Fortunately it was not all hard work and poverty for those who lived on Newmarket Hill. Although the picture of Colonel Leigh was drawn in 1803, similar such characters would have been regular visitors to the hill throughout the late 18th and 19th centuries. The Prince Regent’s move to Brighton attracted large numbers of fashionable high society. Beyond the Brighton Race Course were the open downs of which Newmarket Hill was a central landmark. Their openness was a special attraction. The extremely shallow chalk soils of this part of the downs saved them from being ploughed up and fenced in. They were best suited to the grazing of sheep, tended by a lonely shepherd and his dog. Elsewhere, after the enclosures of the 18th and early 19th century, the planting of hedges and the building of fences completely altered the open field landscapes that had existed for hundreds of years. To be free to gallop on a horse for miles at a time without encountering obstacles along the way was a rare pleasure for those rich enough to be able to afford to do so.
One of the oldest hunts in the country, the famous Brookside Harriers, met every week on Newmarket Hill. They hunted hares on horseback using a breed of beagle specially used to hunt them by smell, unlike greyhounds that hunt by sight. The relatively slow beagles meant that even poor riders were able to keep up, and the hare could be followed a good long distance, and had a sporting chance of getting away.
Even more spectacular were the military reviews that were held right across these downs. These were often huge affairs involving thousands of troops and tens of thousands of spectators. One famous occasion, back in 1797, the Sussex Weekly Advertiser reported that the Prince of Wales on Newmarket Hill got a thorough soaking from a “water spout” (a tornado) and which also caused the defeat of the troops. It was described as being the exact shape of an inverted church steeple.
In 1810, for the special event of the Prince of Wales’ birthday, over 12,000 troops and 1,000 cavalry took part in a grand military review. The troops were reported to have formed a continuous line stretching from Newmarket Hill to Rottingdean Windmill. They were watched by about 30,000 spectators. This was at a time before the railways, and when the total population of Brighton and Lewes combined was only 12,000 people.
By 1862 the railways were well established. That year’s military review decided to evaluate the use of railways to enable the movement of troops. Some 19,000 troops were involved, and more than 132,000 people, including both military and spectators, were transported to Brighton by train that day. The nearby newly built Warren Farm Industrial School (now the Nuffield Hospital, Woodingdean) was used as a field hospital. Such events must have been spectacular indeed.
Previous: Chapter 4. New Owner, New Farmers, Old Managers—1832–1864