Brighton history


Meet Brighton's most prolific house builder

'In the sun those terraced houses,' wrote Gavin Ewart in his 1938 poem 'John Betjeman's Brighton'. Famous for its terraces, Brighton.

George Burstow is rarely—no, never—grouped with the names of Wilds and Busby et al. Yet the firm of George Burstow & Sons was responsible for far more terraces in Brighton, the ones away from the Regency seafront, the ones where Brightonians have lived since the end of the Victorian era. From 1901 to 1905 he built over 1,800 houses in Brighton, almost half the total in that period.

The name Burstow first appears in a planning application in 1894 but is curiously absent before then. In fact, George Burstow was born George Buster in Portslade in 1847, the son of a master bricklayer, who soon after moved the family to Over Street in Brighton and then to a grocery shop in Islingword Road. In the census returns for 1861 and 1871 his father was back at work as a bricklayer, employing four men in both years.
      George's elder brother William became a bricklayer but died in 1881; his father died the following year. George's younger brother Abram was an iron founder who owned the Star Foundry in Bread Street for a time.
      George trained as a carpenter. The earliest planning application involving George Buster was for 9 Cobden Road, dating from 1866, when he was only 19. This was followed over the next 30 years by no more than sporadic house-building and jobbing work, the only brief surge coming in 1881, when he built 18 houses in Crescent Road (over half of the east side) and Richmond Road. By then, aged 34, George had been married for four years, had two infant sons, was living at 15 Wakefield Road and was listed in the 1881 census as a master contractor, employing 23 men and two boys.
      Some of his few public buildings date from this period: The Salvation Army Congress Hall in Rose Hill and the Sussex Temporary Home for Lost and Starving Dogs (now the PDSA) in Robertson Road (both 1883).
      By this time he was also acquiring land and building houses. The earliest site found to date is in Wordsworth Street, in what is now Hove's Poets Corner, in 1883.
      The family was living at 17 Preston Road by 1885, George's wife, Elizabeth, died in 1889, aged only 39, leaving George with three sons. The family name was changed by deed poll in April 1894. About 1896 they moved to a more commodious home at 30 Florence Road.
      By 1899 the business had offices at 13 Gloucester Place and by the end of 1900 the firm was called Burstow & Sons. George's two elder sons, George Herbert and William John, had both trained as surveyors and land agents and joined their father. The youngest brother, Ralph Henry, had left home by 1901 and later became an auctioneer and valuer in Bexhill.

George moved out of Brighton around the turn of the century to a house called The Bitterns in Berwick. This suggests that the sons took over more of the management of the remarkable rise in the scale of business, From the 13 houses built in 1897, the pace of activity accelerated rapidly, reaching a peak in 1903 of 727 houses in Brighton, not only benefitting from a surge in local house-building but representing an astonishing 68 per cent of all houses submitted for planning that year.

Most of Burstow's house-building was in Brighton, notably the concentrations of housing in the area between Elm Grove and Hartington Road; from Bear Road north to Milner Road, Redvers Road (103 houses) and Buller Road; along Preston Park Avenue and Harrington Villas; between Surrenden Road and Ditchling Road—including Sandgate Road (113 houses) and most of Loder Road—and across to Stanmer Villas; around St Luke's school, including most of Freshfield Street and 10 houses in East Drive; and the terraced cottages of Bennett Road in Kemp Town.
      In Hove, however, he was employed to lay out roads on the Southdown Estate (Highdown Road, Cissbury Road, Chanctonbury Road, Wolstonbury Road, Caburn Road) in 1895, the Glen Estate by Portland Road (Bolsover Road, Grange Road, School Road, Kingsthorpe Road, Dallington Road, Milnthorpe Road) in 1897, St Leonard's Avenue in 1898, and the land between Montefiore Road and Holland Road from Old Shoreham Road to the railway (Highdown Road continuation, Heyshott Road, Graffham Road, Lavington Road, Chantry Road) in 1902.
      The firm's most prestigious building, apparently to the company's own designs, was Tower House, just over the then borough boundary in the Withdean section of London Road. Built in 1902 for James John Savage, the former jeweller to King Edward VII, it is now Grade II listed. In that year Burstow also built the first dwelling in Brighton specifically designated as a bungalow, in Balfour Road (since replaced).
      By 1905 the housing boom was over and new builds declined to a trickle by 1909 and did not pick up again until the 1920s. George remarried in 1905, to the 40-year-old daughter of a farmer at Arlington, near his new rural home. He died on Christmas Day 1910, aged 63. The sons kept the business going, George Herbert featuring in the planning applications after their father's death, but it was William's name that came to dominate by the late 1920s and into the 1930s.
      There are few photographs of the streets built by Burstow in the James Gray Collection. Is this because they were so common, so ordinary, so 'normal' as not to merit attention? Or perhaps because they were rarely under threat. Nearly all of them have survived and are the quintessential everyday element of the Brighton townscape behind the seafront splendour.

This is work in progress.

Page created 24 December 2015