The House of Nine Sculls
first published 16/8/2013
Picture From the James Gray Collection, the photographic archive of the
Regency Society www.regencysociety.org
This is a remarkable picture of a wall in Robert Street Brighton which is actually the rear wall of the builders workshop of Messrs.Cheesman in Kensington Street. It comes from the fascinating James Gray collection held by Brighton's Regency Society, and is reproduced with their permission. There are references to it in the street history of Robert Street on
the Myhousemystreet website. The picture was taken in about 1930, and the building was demolished in 1934. In the James Gray page the word appears as sculls, which appears to be an archaic spelling of skulls, but I have not found any other reference to this use.
The picture shows a flint wall into which have been set 9 replica skulls. The date this was done is unclear, and there is no definitive description, but it is believed that it commemorates an accident involving an exploding boiler which killed nine men. apparently they were found in a ring, eight with their heads to the centre and one lying in the other direction. The skulls were apparently set into the wall by George Cheesman. That is how the story goes - how does this fit
with my knowledge of the family business?
George Cheesman the elder is in the local directories as trading from premises in Kensington Street from 1832, and in 1846 the entry says 'George and sons, builders, brickmakers, and cement manufacturers, 30 Kensington Street.' The business continued to thrive in Brighton for many years; the last reference I have found is about 1890, but I have spoken to a local lady who is sure she remembers the name much later.
What happened? The work being done on the premises would probably be powered by a stationary steam engine, and boiler explosions were sadly common in Victorian times. Looking closely at the picture the area surrounding the skulls looks slightly different to the rest of the wall, so it is possible that a part of the wall was blown out. It is entirely understandable that rebuilding the wall would offer an opportunity to commemorate those who died.
If you know more about this curious picture, please let me know.