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9:55am Tuesday 24th July 2012 in Nostalgia
When Brighton was little more than a village, fishing was the dominant industry and nearly all the families there took part in it.
This is faithfully reflected in displays at the Brighton Fishing Museum on the Lower Esplanade, not far from the Old Ship Hotel.
Fishermen never went in the sea, knowing how dangerous and cold it could be, and some of them could not swim.
But as Brighton became fashionable and famous over the years, so activities on the seafront expanded to please tourists and local people whenever they had time for leisure.
They included sea swimming, entertainment such as Punch and Judy shows, and new pleasure palaces such as the West Pier .
All of these are now reflected in extended displays at the museum.
Brighton Swimming Club, founded in 1860, is Britain’s oldest. It has a long and fascinating history.
Much of this has been recorded recently under a Lottery-funded project called Floating Memories and a display can be seen at the museum.
Bathers have been braving the waves off beaches in Brighton since the medical profession discovered it had health-giving properties. Many people go in at all times of the year and will enter water below freezing point. Some of the best swimmers can cover considerable distances and there have been examples of people powering their way to Worthing, more than ten miles away.
Each year there is a race between the West Pier and the Palace Pier , usually in July. The winners have included several swimmers who have also been cross-Channel champions.
This year it is scheduled for today at noon but will be postponed to August 4 if conditions are bad.
The picture above is from swimming club archives but no one is exactly sure of the date, which could be anywhere between 1863 and the early 1900s. Any help with further info is warmly welcomed. In 1866 the West Pier was built and was a vital part of the seafront for a century. It then declined and closed in 1975.
Two collapses and two arson attacks led to its current sad appearance and thwarted valiant attempts at restoration.
But work is likely to start on the Brighton i360 observation tower within the next year and this should encourage the development of a new pier.
Meanwhile the pier’s glory days, when millions of people visited it each year, can be relived at the Fishing Museum.
Punch and Judy shows have been taking place in many parts of Britain for several centuries and are particularly associated with the seaside.
Brighton has been favoured particularly by this form of entertainment – vigorous and remarkably politically incorrect – over the years.
The most celebrated Punch and Judy man post-war was Mike Stone, who was always worth watching but was also highly unpredictable.
Wish You Were Here is a schools educational programme which delivers the history of Mr Punch at the museum. The cost is £60 a class and more information is available from Katey Wilde on 01273 688515.
Brighton, together with Hove, is Britain’s leading and largest seaside resort, known to people all over the world.
But the museum rightly gives pride of place to the days when it was a tiny gale-swept huddle of houses whose inhabitants faced enormous dangers in gaining a meagre living from the sea.