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Home   /   SEA LIFE Brighton: history beneath the Surface

A popular tourist attraction all year round, located a stone’s throw away from The Brighton Palace Pier entrance is home to over 5000 sea creatures ranging from the captivating jellyfish, majestic seahorse, vibrant clownfish and much more. Consisting of a 250-seater auditorium and a glass bottom boat ride experience, SEA LIFE Brighton welcomes thousands of people every year but what many people don’t realise, is the rich history that lies beyond its doors. 

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You have to travel all the way back to 1869 when an architect by the name of Eugenius Birch conceived and designed the aquarium. He was also responsible for the grand design of the West Pier. The process of construction took 3 years to finish and was finally unveiled in 1872 accumulating the cost of £133,000 which equates to around £5.5 million today. The interior design was influenced by Gothic and Pompeian styles consisting of intricately detailed columns and stonework, towering archways and granite statues. The roof terrace construction was completed in 1874 with amenities such as a roller rink and café being added in 1876. 

Financial hardship in 1927 left the aquarium in need of repairs. Those repairs came hand in hand with new ownership as The Brighton Corporation took the reins and started the rebuild. An extensive amount of reconstruction took place and was completed in 1929. A plethora of Birch’s original work was replaced and moulded into their own vision. Upon completion, a grand reopening occurred but not without its critics. Overall, the ceremony was labelled a failure with the aquarium lacking any original identity from Eugenius Birch. During the war, it was reconditioned for use by the RAF as Brighton and Hove was a major target for Nazi artillery. 

In the 50s and 60s era, the aquarium played host to a music venue called Florida Rooms. Whether it be jazz, blues or rock, every single night the venue was rich with articulate artistry and famous faces. The most famous of them all, playing on the regular at Florida Rooms were The Who. It was a haven for the local mods, who were able to enjoy a mixture of artists and The Who had a regular slot on the show every Wednesday. 

From 1961-1969, the aquarium housed the Montagu Motor Museum which at the time boasted the largest collection of classic motors in the UK. During the years 1970-1991, it contained one of the first Dolphinariums in the world. During the time of the Dolphinarium, the aquarium came under a lot of criticism about the welfare and safety of the dolphins during and after the shows.  

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This resulted in Brighton Corporation selling the business to SEA LIFE in 1991 who immediately went about disbanding the Dolphinarium and releasing the dolphins back into the wild. An investment of £1.5 million from SEA LIFE brought about positive change to the aquarium with the restoration of the Victorian Arcade happening in 2012, really breathing personality back into the structure. This brings us to the present day, all this rich history later and there’s no wonder why it is the oldest operating aquarium on the planet.  

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July 2024