Belle Vue Fields

Words by Mike Holland

Amongst other things, Brighton was known in Regency times for its grand squares and terraces. These were the affluent parts of town and became much coveted by the fashionable and wealthy.

Most of the seafront terrace houses were generally rented for the season, whilst the squares would be all year residences. Regency Square was, without doubt, one of the most important of its day and was built in the early part of the 19th century by the famous architectural partnership of Charles Busby, Amon Wilds senior and Amon Wilds junior.

Prior to the building of Regency Square the site was simply a field known as Belle Vue Field, probably in connection with the long vanished Belle Vue House. The field was used as a military camp and often had some spectacular military parades.

The field also hosted travelling shows and fairs along with various other gatherings.Interestingly, there was a windmill in the field known as West Mill, which is shown to be owned by one Mathew Bourne in 1744. The windmill stood in the field till 1797 when 86 oxen dragged it two miles uphill on a sled to the nearby village of Preston and renamed it Preston Mill.

After several more re-naming’s it was demolished in 1881. Its machinery was cannibalised by the owners of nearby Waterhall Mill. A watercolour displayed at nearby Preston Manor depicts the crowds watching as the mill is removed to Preston. This was obviously deemed to be quite a feat at the time.

By 1793, with the threat of a French invasion, large numbers of troops were stationed in Belle Vue field and at its height some 10,000 troops were encamped there. The camp quickly became known as a place for women to find partners and Jane Austen used it as a setting for her novel Pride and Prejudice.

Finding the field rather small for such numbers, the camp was moved to another site in 1794 and, after returning to use it as a showground and fairground, it gradually lost its popularity in favour of The Level; a large expanse of flat grassland to the north of The Old Steine.

With Belle Vue field no longer in real use, the site was acquired by businessman Flesher Hanson. Realising times were changing, with various developments cropping up along the stretch of seafront, he decided to take a wholly different approach to developing.

He divided Belle Vue Field into 70 plots, leased them individually and put strict covenants in place. He demanded that each house be built to a specific style to ensure architectural elegance. In return, the leaseholders would have the right to buy and would end up with houses much larger than the average whilst Hanson, who did very nicely out of it thank you, never lifted a brick.

Bands often played in the square’s central garden or directly at the southern end in Kings Road, which added to the pleasant atmosphere. However, residents were upset in 1866 when The West Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch, was built opposite the square’s central garden as the entrance booths affected sea views.

By the mid 19th century most of the houses had become hotels, many of which survive today, albeit most with several name changes. The gardens were dug up in the 1960s to much controversy and a 520 underground car park built beneath. The garden was then landscaped and restored by the corporation with, unfortunately, a rather lacklustre approach, which seems to continue through the ages with Brighton Council.

Most of the buildings still stand and are generally in reasonable condition thanks mainly to their listed status in the latter part of the 20th century. We shall see how the square fares as its views will be changing yet again apparently, if the much-fabled i360 is constructed. It will be interesting to see if this really will be the eighth wonder of the world as its champions insist. We shall indeed see!