Before the railways came to Eastbourne in 1849 on England’s south coast between Brighton and Hastings, it was quite a small series of almost joined hamlets, certainly less than 2,000 population, not based on the coast but inland around natural water outlets. By 1880 it had grown tenfold.
Variety was popular in London, with the music halls, it was natural for the performers to be invited to the newly developed seaside. But in Eastbourne, there was nowhere, because of puritanism. The vast majority of land was and is owned by either the Davis Gilbert families, or the Duke of Devonshire. At the time it was the 7th Duke, who had inherited his title as a young man, living on his Chatsworth estate in Derbyshire, leaving management of Eastbourne lands to his local resident agent, who was fully aware of his proprietor’s wishes. Nothing lewd, nothing salacious, Eastbourne was built by gentlemen for gentlemen.
The eastern end of town was populated by artisans, common people who were there to service the needs of the gentry. These common sorts drank, so there were many public houses, with the development of music entertainment going hand in hand. By 1880 many London pubs had music halls attached, with acts only allowed to perform under licence for a few minutes, and accompanied by music, which is why the great entertainers were superb singers.
The Club Hotel had a function hall attached, mainly for lunches and evening dinner gatherings, but Albert Hounsom was the new owner, seeing vast potential. There was a local hall for public entertainment, even The Great Vance came in summer 1880, quite a coup because he was one of the biggest contemporary draws. By October 1880 the Club Hotel had a hall with a small platform stage, footlights, and a tiny side pit for the musicians. It was called the Britannia Hall of Varieties, with seating for 250 patrons.
That winter it had a dual purpose, continuing with functions for clubs and societies, as well as music hall entertainment. This consisted of mainly local acts, singing songs, amateurs with piano and violin recitals, but by next Spring Mr. Hounsom converted it to permanent entertainment. He was quite an entrepreneur, because he also provided the entertainment for the pier. In January 1877 it suffered a severe fire, was re-built after finance raised, but owners needed something to attract people to attend, pay the admission fee, for a structure that had no buildings, just a promenade out to sea.
The temporary theatre was nothing better than a canvas structure on a large frame, with seating for 200. The season was for three months, it must have been pretty uncomfortable, sitting on wooden benches with the wind whistling around the flaps, it must have been pretty demanding for the performers, entertaining in these conditions. Where Mr. Hounsom was clever was he would book the major London music hall stars to come down to perform at the Britannia, but part of the deal was for them to appear four times during the day on the pier, a different audience to those in an evening pub atmosphere.
Mark Jones in his 2007 publication The Britannia Theatre managed to find an excellent quote “the Hall has been very tastefully and comfortably fitted-up, and consists of a moderate-sized stage with footlights, front reserved seats at one shilling, and back seats at sixpence entrance. A very amusing variety entertainment takes place here every evening. The reserved places are quite separated from the rest of the hall, there are cushioned chairs, with small mahogany tables, the floor being covered with carpet. A very superior class of performers is engaged, and the dresses and general “get up” would do no discredit to a London music hall.
By Spring a more permanent structure was erected on the pier, albeit not a proper building. However, there was unrest with the business owners, because they wanted a legitimate theatre, not the music hall. They tried to have the licence revoked without success, reasoning that because it attracted the common element, it must be discouraged because unrest might be fomented. Unemployment was rife, many houses were unoccupied, meaning that public services could not be supported because of lack of local taxes. Housing was basic, no street lighting, sanitation primitive, water provided by a horse drawn wagon filled from the local fresh Bourne spring. No public school, no police force, social friction.
Entrepreneur Hounsom also owned 120 of the 200 seafront bathing machines.
In the next three years, the Theatre Royal opened less than half a mile away, with Hounsom extending the Britannia to seat 650. The quality of acts was stunning, George Leybourne starring at £100 a week, as did Charles Coburn. But by April 1886 the music hall was closed, due to falling audiences, bad weather, fewer holidaymakers, and its location in the poorer part of town. Open for just six years, Albert and family relocated to America. He died in 1889, aged just 43.
It re-opened as a low quality place in 1896 for four years, when finally closing the attached theatre to the Club Hotel was demolished, houses replacing. It was renamed as the Bourne Inn, successful, but then since WW2 gradually becoming a sad reflection. Unsocial behaviour, frequent drug raids, it was finally closed in May 2019, with planning permission for conversion into many flats.