Adam Trimingham takes a look back at some of eighteenth century celebs who made Brighton their destination of choice.

Many people think Brighton was little more than a fishing village before the Prince Regent arrived in the 1780s with all his glamour and glitter.

But the resort was thriving well before then and some of the greatest names of the age paid visits to it.

Among them was Dr Samuel Johnson, author, wit and founder of the first great English dictionary. He stayed several times with his friend Hester Thrale in West Street.

Although the doctor was a portly man not known for undertaking exercise, he still enjoyed swimming in the sea when he was in his mid 50s.

Helped into the sea by Smoaker Miles, one of the best known bathing attendants, the doctor surprised everyone by being a strong swimmer.

Miles told him: “You must have been a stout hearted gentleman 40 years ago,” which was a barbed compliment.

Johnson did not think much of Brighton saying: “You hunt in the morning and crowd to the rooms at night and call it diversion when your heart knows it is perishing from poverty of pleasures and your wits get blunted for want of some other mind to sharpen them on.” This did not prevent him from having a furious argument at the Old Ship assembly rooms one night with the combative Rector of St Nicholas church, The Rev Henry Michell.

And he told Mrs Thrale: “Brighton is so truly desolate that if one had a mind to hang oneself for desperation at being obliged to live there, it would be difficult to find a tree on which to fasten the rope.”

Another visitor to Hester Thrale’s home was the novelist Fanny Burney whose 1779 novel Evelina was the sensation of the nation. She made tart observations of local nobs in her diary.

Soon afterwards Edward Gibbon arrived in Brighton having just completed the third volume of his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Gibbon enjoyed Brighton, admired the sea views, and described the climate as temperate. He walked around the Steine, rode into the country, and read books voraciously.

He also enjoyed sea swimming and said: “The air gives health, spirits and a ravenous appetite.”

The radical politician John Wilkes paid several visits to Brighton in the 1770s, enjoying the liberal atmosphere that the town possessed from its earliest days.

Many aristocrats also came to Brighton including the Duke of Marlborough who bought a house in Old Steine which is still named after him. Royalty arrived before the Prince Regent in the form of the Duke of Gloucester who went there in 1765.

The town was so enthused by the visit of the Duke of Cumberland in 1771 that church bells were rung and a salute was fired from the town’s battery.

All these visitors enabled Brighton to lengthen its season in the late 18th century from the summer months to include late spring and early autumn. By then it was rare among provincial towns in having two sets of assembly rooms.

The stage was then set for the arrival of the Prince Regent and the creation of the Royal Pavilion which made a fashionable resort fabulous.