Fighter for our city’s heritage

Article published June-July 2022 edition of North Laine Runner

On Easter Monday, Selma Montford, who devoted much of her life to campaigning for good building design, protecting the built historic environment and the provision of affordable housing, died at home surrounded by her family. Selma was awarded an MBE in 2006 ‘For services to Urban Conservation in Brighton and Hove, East Sussex’, an honour that reflected the tremendous work done by herself and the Brighton Society which she helped to set up.

Selma, together with John Morley, then Director of the Royal Pavilion, Art Gallery, and Museums, formed the Brighton Society in 1973 to stop the plan to demolish much of Brighton Station and its buildings. Since then the Society has become a highly influential and respected amenity group in Brighton, and although Selma stepped down from active involvement in 2017 her values continue. She had started campaigning against ugly buildings in the 1950s in London and the experience of training and teaching in several art schools taught her the importance of ensuring that good architecture had to provide people with quality housing which enhanced the communities in which they lived.

Selma wrote or co-wrote nearly 20 books on the history of Brighton, many of them published by her company, Brighton Town Press. Books like Backyard Brighton, Rose Hill to Roundhill and our own North Laine Book were based on interviews conducted with local residents. These books remain an important record of communities long gone, but what these books demonstrated was that it is not just enough to demolish ‘slums’ which have been real communities for people. Thought must be given to how to replace the communities that have been destroyed. The North Laine Book was Brighton Town Press’s last book and the NLCA remain grateful for Selma’s help in bringing the book to publication.

Selma always remembered fondly the campaign to stop the Wilson-Womersley Plan as North Laine residents joined the campaign resulting in the founding of our association a few years later.  The Wilson Plan envisaged the construction of an elevated road through North Laine which would have wiped much of Kemp St, Over St, Queen’s Gardens off the map.

It was, though, the campaign against the demolition of much of the station’s historic buildings that led to Selma founding the Brighton Society along with John Morley that established a group that would fight for good design in Brighton and the preservation of Brighton & Hove’s heritage. In the 1980s the Brighton Society collaborated with many other amenity groups to oppose the Council’s plan to make travel easier for motorists, the ‘Breeze into Brighton’ scheme. The plan, just like the Wilson Plan, envisaged the demolition of many properties, including 19 listed buildings.

For many years Selma was at the helm of a campaign to save Brighton Bandstand which had been neglected for decades. At one point she herself called in roofers to stop the bandstand from collapsing completely. After 30 years of campaigning, in 2008 the Bandstand was restored.

North Laine would look quite different if it hadn’t been for Selma’s inspiration, tenacity, encouragement and support for the area and its residents. Here are some examples:

In 1984 the Brighton Society were successful in preserving North Place after there had been several attempts to demolish it.

In 1989 demolition commenced in the Church Road and Portland Street area, destroying many 18th century cottages. The clearance of the site was in preparation for the construction of a large office building in Portland Street. The Brighton Society and the NLCA had opposed the proposed development since the demolition would destroy historic cottages and would force the closure of many small businesses. The most significant loss was Blaber’s Iron Foundry, which at the time was a thriving company producing metal castings using traditional sand moulding techniques. The local paper quoted a Council spokesperson who “could not understand what the fuss was all about.” The site is still derelict, even though a number of applications have been granted.

In 1999 Selma spoke at the Public Inquiry in support of the Brighton Society, the NLCA and BUDD’s joint campaign to prevent an enormous Sainsburys superstore with 3,000+ cars a day on the New England Quarter site that would have destroyed the character of the area and contributed to traffic congestion. The proposal was opposed by many local people and politicians and was eventually rejected on appeal. Now the store is an integral part of the area which provides many homes and does not dominate.

In 2007 – together with the Brighton Society, the NLCA was successful in their campaign to prevent the 42-storey Beetham Tower that would have loomed above the historic North Laine dominating the city centre’s skyline. The Council subsequently thanked both the Society and the NLCA for the support we had given them at the Public Inquiry.

In 2016 The North Laine Book was published with full funding from Selma’s Brighton Town Press and written by residents past and present.

North Laine would look very different today without the work and campaigns that Selma was involved in. We have a lot to thank her for.

Outline of the 42-storey Beetham Tower proposal which would have overshadowed the Grade II Brighton Station, Grade I St Bart’s Church and North Laine CA. The North Laine Book