and film makers have enhanced this (some would say unwarranted) reputation by using Brighton as the backdrop for their stories. Tales of race gangs, prostitution, drugs, human trafficking, organ harvesting, money laundering, adolescent runaways, teenage rebellion, illicit weekends, fratricide, matricide, infanticide and straight forward common or garden murder have all found their way into print or onto the big screen.

We even have political terrorism.The attempt to blow up Mrs Thatcher and government ministers in 1984 by the IRA was as close as any group has come to destroying a government since Guy Fawkes’ abortive attempt in 1605. The horrific pictures which sped around the globe have sealed Brighton’s international reputation as a place where things happen.

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