The Regency Town House is the site of a momentous restoration project. The Georgian terraced property, part of architect Charles Busby’s Brunswick Estate, is an impressive example of 19th century architecture.
Unlike most of the properties on the square, Regency Town House is remarkable as it remains relatively unchanged from its Georgian beginnings. But with age has come disrepair, which means that some TLC is needed to restore it to its former glory.
Enter a team of hard-working and enthusiastic volunteers, whose tireless efforts are helping to transform the property into a museum and heritage centre, with meticulous attention given to historical accuracy. We recently caught up with volunteer Paul Couchman to get an insider’s look at this ambitious project…
Tell us about what you do
My name is Paul Couchman and I do historic cooking/social media/publicity for The Regency Town House as a volunteer, which I stumbled across by accident, looking at an exhibition. The house looked like it hadn’t been touched in decades and there was evidence of decay everywhere. That house needed to be loved, I decided there and then, and that’s when I signed up to be a volunteer.
At first I plastered. I was taught by Paul, a plasterer all his life, who took many volunteers under his wing and taught them him skills. I helped to plaster the basement kitchen at number 13, and two years of hard work and long days later, the room was finished. It was almost sad. What now? Paul the plasterer actually fell ill and had to leave the project, and the room that a small team of us had lovingly helped to save soon filled up with junk and wood.
It broke my heart to see the room unused and unloved. After a few months I decided to try and use it as a kitchen, and successfully used it to make 96 mince pies for a Christmas performance. The last time that room had been used as a kitchen was about 80 years before.
Then dreamed up a new dining event to use the kitchen properly… ‘Dine like a Servant’. I cooked in the scullery and used the kitchen to seat the guests. The guests would take the role of servants for the night, eating the leftovers from a feast that had taken place upstairs. Many of the other volunteers were sceptical but it turned out to be a huge success. The Argus newspaper ran a piece, we were interviewed for magazines, radio and TV. The kitchen started to become a useful and profitable part of the charity.
We now do Dine like a Servant and Lunch with the Curator events, and we also sell historic pickles which we make on site. There are even plans for a small recipe book.
Tell us what you can about the history of the house
Behind everything that happens at The Regency Town House is Nick Tyson, the project’s founder. He thought of the idea of developing the project in 1984 and has since transformed the property. It’s a slow process of very careful restoration to restore the house to its 1820s/1830s timeline. We have recently completed our first full room, the housekeeper’s room at 10 Brunswick Square.
The house represents a different side to Brighton homes than the Brighton Pavilion. The Town House is representative of many high class residential properties, built for the upper classes at the beginning of the nineteenth century. The Regency style of the ‘Town House’ extended long after the Regency period was over, where the building crash meant that a style popular in the 1830s continued to be used until the 1850s in Brighton, and so much of the city’s architecture is in this style.
Nick has always been reliant on volunteers, as the project is too huge to tackle alone and funding has always been a problem. They’ve put their hands to all sorts of activities, including fundraising by staging events, woodgraining, plastering and carpentry. And he’s also been lucky to get the help from skilled professionals (often retired) who have given their expertise for free and helped to train others. The Town House is above all else a place of learning. People volunteer to learn, and for the community and friendship that the project offers.
How are the renovations carried out?
As much of the original fabric of the building has been preserved, and all repairs to the building are done using traditional techniques and traditional materials where possible, volunteers are trained to repair lath and use lime putty plaster. We regularly hold courses to ensure that these techniques are not forgotten.
It’s not always an easy process. Volunteers struggled to get the basement of number 10 free from pigeons just before the building was open for visitors — an experience one volunteer says that she will never forget. There are tales of rooms full to knee high with pigeon droppings, which had to be removed by many volunteers equipped with wheel barrows.
Nick is keen to ensure that volunteers learn real skills and are able to work without constant supervision. They are are encouraged to share their opinions and develop their own projects, with Nick stepping in to offer guidance.
What can you tell us about Hove/Brighton and the Regency period generally and why is that interesting?
The first question we are asked is why are we called The Regency Town House when the house was actually built around 1830 — long after the official Regency period. The historical and political definition of the Regency is the period from 1811 to 1820 when George, Prince of Wales, (the Prince Regent) governed the country as his father, King George III was deemed unfit to rule himself.
Much of Brighton exemplifies the period during which Regency style is the strongest influence — from the 1780s when George first visited as Prince of Wales, to the late 1840s, when the glittering social scene was fuelled by an influx of visitors who arrived on the newly opened railway from London.
The architectural and decorative features of The Regency Town House epitomise the confidence, sophistication and wealth associated with this style and period.
Does the House have a ghost?!
It’s a frequently asked question by visitors — and I’d love to say yes — but I haven’t experienced anything personally. Occasionally I’ll suddenly feel that I have to leave, late at night usually. Old houses make noises that you can’t always explain. But I don’t put that down to spirits.
What is it used for today?
The list of things that throughout the year is a long one. The house is used for exhibitions of course — but also for talks, fashion shows, photo shoots, filming, and as a dining space. It’s even had an artificial iceberg in the dining room and a ferris wheel in the drawing room.
What type of events work best?
Those that embrace the different sorts of spaces that the Town House offers work best. It is not a bland building. The rooms have very different characteristics which provide beautiful backgrounds and contrast to many different types of art or installation. For example, the kitchen is a wonderful space to eat in of course, and the dining room upstairs could be an atmospheric location for a book launch.
How does the charitable trust side of things work?
The Regency Town House is supported in its activities by the Brunswick Town Charitable Trust, recieving grants for historical research work. The continuing maintenance and restoration is funded by fundraising events and exhibition/room hire.
How can people get involved or help?
The Town House is almost completely reliant on its volunteers. Volunteers are responsible for publicity, organizing heritage open days, coordinating and doing research work, planning events, making costumes, cooking, providing guided tours or dressing up, and acting as historical characters.
There is a volunteering job waiting for anyone who has a passion for history and a sense of adventure. Please get in contact with us and we’ll arrange a friendly chat with our volunteer coordinator Gilly Burton.
If you’d like to donate to help to keep our activities going or to become a Friend of the House for £25 a year, here is the link: www.rth.org.uk/support
If you’re interested in volunteering email them on firstname.lastname@example.org
To keep up with events like Dine Like a Servant, follow on Facebook HERE
Ellis is a Sussex University superstar. As an intern he’s been thrown into the deep end at Title Media, producing written, photographic and video content. Waving not drowning though