Thomas Read Kemp, land developer and politician, was an important figure in the development of Brighton. Kemp commissioned the creation Trinity Chapel (which we now know as Holy Trinity Church) as an independent non-conformist sect and was its first preacher during that time. Our volunteer researcher Sandrine explored his life:
Thomas Read Kemp, son of Thomas Kemp of Lewes Castle and Herstmonceux Park (landowner and Member of Parliament) and of Anne Read of Brookland, was born 23 December 1782 in Lewes.
In 1806, he married Frances Baring, fourth daughter of Sir Francis Baring (Chairman of the East India Company and founder of Barings bank) with whom he had four sons and six daughters. This marriage catapulted him to higher social spheres and it is believed by S. Berry in “Thomas Read Kemp and the shaping of Regency Brighton” Journal of the Georgian Group, XVII, 2009, 125-140, that this probably contributed to his financial problems as he was ‘mixing with people who were far wealthier than him’. His wife died in labour in 1825 and was buried at Saint Nicholas’s church.
He married again in 1832 with Frances Shakerley of Someford with whom he had a son, Frederick, who ended up inheriting his father’s moiety of the manor and the freehold of the Kemp Town enclosures.
In 1811, he inherited some land in the parish of Brighton from his father. However, his total holdings, inclusive of Herstmonceaux, were 2000 acres (which for a landowner of the time was not considered so important); making the land he owed in Brighton all the more financially significant since he did not have any other assets.
It is known that Kemp enjoyed a life of luxury and had an expensive way of living.
T.R Kemp was also known to be charitable and giving, and supported many fundraising events. He also gave and sold land for public needs such as land for the Jewish cemetery in 1825 or land in East Laine for the Social Sussex County Hospital (same year).
His father had been preparing him for the county representation in 1807 – however, he succeeded his father in the local borough of Lewes instead; winning his father’s former seat in 1811 and becoming Member of Parliament for Lewes. In his nomination meeting, he stated being against corruption and in favour of parliamentary reform.
In March 1816, Kemp resigned his seat declaring ‘my domestic habits and present pursuits prevent a continuance of the same exclusive devotion of my time to the public service’. This was to found a nonconformist evangelical sect at St James’s Chapel in Brighton with his brother-in-law Rev. George Baring. The choice had been influenced by his wife. The sect moved a year later to the Trinity Chapel in Ship Street which he commissioned for this purpose.
The Holy Trinity Chapel was the first joint project of Wilds and Wilds in Brighton; built and designed by them in the spring of 1817. Kemp preached there for six years (he was no great orator) however, despite being successful at first and attracting wealthy members, the venture eventually failed, and Kemp returned to the established church by 1823. The Holy Trinity Chapel was sold to the Church of England in 1825.
From 1823 to 1826 he was elected as Member of Parliament for Arundel and from 1826 was re-elected for Lewes where he stayed until April 1837.
The creation of Kemp Town
It is in 1823 that he planned to build a very large development on the cliffs East of Brighton (or Brighton landmark that is now known as Kemp Town) on land which Kemp held as joint lord of the manor. He requested that architect C.A Busby joined A.H Wilds in this grand development. Wilds and Busby designed the façades of Kemp Town which Thomas Cubitt, the builder of most of Belgravia, constructed. The latter was owned money by Kemp and Kemp eventually conveyed £10,000 worth of land to him in order to settle one of his numerous debts.
The grand project was self-contained and included Chichester Terrace, Arundel Terrace, Lewes Crescent, Sussex Square and the surrounding streets. Lewes Crescent with its 800 ft was longer by 200 ft than the Royal Crescent in Bath; and Sussex Square, the biggest crescent in Britain, surpassed Grosvenor Square in London with a diameter of 60 metres.
However, some bad business choices (i.e. the refusal to spread the risks of the development amongst others; the decision to bear all costs such as building work and landscaping; the least profitable decision to get the builders to build the carcases of the houses, and to then sell them to them at a fixed price; the failure to appoint professionals to manage his schemes and to supervise the sales of plots), added to some misfortune (i.e. C.A Busby moving on to design Brunswick Town, entering in direct competition with Kemp Town and being commercially more successful because of its location; Brighton going through a period of recession with houses and land no longer in demand; the number of Brighton inhabitants plummeting) turned this project into yet another high-risk and non-profitable venture for Kemp.
Kemp was offering the houses for completion on a 99-year lease with an annual ground rent of £150 and the option to purchase the freehold for £2500 after 10 years.
However, many of the houses remained only façades as they failed to sell. This, to the point of being described ‘as desolate as Pompeii after its two thousand years’ burial’ by a visitor. Only 105 out of the planned 250 were ever completed.
Kemp was forced to borrow £28,000 from the Barings (ie. his family in-law). By October 1826, Kemp had advanced £51,179 on the houses and esplanade but was owed more than £15,800 and by 1827 was still left with a high number of unsold shells of houses.
By 1828, he was still left with 47 houses and by 1830, Kemp Town still looked unfinished. This was also negatively impacting on the area, and other projects in the neighbouring area also ended up in failure due to a general lack of interest.
The houses did not start selling until well after 1830 and by then Kemp had been forced to sell many of them incomplete and without profits. By 1834, only 36 of the 105 houses were inhabited and the grand development project was turning into a monstrous debt spiral that would eventually swallow him.
T.R Kemp died on 20 December 1844 in 64 Faubourg Saint-Honoré in Paris and is buried in the Père Lachaise cemetery. Some mention a heart attack, others suicide. Whilst it has not been possible to verify this information, his death is described as sudden. His tomb is unfortunately not part of the many included in the cemetery guide and is therefore a challenge to find. His widow moved back to England. She later died in Tunbridge Wells.
The extent of Kemp’s debt kept unravelling even until after his death. In 1847, his sister, Mrs Sober, was forced to recover the rights to her house, which Kemp had mortgaged without her knowing.
T.R Kemp is undoubtedly one of the greatest Brightonian characters as he forged the city’s layout and architectural character. His lack of knowledge in building speculation coupled with, perhaps, a poor business acumen, moved him towards indebtedness.
His name remains however all over Brighton and the city remembers him: there is a tablet for him at St Nicholas’s Church, a plaque with his name on 22 Sussex Square, a No. 7 bus is named after him and the Thomas Kemp pub.
- Wikipedia: Thomas Read Kemp
- The Georgian provincial builder – architect and architect Amon and Amon Henry Wilds of Lewes and Brighton by Sue Berry – Sussex Archaeological collections 150 (2012), 163-83
- Thomas Read Kemp and the shaping of Regency Brighton’ Journal of the Georgian Group, XVII, 2009, 125-140.