Brighton Aquarium was conceived and designed by Eugenius Birch, the architect responsible for the West Pier. Work began in 1869 and the building opened in 1872. The project cost £133,000 (equivalent to around £5.5 million today).
The Aquarium proved an initial success with the town’s visitors. In addition to the marine life on display, a number of other attractions were available. These included a conservatory, a reading room, and a roller-skating rink on the roof terrace.
This success proved short-lived, however. In 1901 financial difficulties forced the sale of the Aquarium to the Brighton Corporation. Although matters improved, the Corporation decided to extensively modernise the building in 1927. This reconstruction work led to the alteration of much of Birch’s original design.
Original Brighton Aquarium
Eugenius Birch’s original design incorporated a variety of styles. Grand archways, columns and elaborate stonework reflected the Pompeian and Gothic influence. Statues of Bath stone, green marble and red Edinburgh granite were used in its construction. The Aquarium’s foundations were dug deep into the ground as the building was not allowed to be taller than the neighbouring promenade, Marine Parade.
The distinctive clock tower and gateway to the Aquarium were added in 1874. The four corners of the clock tower bore bronze statues symbolising the seasons. Images of mermaids and sea-nymphs were evident elsewhere in the structure. A frieze inscription at the entrance stated: ‘And God said, Let the water bring forth abundantly the moving creatures that hath life.’
Among those moving creatures were a number of specimens that inspired great interest. The Dublin Bay Prawn of 1874 attracted considerable excitement. In 1880 a manatee was displayed in a huge tank that enabled the viewer to witness the creature at eye level. Sea lions arrived in 1877 and were able to successfully breed.
Rather drier attractions could be found elsewhere. The waterfall grotto proved a popular meeting place, and concerts were regularly held in the conservatory. By 1876 the roof terrace had been expanded to incorporate a roller-skating rink and smoking room. Film shows were increasingly common from the end of the nineteenth century, and the conservatory was briefly known as the Aquarium Kinema.
Reconstruction of Brighton Aquarium
Brighton Aquarium was extensively reconstructed between 1927 and 1929. The new design was produced by David Edwards, the Borough Engineer.The Italianate features of Birch’s design were replaced by a neoclassical style. White Empire stonework was applied to the exterior walls. The clock tower was demolished and replaced by two square kiosks.
As with the original development, much of the surrounding area was affected. Several smallholdings on Madeira Drive were demolished to make way for a colonnaded walkway. Internally, slipper and shower baths were fitted. A lift was also installed, leading up to Marine Parade.Work on the project was overseen by the Borough Surveyor‘s department. Throughout the reconstruction, photographs were taken of the work in progress. These provide a fascinating insight into the scale of the project. They also give a good indication of working practices of the time, and record the reaction of local people to the project.
The New Aquarium and Beyond
Brighton Aquarium reopened on 12 June 1929. The building continued to host a mixture of marine life exhibits and entertainment activities, but was unable to find a stable identity. Over time, the site became popularly regarded as something of a local ‘white elephant’.
During the Second World War the building was requisitioned by the RAF. During the 1950s it hosted the Florida Rooms Night Club, and chimpanzees’ tea parties and other animal attractions were introduced. Between 1961 and 1969 it was home to the Montagu Motor Museum before this made way for the Dolphinarium. Although initially popular, the Dolphinarium fell victim to a change in the public perception of animals. The dolphins’ confined conditions became of increasing concern through the 1980s. In 1991 the Dolphinarium was closed.
The Aquarium is still in operation, although it is now a Sea Life Centre.
Digital Development Officer
This text was originally published on the Royal Pavilion and Museums’ main website. It has been republished here in order to reach a wider audience.