​The Kemp Town Estate

This page contains articles illustrating the social history around living on the Kemp Town Estate. Titles can be see on the right hand side of the page or at the foot of the page.

Thomas Read Kemp (1782-1844)

Kemp Town is not only the earliest example of Georgian seaside architecture, but the largest as well. Lewes Crescent, for example, is some 200 feet wider than The Royal Crescent in Bath. This spaciousness of layout is the very feature that Thomas Kemp wanted to appeal to the town’s wealthiest visitors, who would come to newly fashionable Brighton for the season and entertain on a lavish scale. The landscaped enclosures too are integral to his grand design and since 1995 have been accorded the status of an English Heritage site of historic interest.

Thomas Read Kemp came from a land-owning family. His father, also Thomas, MP for Lewes, where the younger Thomas was born, was left a moiety of the manor of Brighton by his uncle, Thomas Friend. In 1786 part of this was rented by the Prince of Wales, who later built the Royal Pavilion on the site.

Thomas Reid Kemp as a young man
Thomas Read Kemp as a young man

Thomas the younger read Theology at St John’s College, Cambridge, and the year after he graduated, in 1806, married Frances Baring, daughter of Sir Francis, the founder of Baring’s Bank, by whom he had four sons and six daughters. In 1811 he succeeded his late father, both as Lord of the Manor of Brighton and as MP for Lewes. He resigned his seat in 1816 in order to found a dissenting religious sect, first at St James’ Chapel in St James’ Street and then at Trinity Chapel in Ship Street, designed by Amon Henry Wilds. The Kemps and their growing family lived firstly at Herstmonceaux, then at the Temple, later to become Brighton and Hove High School in Montpelier, also designed by Wilds. By 1823, Thomas had returned to the established church, which enabled him to resume a career as an MP, firstly for Arundel, then for Lewes again from 1826 -37.

Brighthelmstone
Brighthelmstone

In 1823 Kemp laid out York Street, now Eastern Road, to link the town to a whole new fashionable development for which the practised Wilds and less experienced Busby were the chosen architects. The original plan was for an estate of 250 houses (incorporating two additional squares) but this ambitious scheme was modified to the 105 that we now know. Soon after completing the designs, Busby went off to work for the Rev George Scutt on the other great Brighton project, Brunswick Town to the west, and Busby likewise found other work. In the meantime, Kemp paid the builder George Stafford to erect some of the carcasses of some of the houses.

During this period Kemp, like many developers before and since, was over-extending himself. He was not only paying the builders of the square, crescent and terraces but also the many workmen who were levelling the gardens, under the direction of the landscape gardener Henry Phillips. In addition to all this, he was paying the workmen who were constructing the esplanade to the south. This was a massive construction operation and he inevitably ran short of money. He borrowed £28,000 from his wife’s wealthy family, the Barings, and sold The Temple and St James’ Chapel.A further way of freeing up capital between 1824 and 1840 was to sell 99 year leases on over half the plots, mainly to local builders. These included Ingledew, Wyborn, the Wilks brothers and of course Thomas Cubitt, the builder of Belgrave Square in London, who took over 37 houses. (His houses form a distinct group in the estate and are recognisable inside by their reliefs on the ground or first floor and by their stone staircases and cast iron stair rails.) Every sale was accompanied by a specification to which the exterior of the house on each site had to be built. Every detail was covered down to the design, width and length of the cast iron balconies and type of stone to be used for steps. There were originally no belvederes. The carcass had the front, back and side walls with the joists for each floor (no staircases) and the roof. The final purchaser then chose plans for the interior, which explains why the houses are all so different inside.

The Kemp Town Estate
The Kemp Town Estate

A further way of freeing up capital between 1824 and 1840 was to sell 99 year leases on over half the plots, mainly to local builders. These included Ingledew, Wyborn, the Wilks brothers and of course Thomas Cubitt, the builder of Belgrave Square in London, who took over 37 houses.

Business also picked up when the very wealthy bought houses, most notably the Marquis of Bristol and Lawrence Peel in the two north corners of the square and the Duke of Devonshire, at the south-west corner of Lewes Crescent. Kemp himself moved into No 22 Sussex Square and installed his sister-in-law, Mrs Ann Sober, next door; his brother-in-law, Philip Laycock Storey, was already established at 25.

Thomas Reid Kemp later in life
Thomas Read Kemp later in life

Apart from his property work Kemp was conspicuous in public affairs: he was an ex-officio town commissioner, a trustee of the Steine and a magistrate; he was generous in gifting land for worthy causes such as schools and hospitals. He was widowed in 1825 and in 1832 married Frances Harvey. Their son, Frederick, was to inherit the moiety of the manor and the freehold of the enclosures. In 1834 the Kemps moved to their now completed house at 24 Belgrave Square, London, only rarely returning to Brighton. In 1837 they went to live in Paris at 64 Rue de Faubourg Saint Honore, where he died on 18 December 1844. He is buried in Pere-la-Chaise cemetery.

Further Reading