By the time Thomas Kemp died, aged 62 in 1844, he was a declared outlaw and bankrupt, who had been forced to flee into exile abroad to escape his debts.
But Kemp was no fly-by-night fraudster on the run. A gentleman, theologian, member of Parliament, charitable benefactor and philanthropist, he had led a very varied life before embarking on the bold but financially ruinous project to build a fashionable estate east of Brighton.
Kemp was born in nearby Lewes in 1782, where his father was the Member of Parliament. He studied theology at Cambridge and then became and MP for the Whig party himself. Actively involved in religion, he founded a religious sect, and built and then preached at Trinity Chapel in Ship St. He was also vice-president of the Church Missionary Society.
The idea of creating Kemp Town seems to have come about as a method to augment his finances. Kemp Town (originally it was two separate words, a form still preferred by some residents today) was planned as a 40-acre estate to the east of Brighton, although the full design was never realised. Kemp, who already owned the freehold of the land, paid for 92 houses to be built between 1823 and 1828. This is today’s Lewes Crescent and Sussex Square. Kemp himself lived for a time at the top of Sussex Square at number 22 (see picture above).
But although the Sussex Square and Lewes Crescent would later rank amongst Brighton’s most desirable addresses, Kemp found it hard to recoup his investment. Debts and creditors increased. Unable to pay one of his builders, Thomas Cubitt, he had to give him instead a valuable tract of land to the west of the Kemp Town estate. In 1830, unable to pay his debts, he fled abroad. Twelve years later most of his land was put up for auction and in early 1844, when Kemp was living in Paris, he was formally proclaimed an outlaw back in Brighton, for his failure to answer a lawsuit brought by architect Sir William Pilkington. He died in December of that year. Kemp is buried in the Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris (final resting place of many other controversial creatives from different eras, including Oscar Wilde and Jim Morrison). There is a tablet to the memory of Thomas Kemp, erected by his widow, in St Nicholas’ Church, two miles away from the Kemp Town he attempted to create.