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Of all the main shopping streets in Brighton, St James’s Street is the oldest and most handsome.
It is the only one not to have been widened and it still contains a large number of original buildings.
But it has suffered from a downturn in trade more than most and is only now slowly starting to recover.
In the 1960s it boasted branches of major retailers such as Sainsbury’s and Woolworth’s, but they closed as trade migrated to London Road and Western Road.
The Presto store was built in 1985, against considerable opposition. Now Sainsbury’s has returned to the street and there is also a Tesco.
St James’s Street was developed in the 1790s to serve the population of east Brighton and has done so ever since.
A fascinating web of narrow streets has grown up around the main shopping area with historic alleys, churches and houses.
It has prompted author Edwin Miller to write a history of the district, concentrating on the 19th century.
He says the early shops were predominantly family businesses. In 1822, there were 11 grocers, five butchers, one fishmonger, four greengrocers, 13 clothes shops, 12 furnishers and two pubs.
In 1910 there were 38 shops selling food, although by this time some of them were operated by national concerns. It was the advent of Presto supermarket (now Morrison’s) that hastened their decline.
There was a mixture of traders in the district. The professionals such as solicitors and doctors tended to live in broad streets such as Dorset Gardens, while poorer people often lived further east in small homes.
The area changed after the Second World War and many families moved elsewhere. Miller thinks this contributed to a drop in trade.
One of the most prominent buildings at the western end of the street is typical of the changes. It was a Lyons tea shop for many years before becoming a job centre.
Independent grocery chain Taj took it over but it has since become a new branch of Sainsbury’s.
New Steine is a good example of how the area has revived. The gardens were scrubby and unattractive for a long time before they were landscaped and enclosed, with an interesting Aids memorial installed at the northern end.
There were many churches, including St Mary’s (still in use today) and St James’s which was demolished in 1950. Another substantial building is Dorset Gardens Methodist Church, which has been rebuilt. There used to be a handsome synagogue in Devonshire Place.
Although narrow, St James’s Street remained two-way until 1968, when through traffic was encouraged to use Edward Street which had been widened into a dual carriageway.
Horse-drawn buses used St James’s Street on their journeys from Brighton Station to Kemp Town. Trams never went there but trolleybuses did and several major bus routes use it eastwards today.
The street had an unsavoury reputation in the 1980s and 1990s when it was used by drinkers and drug dealers.
It has now improved and is one of the main centres for the gay scene in the city, especially at the western end.
Miller says: “St James’s Street has survived for over 200 years. It has changed to meet challenges in the past and it is fairly certain it will do the same in the future.”
* St James’s Street Brighton And Its Environs – A Walk Through Its History by Edwin P Miller is published by Pomegranate Press, priced £12.50.
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