The stadium was opened by Lord Gage on 17 April 1937 and consisted of eleven hard tennis courts, ten grass courts (irrigated by an underground system) and four squash racquet courts. The grandstand could seat 2,000 spectators and the Brighton Herald described it as the ‘new Wimbledon’.
In its first tennis tournament, competitors included Senorita Anita Lizana, ‘the dainty Chilean star’ and world champion, Dorothy Round, who was astonished by the lack of spectators, saying
‘Doesn’t Brighton like tennis ?’
‘Antoinette’ of the Brighton Herald marvelled at the outfit worn by the tennis player, the Hon. C.N.O. Ritchie, who wore
‘pale blue plus-fours, navy blue stockings and a sage green overcoat’
During the Second World War the stadium was used as a mortuary, but was re-launched as the Brighton Olympic Stadium on 22 May 1947. Described by one of the new lessees as the ‘Wembley of the south’, the opening ceremony was marked by a fanfare played on a hunting horn by ten year old Leon Tuppen.
In 1948 a zoo was opened at the stadium by film star, Jean Simmons. Several animals were released from baskets during the event and Miss Simmons
‘forgetting her ’New Look’ costume …knelt down on the ground to take two black and white puppies from their basket’
A year later the zoo was enlarged and reopened, this time by film star, Jean Kent. She was besieged by autograph hunters and had to make an escape via the back door of the club house. There had already been some disruption to the opening when two wallabies escaped and were found nibbling the plants in the garden of a Withdean resident.
The zoo was not a financial success and closed in June 1952.
In 1955, the Stadium was reconstructed as an athletic venue and on 20 September 1980 Steve Ovett opened an all-weather running track.
Brighton & Hove Albion arrived at the site in 1999, having moved from the Goldstone Ground. With the team’s move to the new ground in 2011, the function of Withdean Stadium may yet change again.
Paul Jordan, Senior History Centre Officer