Francis Barber 1735-1801 was born in Jamaica and brought to England as a slave by the Bathurst family who were friends of Dr. Samuel Johnson. They sold young Francis to the doctor, who paid for him to be privately educated.
After the death of Johnson’s wife, Barber went to work as Johnson’s valet, who began to rely on him as a secretary. Barber arranged trips, received documents and kept Dr. Johnson’s diary. Barber’s link to Brighton lies in the fact that, as a valet and secretary he would have accompanied Dr. Johnson on his travels, and Johnson was a frequent visitor of Mrs Thrale who lived in Brighton at 78 West Street. Indeed, Mrs Thrale had once noted that Frank was quite good-looking “for a Black a moor”. There is a plaque in St Nicholas church to commemorate Dr. Johnson.
The house was replaced by the West Street Concert Hall, opened on 6 December 1867 and designed by Horatio Goulty with hotels at the West Street and Middle Street ends. A number of musical concerts and lectures were presented, including the first of the Music Festivals, but in 1877 the building was converted into a roller-skating rink.
On the evening of 7 October 1882 it was virtually destroyed by a gas explosion and fire which left only the frontages standing, but the roller-skating hall was reconstructed in 1892. In 1911 the building was converted into a 2,000-seat cinema, the Grand Picture Palace which was renamed the Coliseum in 1918, but following another serious fire it reopened on 11 November 1919 as the famous Sherrys Dance Hall. Together with the Regent, Sherry’s dominated Brighton’s pre-war night-life, but in 1949 it was converted back into a roller-skating rink and then became the Ritz amusement arcade in the 1960s. The intricate Italianate facade of the 1892 building was demolished in February 1969 when it was remodelled as a night-club and amusement arcade, now the Pink Coconut (opened 1983) and the Crystal Room; the plain Middle Street facade remains.
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