Little Known BrightonHaving mentioned dear old Brighton in the last RANDOM DRIFTWOOD, I thought perhaps it was time to look at a little of Brighton's local history. This, along with the Elks may encourage you adventurous spirits to travel in the dense, old, real world to this beautiful town. (I would like to stress that the Brighton Tourist Board have in no way paid for this week column).
There are many attractions to Brighton, the two piers (one broken), the Royal Pavilion, the rather fine Virgin Records, but I wish to concentrate on a place often neglected by the tourist guides. Fingles' Cafe of Upper South Street is a place I am often found supping a nice cup of tea, chomping on a scone and discussing the world and its woes with a mix crowd of Brighton's finest brains, wittiest wits, comeliest faces and most attractive ankles. But Fingles' is more than a meeting place for my cronies and I. It has a past deeply tied to that of Brighton.
Brighton's rise to prominence in the late 18th century was in great part due to the patronage of that fine fellow the Prince Regent, who had first arrived in 1783. It was the month of May in the year of our Lord 1785, when Horatio Fingles (described as 'a poor gentleman of Sussex') and his brother Augustine, opened their establishment, Fingles' Coffee House. Little is heard of Fingles' for the next ten years, other than brief mentions of it in tax entries. But it would seem to have prospered greatly. In 1798, it was immortalised in satirical cartoons of the day. The Prince Regent, by then a frequenter it would seem of Fingles', is pictured with his mistress of that year, Mistress Fanny White. There exists only a tattered remnant of the full cartoon (by Blackwood), but a buttered crumpet appears to have fallen down the buxom Mistress White's cleavage. Unfortunately, no caption or speech bubbles are remaining. Dr.S.K. Mount in his book, 'The Poisoned Pens: Satirical Cartooning in the 1700's' has suggested that the scene represents a metaphor for the then poor esteem in which the Prince was held, the buttery crumpet being popular opinion.
Throughout the nineteenth century, Fingles' is featured as the meeting place of many a fine Brighton gentleman and woman . The famous, when taking the healing water, also visited. Dickens was said to take tea there, Wilde enjoyed a jam doughnut from Fingles' more than once or thrice. The world and his fragrant niece rushed to Brighton, and when they did they inevitably turned to Fingles' when they needed a beverage and a buttered crumpet.
The 1920's saw a darker time, though Fingles' was graced by a visit from the heavenly Miss Louise Brooks in that decade. The time was one of menace on the streets of Brighton. The infamous razor-gangs still held sway, robbing and a-mugging. Fingles' had fallen on hard times after the Great War, in which many of the male Fingles' perished for King and Country. The Coffee House became the meeting place for the terrible Tiny Thomas Gang, a bunch of ne'er do well cutthroats and brigands. These sharply dressed louts drank milky tea and sneered at the Fingles' buttered crumpets, preferring toast! Such barbarity was only tolerated by the owners because the Tiny Thomas Gang where rather rich. Also their presence attracted a number of crime writer, scandal sheet journalists and undercover policemen, all with expenses budgets and fine appetites.
Fingles' regained some of its former glory in the 1960's when it was patronised by Princess Margaret, and later by Lady Dorothy Fleabald, the inheritor of the renowned Fleabald millions. The 1970's, tiresome and flare-plagued times, were not so kind and Fingles' finally closed in 1978. Fingles' remained closed until 1989 when Dave Pearce, (yes it is he!), later founder of HedWeb and eccentric millionaire, bought the Fingles' site. As a man with an eye for history and his beloved Brighton, he first restored the building, opening it in 1990 as a bar and massage parlour. After some unsavoury incidents in 1991, one involving a prominent Tory MP and a jar of peanut butter, the ever zestful Mr. Pearce decided to change tack. It was when I pointed out the historical significance of the site, that Dave saw the possibility of re-opening Fingles'. This time as a more fashionable Cafe. The day it filled its first coffee cup was marked by celebrations the length and breadth of Brighton. Fingles' had become the five hundredth cafe to open in Brighton since 1987.
Should you come o Brighton, perhaps to see the Pavilion, perhaps to pet the elk, do pop in to Fingles'. A fine cup of coffee and a tasty buttered crumpet can be yours for a very moderate price. And if you should spy a wan, slightly aged man, a little raffish and unkempt, dressed in a smoking jacket and surrounded by a group of pretty young things, that my dear, will be me. Do come over to my table, say hello, may be comment on the fine architecture or the quality of your crumpet.
Farewell until next time...
BM Random Driftwood:
The Claws of Death
Whatever Happened to Mutley?