Sydney Street is the northernmost shopping thoroughfare of the four streets that make up the North Laine
shopping area lying between Gloucester Road to the south and Trafalgar Street to the north. Just under half way another road, Gloucester Street, heads east to Gloucester Place, the A23. The street was constructed in stages during the 1840s built on what was the Third Furlong of the former field known as the North Laine
. The west side had been completed by the mid 1840s and the east side finished by 1850. The houses built were mainly low cost terraced housing though the street is interspersed with larger three story buildings a sign that it was developed by more than one builder. Brighton’s fringe had been creeping northwards from what is now Church Street since the 1820s and received a huge impetus by the arrival further up the hill of the railway in 1841.
The street was originally built for residential purposes interspersed with a few businesses, shops and pubs which would by and large remain the case up to the end of the 19th century. For example in 1899 the street contained three pubs, three furniture dealers, three drapers/clothiers and a few other businesses but few shops in the conventional sense. This gradually changed over the next twenty or so years with the development of London Road as a distinct shopping area. The link by foot between London Road and central Brighton would not follow what is now the A23 down the western side of the Old Steine but cut in through the back streets following the route from York Place, west up Trafalgar Street then south through Sydney Street, Kensington Gardens, Gardner Street and Bond Street until North Street was reached. Whilst the businesses relied on local custom it could also pick up trade from those using this route into town.
In 1899 only 15 businesses were operating in the street, by 1919 this had risen to 35 and by 1956 up to 40. Some businesses lasted a long time; Edward Long’s gasfitters operated in the same spot for 94 years, Gibson’s drapers and outfitters 80 years, EB Boys the leather merchants 83 years, the Co-operative clothing store in all its guises around 75 years. Also noticeable is the type of businesses remained constant despite ownership changes, the bakery at number 40 operated for just over 100 years, whilst the greengrocers at number 3 survived for 68 years. However, a distinctive side to the street was the growth of butchers, there was just one in 1912, two by the end of the 1920s, five by the outbreak of the Second World War and seven by 1960. In the pre supermarket days and before many of them owned freezing facilities Saturday afternoons would bring about an impromptu auction enabling many customers whose budgets were tight to pick up decent cuts of meat for bargain prices for Sunday lunch. All seven were still in situ in 1974 but had dropped to just two by the end of the 1980s with the last one going in 2001.
The last bakery went in 1975 though Forfars still operate from 20 Trafalgar Street on the corner of Sydney Street. The last greengrocer survived until the mid 1990s and the last fishmonger went at the beginning of that decade. The growth of supermarkets and the demolition of a large area of housing north of Trafalgar Street in the 1960s along with the proposed demolition of much of the North Laine
in the 1970s meant a change in the type of retailing from the late 1960s onwards, cheap rents allowed smaller shops an opportunity with the 1980s seeing a growth in the second hand trade, particularly record shops where at one point there were five on the street trading in new or second hand goods. Antiques shops dealing in both items and clothing also came and went. Both were to eventually be undone by the growth of online trading with the last second had record shop closing in 2006 though Across the Tracks still trades on the corner at Gloucester Road.
Once the North Laine
was saved from demolition the area witnessed another shift, cheap rents for shops and cheap rents for housing meant an influx of students into the area and with that the gradual evolution of shopping aimed towards a younger generation that was both cheap and not mainstream. This was noticeable in the street from the end of the 1980s onwards with the proliferation of vintage second hand clothing stores as well as during the last few years where there has been a growth of shops based on the fair trade and the green principle. The small nature of these businesses who have to encounter cyclical recessions along with rising rents and changes in fashion and taste means turnover is often great which has been noticeable since the 1980s where many shops seem to disappear after three years.
As long as Sydney Street remains different whether it is the colourful shop fronts or the items on sale it should prosper, it is very noticeable that even in the midst of a current recession there is only one empty shop in the street. The real danger would be the arrival of the multiple High Street stores who would most likely push rents up and change the character of the area. At present both Brighton council and the local traders association are against this move. Long may it continue.