How did it manage to stay untouched for so long?
As a volunteer I often get asked the question how the Town House’s basement managed to stay untouched for so long.
An Elderly Lady Living in Squalor
I tell people who asked the true story of an elderly lady living in squalor. It’s also a story of a young curator who discovered that she was living in an historical time capsule. And it’s a story of the people of Brighton and Hove putting their hands in their pockets to save this unique space for the future.
The basement is at 10 Brunswick Square in Hove. It is part of the Regency Town House project. It is visited by groups during the year and is also an exhibition space, used by artists during events such as the Brighton and Hove Photo Fringe Festival.
Many years ago, back in the early 1990s, Nick Tyson, the current curator of the Town House, became friends with an elderly lady that lived in the basement of №10 Brunswick Square. He would fetch her groceries. He discovered that her home was a ‘time capsule’ full of original Regency features. It was virtually untouched by time. It has features such as:
- a meat safe, a meshed cupboard that was ventilated and used to store both raw and processed meat.
- a wine cellar, complete with the original wax seal used to test whether anyone had attempted to use its lock
- a kitchen with an original skylight
- a floor with its original flagstones
- a courtyard with a well
The old lady’s parents had worked as housekeepers/caretakers in 9 & 10 Brunswick Square. Both 9 and 10 Brunswick Square were owned by the Diocese of Chichester. In the 1920s number 10 was converted into flats and the basement was used as the living space for the caretakers. The old lady had arrived in the 1920s with her parents who were the original caretakers. After their death, she stayed on in that position at a wage of £2.6s a week. She would gladly allow Nick Tyson to tape record all her memories when he visited but she would never pose for a photograph, saying she didn’t want any fuss. She was always embarrassed at how old fashioned and plainly decorated her home was. She found it difficult to believe she was living in an architectural gem!
Later, when she was in her 80’s and in poor health, she was moved into sheltered accommodation and the whole building was sold to developers. It was then that Nick decided to try to preserve her wonderful home.
Buying the basement to save it!
The development company gave the Regency Town House three months to raise the money – the race was on! A bid to the newly created National Lottery was made but more money was needed and so a huge fund raising campaign was started.
People were invited to visit the basement and see for themselves how valuable it was.
Nick recalls: ‘The interest in №10 was phenomenal. People were so impressed with what they saw that many visitors made contributions on the spot and even sent in second donations. They were determined not to sit back and let an historical gem end up in a builders skip. The general public gave nearly £15,000 and the developers kindly agreed to wait a few more months. It was announced in June 1995 that the Regency Town House was the recipient of the first ever Heritage Lottery Fund grant in the South East and with their support the basement was saved”.
Daily Struggle to maintain it
Buying the basement paved the way for the project as it is seen today. It also greatly increased the physical repair demands faced by Nick Tyson and the Town House team of volunteers.
Since the basement at №10 Brunswick Square was bought in 1995, there has been a daily struggle to stay ahead of the fabric maintenance demands the two properties dictate.
“Our buildings decay daily, in response to the vagaries of the UK weather. There’s a never-ending list of works to do” says Nick Tyson
Each year, the Town House team of volunteers have laboured hard to stop decomposition and do a little more too.
Much of the maintenance work is unseen by the general visitor. It occurs on locations such as parapets or roofs, out of site. Or it replaces a modern material with a traditional one. An example of this happened a few years ago.
It was decided to replace the concrete screed covering the back yard with York stone slabs. This was to re-establish the original finish. Either material provides a hard and weather resilient finish to the back yard so it is not immediately obvious to visitors that one has been removed and the other introduced.
But Nick argues that it is a demanding and significant task.
Nick says, “There were obvious benefits of reinstating stone. The project, though, also led to us discovering the original and functional well to the House. That was an exciting find. I thought it might have filled in long ago.”
Housekeeper’s room finished!
The restoration of the basement has started in the housekeeper’s room. It’s the same room that was pictured at the start of this article. Through volunteer hard work it has been transformed. Here is a list of just a few things that have changed:-
- a concrete floor has been removed and replaced with a wooden floor. The wood comes from a factory from the 1830s.
- all the walls have been repaired using traditional lime plaster, the material they were made of originally. The volunteers were taught to use this challenging material.
- a new cast iron fire place has been put back
- the walls were decorated and painted in the original green colour
- all woodwork has been painted and wood grained in an oak finish
The housekeeper’s room will act as a template for all the other rooms in the basement. One by one the whole basement will be restored back to its former glory.
If you would like to visit the Town House on a guided tour with the curator, please visit the Regency Town House website.