How the Royal Pavilion was rescued from oblivion

Almost destroyed forever: the Royal Pavilion in Brighton

Visitors to the Royal Pavilion in Brighton no doubt avert their eyes from the unlovely vista of a supermarket and bland office buildings nearby, but they should bear in mind that the view could have been worse and the architectural melange that is the Prince Regent’s former funhouse has itself faced the prospect of the wrecking ball in the past.

In 1953, Sir Gerald Barry, former director general of the Festival of Britain, and other distinguished members of the “great and the good” put out a press release deploring a proposal to demolish the Regency houses on Pavilion Parade to make way for a new civic centre. The Regency Society of Brighton and the owners of the properties lodged a formal objection to the plan.

Under the scheme set out by Brighton Country Borough, it was proposed that a new Town Hall should be situated opposite the Royal Pavilion. It called for the demolition of six houses on the north east corner of the Old Steine, including those under protection of the Housing Ministry as of architectural or historic interest.

The plan was thwarted, but even this act of vandalising attitude pales beside efforts in the 1840s to tear down the Pavilion itself.

It is well documented that Queen Victoria had little time for Brighton and its gaudy emblem, preferring the more sober pleasures of the Isle of Wight. In the late 1840s, the Queen removed the main fixtures and fittings from the building.

Anything of value not nailed down – clocks, carpets, porcelain, paintings  – were carted off to Windsor Castle or Buckingham Palace. Less valuable items were sold privately.

The Government produced a Bill calling for the Pavilion to be sold off or torn down.

Enter Lewis Slight, clerk to the commissioners, who made it his business to snap up an offer for the town to buy the building for £53,000.

His blunt speaking and high-handed manner did not go down well with Town Commissioners, who objected to the purchase and Slight’s way of dealing with it. A draft bill authorising the purchase was rejected and a demand was made that the sale should be reconsidered. Slight pulled off a coup de grace, revealing that he had already signed a contract for the sale. He struck out from the draft bill the names of those commissioners who opposed the purchase of the Pavilion, and replaced them with his own.

Slight’s sturdy effort paid off. A town poll was held in December 1849 with 1,343 people voting  in favour of buying the Pavilion and 1,307 voting against.

All though it languished unloved for many years thereafter, the Pavilion had been preserved for posterity.

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