Brighton has had it's fair share of luck, both good and bad, in it's past history. Although severely injured by the French Fleet on occasion, it escaped the sacking's of 1377, when the French plundered and burnt many of the south coast towns from Hastings down to Portsmouth. Many of the towns were so badly hit they were practically rebuilt.
An excerpt from the "Magna Britannia" exclaims;
"It is the opinion of the most judicious inhabitants, that had not Divine Providence in a great measure protected them and their town being built low, and standing on a flat ground, the French would several times have quite demolished it, as they had attempted to do, but the low situation of it prevented their doing any considerable damage, the cannon balls usually flying over the town."
Things changed however when the "Upper Toun" was built on the hills above and behind Old Brighton. Here the cannon balls slammed into the buildings with little chance of them missing their targets. As the town, or part of it, was no longer protected from the French incursions, it was partially destroyed by the French Admiral Prégent, commonly called by the English, Prior John, in 1514. So much damage was done by this attack, that, in consequence of the severity of its losses, the town was exempted from the heavy subsidy of 4s. in the £. imposed by Henry VIII *
The attack made by the French Fleet upon Brighthelmstone A.D. 1545
Click on the picture to see a larger size - 188kb - Etched by C.J.Smith
After this attack much debate was given to the future of Brighton and it was deemed essential, that if Brighton was to thrive and grow, it should be given some means of defense against the marauding French fleets that harassed the south coast. To this end on the 27th September 1558, at a Court-Baron, held for the manor of Brighthelmstone, Lewes, the Lords of the Manor granted to the inhabitants a parcel of land on the cliff, containing in length 30 feet, and in breadth 16 feet, between Black Lion Street and Ship Street, to build a storehouse for arms and ammunition. At a Court-Baron of the Manor of Atlyngworth, in 1613, the homage presented that the north part of the said building (arcis dictæ le Blockhouse) stood on the demesne lands of that manor.**
The Block-House***, as it was called, was built of "flynte, lyme and sande in war-lyke manner by the fishermen" at their own expense; though the Government seems to have paid for the erection of the gates and the walls, and possibly also to have presented the battery of four guns.
The situation of this building was on what was afterwards termed the westward cliff, between Black Lion-street and Ship-street. When first built, it stood at some distance from the edge of the cliff, but by no means as has been believed, in the centre of the town. It was a circular building, and measured fifty feet in diameter. The walls were eight feet in thickness, and eighteen feet high, several arched apartments were repositories for ammunition, and other warlike materials.
On the southern front, overlooking the sea, was a small battery, called the Gun-Garden, wherein were the four pieces of artillery. The gradual encroachments of the sea wore away the cliff face, and each year the Blockhouse came nearer to the sea's edge. By 1743, the Gun-Garden had sucumbed to the sea and disappeared forever, but the Blockhouse survived any damage until 1748, when Brighton experienced some exceptionally high tides and part of the Blockhouse was washed away. It was at this time when Grose visited the town and made this drawing of the fort. The sea had undermined the foundations to such an extent that the southern wall had collapsed, its debris littering the cliff face as seen in the drawing. It was shortly after this event that the remainder of the Blockhouse was broken up to widen and improve the road.
Adjoining the Blockhouse on the east, stood the Townhouse, with a dungeon under it for the confinement of malefactors. From the summit of this building rose a turret, on which the town clock was fixed. At the same time with the Blockhouse, were erected four gates of free-stone(three of which were arched), leading from the cliff to that part of the town which lay under it: namely, the East-gate, at the lower end of East-street; the Portal, vulgarly called the Porter's-gate, which was less than any of the others, and stood near the East-gate; the Middle-gate , opposite the end of Middle-street, commonly called the 'Gate of all nations;' and the West-gate, which stood at the end of West-street.
From the East-gate, westward, there was at the same time a wall built, about 15 feet high and 400 feet long where the cliff was most easy of ascent; and from the termination of that wall, a parapet, three feet high, was continued to the verge of the cliff to the West-gate, with embrasures for cannon. The Blockhouse was built at the expense of the mariners of the town; but the gates and walls seem to have been erected partly, if not wholly, at the expense of government,"****
That the Blockhouse was at some distance from the edge of the cliff when first built, the following extracts from the records of the Manor of Brighthelmstone-Lewes, will show;-
"25th August, 1648. We present Nicholas Payne for building his new house and shop under the cliff, and upon the bank of the cliff, to the hurt and annoyance of the whole town, if we should have any occasion to use the ordnance, or there should be any invasion of a foreign enemy."
"26th August, 1654. We present Nicholas Payne for encroaching on the lord's waste, and building of his walls 14 feet, or thereabouts, more than he is admitted to, towards the cliff side, before a place where the great guns hath and doth stand, to the annoyance and great hinderance of the whole town and country; and we fine him for it."
At a public vestry meeting, held in 1727, it was ordered- "That the constable and churchwardens should mortgage the new workhouse, and Bartholomew's, and all the buildings thereunto belonging, called St.Bartholomews Chapel, or by whatsoever other name the same is called, unto Thomas Simmons, as a security to indemnify him in paying the moneys he made of the materials of the Blockhouse to them the said constable and churchwardens, to be disbursed and employed for paying the workmen that have been employed, and for materials used about building the said Workhouse."
* J.S.Brewer, "The Reign of Henry VIII.," vol. i. p. 481
** Ibid, 158.
*** Rowe's MSS. p. 93. a.
**** Dunvan's Hist. of Bright. and Lewes, p. 470