Thursday, October 29, 2015

Dr. Richard Russell and Brighton

by Lauren Gilbert

Dr. Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson c 1755

A blue plaque honouring Dr. Richard Russell on the Royal Albion Hotel in Brighton says, “If you seek his monument look around.” Who was Dr. Russell and how did he come to be honoured with the same words applied to Sir Christopher Wren in St. Paul’s?

Richard Russell was born in Lewes in November 26, 1687, the son of Nathaniel and Mary Russell, and the oldest of seven children. He was baptized in the parish of St. Michael on November 27, 1687. Nathaniel Russell was a surgeon and apothecary. Richard was educated at a grammar school in Lewes. Destined to follow in his father’s footsteps, he studied and worked with his father. The elder Dr. Russell’s patients included William Kempe, Esq. of South Maling Deanery, near Lewes, and his family. Young Richard became acquainted with Mr. Kempe’s only daughter, and their mutual affection combined with their disparate social standings resulted in an elopement. Although Mr. Kempe was not happy, he ultimately came around.

Richard went to the University of Leyden in Holland to study medicine and qualified with a dissertation in 1724.  Upon his return to England, he was at some point elected a Fellow of the Royal Society. He returned to practice in Lewes. Ultimately, he and his wife moved into his father-in-law’s house in South Maling Deanery after Mr. Kempe passed away. He continued his medical studies, becoming very interested in glandular conditions, and wrote several works on the subject including  “Glandular Diseases, or a Dissertation on the Use of Sea-Water in the Affections of the Gland” in Latin, published in 1750 (it went through 6 printings), where he discussed both bathing in and drinking seawater as treatment for these problems. He was far from the first to espouse the sea as a cure, but was extremely successful with it. Brighthelmstone was a fishing village near Lewes at the time, and was considered one of the most accessible places to take the seawater cure. (Sources indicate that the village was not a poor one, as sometimes noted.)

As Dr. Russell’s fame and standing grew, more and more of his patients went for treatments.  Lodging houses and other amenities sprang up, and the town became known as Brighton.  (Ultimately, it overtook Lewes as a town of note, Lewes becoming known as “Lewes, near Brighton.”)  Dr. Russell built a house in Brighton (subsequently the site of the Royal  Albion Hotel), Russell Street was named for him, and his portrait was hung in the Old Ship. His house was large and had easy access to the sea, which was convenient for him and for his visiting patients. He moved there permanently in 1754. His treatments were apparently considered very successful.

Dr. Russell was a noted physician, known for his skill, until his death in December 1759. He was buried in the family vault at South Maling Church. After his death, his house was rented to seasonal visitors, including the Duke of Cumberland (brother of George III). The Duke's nephew, the Prince of Wales, visited the Duke there, which was the beginning of the prince’s love affair with Brighton and completed the transformation of the fishing village to modern seaside town. The house was demolished in 1823, and the Royal Albion Hotel was built on its site. The hotel opened in 1826.

Dr. Russell’s oldest son William inherited his estate but chose to practice law and finally changed his name to his mother’s maiden name of Kempe.

Sources include:

The Argus on line. “Old Man of the Sea”  by Adam Trimmingham, posted January 2, 2010, here
Brighton and Hove on line.
“Russell Dr. Richard, Proponent of Brighton’s Seawater Cure, c 1750s.” Reproduced with permission from the Encyclopedia of Brighton by Tim Carder, 1990. [Extract] here
Brighton Works on line.  “Brighton Bathing.” here
France Thalasso.  “Doctor Richard Russell.”  here
GoogleBooks. Lower, Mark Anthony.  The Worthies of Sussex: Biographical Sketches of the Most Eminent Natives or Inhabitents of the County from the Earliest Period to the Present Time.  Printed for subscribers only by George P. Bacon, Lewes, 1865. PP. 59-61. here
Jane Austen's Regency World.  “Every possibility of earthly happiness” by Chris Cole.  Issue 16, July 2005.  PP. 7-10.

Image from Wikimedia Commons: Dr. Richard Russell by Benjamin Wilson c. 1755 here


Lauren Gilbert is a member of the Jane Austen Society of North America and the author of Heyerwood: A Novel.  Her second novel, A Rational Attachment is in process.  She lives in Florida with her husband.  For more information, visit her website here.


  1. There's a blue plaque in Lewes commemorating the house Richard Russell lived in prior to his departure for Brighton. St Michaels' still stands guard nearby!

  2. He's quite an interesting man. Thanks for sharing, Marryn!


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