Name of the Month: Brighton


Brighton, in Sussex on the south coast of England, formerly
Brighthelmston, has an Old English name meaning
`Brihthelm’s farm or estate’, where the male personal name involved, in “standard” or normalized West Saxon dialect,
would have been Beorhthelm `bright-helmet’. It is not recorded before
Domesday Book in 1086. For most of its history Brighton was a small town whose main industry was fishing, though the
original site of the fisheries, beneath the low cliffs, was attacked by coastal erosion through the 17th century and its
remnants were finally destroyed in the worst storm of the modern era in 1703.

The name is found in a surprising number of deviant forms, especially in early-modern times (1500-1700), such as
Brikehelmeston (1279), Bryghneston (1324), Bryghteston (1437), Brighthempston (1514), Brighthempsted (1606) and
even Brighter
(1636). It is not known when the abbreviated name currently in use was first coined, but the earliest
reference discovered so far is in a manuscript relating to Rye, also a fishing town in Sussex, dated 1683. Brighton
became a fashionable resort in the later part of the 18th century, and was under royal patronage (being visited by the
future Prince Regent and King George IV from 1783; he established his Marine Pavilion here), and thereafter the short
form gradually
displaced the longer form
even in official documents (from 1810), and in the first poem to describe Brighton as “The Queen of Watering Places”
(Horace Smith, 1813). The longer form disappears except in self-consciously antiquarian contexts during the following
decades. These facts suggest that the short form was originally a local variant rather than one imported by
the toffs of the Prince Regent’s circle, though they set the seal on the change. The railway company which served the
town from 1841 only ever used the short form.

It had a priory dependent on the great Cluniac house of Lewes. This priory was called Bartholomews, and it is
tempting to speculate that the consonantal frame of Brighthelm, as heard by French-speaking clerks at Lewes to
whom the English sound represented by gh would have been alien, suggested the dedication to the
apostle Bartholomew (Bartelmew in traditional English). His cult was very popular in England from the 12th
century onwards. Bartholomews remains as a street-name in the centre of the town.

Brighton now forms part of the newly created (2000) City of Brighton and Hove. Hove was originally a separate parish,
and from around 1800 developed as the western suburb of Brighton. The origin of its name is semantically obscure, but
it appears to derive from Old English hufe `hood, covering’, and it can only be guessed what object or structure
this denoted.

Brighton has given its name (probably not voluntarily!) to many other towns world-wide, and to several instances of
New Brighton.

Map and
image (1779)

The Royal Pavilion of the Prince Regent

Richard Coates