Rock Street

The 1969 local shopping parade

By Andrew Doig

Photo:Rock Street photographed in 2012

Rock Street photographed in 2012

Photo by Tony Mould

The shops along Rock Street were shown in a BBC television documentary by Margaret Drabble in 1969. As part of a polemic against the post war destruction of inner city neighbourhoods, Mitzi Cunliffe, a sculptor, spoke about the value of local shops like her local parade in Rock Street. She claimed that only the densely populated neighbourhoods of inner cities could support local shops.

Variety of shops

Mitzi is seen walking slowly along Rock Street with Gibson’s Kemp Town Pharmacy at No.1 Rock Street as a backdrop. The pharmacy has a vast medicine jar above each window; jars that remained in place until Boots took over in about 2007. Next door, Unwins, the wine merchant at No.2 has an original Victorian shopfront with its central entrance door. Mitzi describes the cake shop at No.3. It has the present grid pattern of glazing bars. That shop front and those of the adjoining shops probably replaced original shop fronts blown out by the bomb that landed at No.16 opposite in September 1940.

Serving the community

In the piece Mitzi, who was born in New York, says “We have got stores for absolutely every purpose. One really does not have to shop further than just round the back of the house this way” She was then living at No.8 Lewes Crescent, with a studio, in the mews just behind the shops she is talking about. “There are liquor stores, there’s a cake shop. You can buy meat pies. There’s a marvellous Post Office that has absolutely everything. It’s like the old fashioned general store that they had in small villages in America which really served the community completely, and the people who run the shops and own them are in fact individuals who are very much part of the neighbourhood. We know them all by name. We know their families”. The camera switches to an antique shop advertising repairs for jewellery, silver, watches and clocks. It is on the other side of the street, probably at No.14. Reflected in the window is a passing corporation bus: the No.7 route used to pass this way. A final shot is of a board outside a shop, advertising Gents Hair Dressing.

Changing shopping habits

Even by 1969 shopping habits were changing. Self-service supermarkets were springing up in more central locations and Mitzi was taking an optimistic view of her local shopping street while buying her meat, fish, fruit and vegetables elsewhere. The butchers, at No.3, the greengrocer, at No.11 and the fishmonger at No.14, all there in 1940 were gone by 1969. In the forty-odd years since then much else has gone, leaving only the chemist at No.1, an off licence/general store next door, with a piano shop and an aquatic fish shop at the end of the parade. 

You can see the clip 19.04 minutes into the documentary on BBC i-player archive:


This page was added on 06/12/2012.
Comments about this page

People voted with their feet. However, if you think about it, we still do have high streets full of small businesses-it's just that they are mostly on-line these days. The fact is that we live completely different lives these days, and haven't the time to go from shop to shop, chatting as we go. Cost is another factor, and I always notice that the people who make the most noise about 'lost' shops are those that can easily afford their inflated prices.

By Stefan Bremner-Morris (07/12/2012)

Kemp Town is away from my home patch (Hollingbury) but I have memories of a period about 10 years ago when there was a lovely deli on the north side of Rock St run by an Algerian. It was stuffed with the most amazing foodstuffs and the smells were very exotic. It was all very Brighton, sadly last time I went there it was gone. I recently attended a 'wake' at what was not too long ago, the 'I Go Inn' near the street corner. I recall the pub being a haunt of many single is now a swanky gastro-pub, very smart but not the local colour of the I Go!

By Geoffrey Mead (07/12/2012)

I remember the gents hairdresser from the mid 1960s, as my parents used to take me there. He strangely used to cut the fringe at a slight angle rather than straight across, at St Marks School we called it the 'Rock Street Cut'. I also remember Langham's Cafe on the corner of St Marks Street which was very popular in the 60s.

By Michael Brittain (07/12/2012)

Hi, there used to be a cake shop run by the Burnhams. Regards

By Rick Smallman (09/12/2012)

I lived in Rock Street as a child/teenager from 1954 till 1961. Mr Gibson in the chemist was there, next to him a grocer store, young lad Colin used to deliver grocers on his bicycle. Then Mr Brown in the post office. The barber shop was also there then, the fish, and veggie shop, and the two pubs opposite each other. The cafe was on the corner of St Marks Street. Opposite the cafe, next to the chemist was St Marks Hall. We had Brownies, Girl Guides, and our local youth club in this hall. We had such fun as kids in that street.

By Sandy (07/06/2013)

I used to live at 17 Rock Street in 1979. Hilda Burnham used to run a general store on the other side of the road to the picture above. I do have a photo of it if anyone is interested.

Hello Andrew: why don't you send me the photo of the shop and your memories of it? I can then publish it as a new page and you may get some responses. If you are interested in helping - mail me?

By Andrew Smith (16/03/2015)

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