This Old House
It was the summer of 2003 when we first were introduced to the sad, boarded up house at No. 54 Waterloo Street. It had once been a magnificent Regency terrace, but long ago had been converted to a shop and later was closed and boarded to discourage squatters. The squatters weren’t discouraged; they had snuck in from the back [as evident from the broken back door and the many stripped rooms] and dismantled the house as best they could, probably hawking goods at the Brighton Train Station Sunday Market.
We weren’t daunted, even when the estate agent refused to come inside and sat on the sidewalk in front and smoked while we wandered through the rooms in awe. We could hear people on the road chatting that someone was looking at the property, ‘oh what a sad state!’ and ‘wouldn’t it be lovely if someone bought it and did it up!’ My husband and I smiled at one another as we heard this, for that was exactly what we were planning to do.
It was Halloween when we finally exchanged and everyone congratulated us on the speedy process but we (as Americans) were stunned that it had taken so many months. We hurried along to the Estate Agent’s office to collect keys, our hearts pounding and our heads swirling, wondering if we had made the right choice. We hadn’t walked through the house since that August, and after signing our life away for a boarded up property without electricity or hot running water, we were more than a little scared.
The bored agents handed us a large dusty box instead of a key—with the words neatly scribed on top in fountain ink, ‘ROBINS FAMILY DEEDS, NEVER STORE WITH THE CITY.’ The agent mumbled that his office didn’t know what to do with the box and the family had all died out. I peeked inside and saw stacks of parchment papers and a ring of skeleton keys. Our adventure had begun!
In those early days of the house renovation, our finances were stretched and much of the works we undertook
ourselves. We spent hours stripping wallpaper and lead paint, exhausted each night. The best part of our day though was in the evenings reading through this family’s box of papers.
We learned that Ebenezer Robins Sr. who built the house was a local man who amassed a great deal of wealth through a brewery he and his brothers founded at the turn of the century in the Regency Ward. It was called the Anchor Brewery, and it stood on what is now Golden Lanes (behind Embassy Court.) He came from a poor Jewish family and had a large number of brothers including Usher Robins [who became quite famous in his own right.]
Ebenezer Robins was one of the original Brunswick Town Commissioners and had a great deal of interest in the dealings of the city. He also appeared to be a private man, noting ‘strict confidence’ on most of his letters and we found more than one example that he had a temper. In a ‘colourful’ and ink smeared letter to his solicitor, Ebenezer declared that his WILL needed to be immediately updated to reflect that ‘All of the Robins family affairs and documents shall remain with family and representation thereof, and never stored with the city.’ He went on to imply that his family was being unfairly persecuted based on unjust prying eyes. Thus it is explained how we came about to have the amazing box of documents and deeds. The house remained in the Robins family for a further seven generations.
We have since realized how unusually lucky we are, as most of Hove’s deeds and documents were lost forever in the Hove Town Hall fire of 1966. [Which incidentally also explains how we ended up with that magnificent piece of forgettable architecture on Church Road.]
There are also many gentle and proud letters in Ebenezer’s delicate scrawl including his eloquent request to Busby’s office for ‘immediate plans to design a fine property within the forementioned parcel (now known as No’s 54-61) on Waterloo Street for his eldest son recently engaged.’
In the early 1830’s he bought land from St. Andrews church to build homes and shops on Waterloo Street for his son [Ebenezer Jr.] his wife Mary’s brother John, and John’s brother Samuel, three men who also worked in the brewery.
My home at No. 54 Waterloo Street was in fact the home built for Ebenzer Jr and his wife (also named Mary.) She was given the first deed to our home in 1833 on her wedding day. She and Ebenezer Jr. lived here for twenty one years and raised seven children! We have one son, I can’t imagine seven! The pine stairs show worn patterns
dipping the middle of each tread, could that be from boys running up and down them?
Ebenezer Sr. died here, of a condition noted on his death certificate as ‘Cerebral Softening.’What could that be I have wondered? Did he fall down the stairs? Did he go insane? Was it a stroke? We may never know, but it does appear that his final days were with his family comforted in these very walls.
Mary left our home in her will to her eldest daughter Eliza who also raised her family (a brood of six plus two unwed sisters) and the lineage continues for another five generations woven through amazing letters and deeds carried into present day. There’s also elements of sad history, noting sons that were lost in the war, and the
sale of the brewery when the men didn’t return. There’s a letter returned to Ida Robins Hoodless that didn’t reach her son at war, and there are water (possibly tears?) stains on a deed noting the sale of some of the property owned by the Robins family in Norfolk Square. And as for the family, the estate agents were wrong. (Imagine that!) There are still a few Robins dotted around Brighton and Hove. One well known direct descendant is Michael Robins, the famed local town historian and tour guide.
One day I will probably write a book about the amazing family I’ve come to know. For now though, I consider myself very lucky to get to be a caretaker and restorer of this magnificent house, at least for this generation. If I catch you outside peeking in (as I often find people) I’m happy to come drag you inside for a quick tour and a glimpse at some of these amazing documents. This is Brighton and Hove’s history and it should be celebrated. We are all very fortunate to live within the walls of these homes, and this is history that should be shared.