The landscape of Patcham, the village just north of Brighton, changed dramatically in July 1921.

This was because the Abergavenny estate, lords of the manor since the 15th century, sold 1,300 acres of downland encircling it.

Within days of the auction a large area west of the London Road at Sweet Hill was being advertised for sale at £10 a quarter acre.

The new landowner, Thomas Gasson, was a Brighton property speculator and evangelical Christian, whose plan was to create a new community on the windswept hillside.

But this caused consternation at Brighton Council as its pumping station at Waterhall was nearby.

Brighton had intended buying the land to protect its water supply but at the auction the price went above the estimate. When the officials left to secure further funds, Gasson snapped up the land.

Sweet Hill was termed a “plot land” or a “shack and track” settlement, with old army huts bought for about £25 each.

They had no gas or electricity, limited and expensive water from the development company and no sewerage disposal.

Brighton’s pumping station was on land located outside its boundary and under the jurisdiction of Steyning East Rural District Council, which was unable to enforce limited planning controls then in use.

The Sweet Hill Estate grew with only cesspits for human waste. But several households broke open the brick-lined pits to avoid clearance costs.

This allowed waste to percolate through the chalk and endanger the Brighton water collection.

Chicken farms proliferated on the hill alongside smallholdings, linked by rutted chalk and cinder tracks.

Building was sporadic and haphazard. Structures erected at weekends were plundered in the week for building materials. Everything had to be laboriously hauled up the hill from Patcham.

The Steyning planners were swamped with illegal occupations and inappropriate buildings. One occupant described it later as scattered squalor.

In 1924 Brighton sought a government bill to secure the land, which resulted in a hotly contested legal dispute.

Many of the settlers were returned servicemen seeking homes fit for heroes and pleaded with the court to allow them their downland idyll.

But a lawyer for the council said the settlers were interested in keeping animals which led to “pigsties, cowsheds, fowl huts and things of that sort”.

The settlers lost their case but were given substantial cash payments to leave. Many were also given new council houses on the Steyning-owned estate at Patchdean.

Homes at Sweet Hill were abandoned and the surviving developments were largely destroyed during the war. Today it is the southern edge of the South Downs National Park.

This article is based on research by Dr Geoffrey Mead of the University of Sussex.

  • The Patcham and Hollingbury Conservation Association is a newly formed group whose initial concerns include the state of the local twittens, flooding and protecting the water supply from pollution. The group is also looking at other local environmental ideas to see if they could benefit from extra support. For more information, email