Brighton Aquarium was the brainchild of Eugenius Birch, the famous engineer and designer of Brighton’s West Pier, who conceived the idea, following a visit to Boulogne Aquarium. Erected on the approach roadway to the Chain Pier, the Aquarium required the construction of a new sea-wall and promenade — Madeira Rd — which was begun in 1869. The whole project was completed in 1872, at a cost of £130,000, and the Aquarium was inaugurated by Prince Arthur that Easter, although there were no exhibits at the time. It was formally opened to the public on August 10 1872 by the mayor, John Cordy Burrows. The new Italianate building extended for about 700 feet along the base of the cliff. The entrance was at the western end, on the site of the Chain Pier’s toll-house, where a wide flight of steps descended into a large courtyard formed by five red-brick arches and terracotta columns. Inside the building, a large entrance hall led into the main aquarium corridor: 224 feet long and lined with large tanks lit from behind to add to the air of mystery. This impressive corridor, with its vaulted ceiling supported by columns of granite and marble decorated with marine capitals, remains the main aquarium hall and is now listed as being of special architectural and historic interest. The central hall housed a 100-foot tank: holding 110,000 gallons, it was the largest display tank in the world at that time. Marine exhibits were not the only attraction — a reading room, restaurant, winter-garden conservatory, smoking room, music conservatory, rockery and cascade were also provided. The roof terrace was completed in the summer of 1874 and a distinctive clock tower, gateway and toll-houses were added by T Boxall that October. In June 1876, the terrace was extended by 180 feet and a roller-skating rink, terrace garden, smoking room, café and music conservatory were all added to the roof.
The Aquarium proved to be an instant success with the town’s fashionable society and received many royal visitors. Among the early attractions was a large octopus and, in 1877, the first sea-lions arrived; the exhibition of a live Norway lobster in 1874 caused a furore. By 1880, organ recitals were being given twice daily in the hall, while concerts under the direction of William Kuhe were performed in the conservatory. In 1883, lectures and exhibitions were introduced to further stimulate public interest, and in 1889 a dramatic licence for the production of plays was obtained. Sideshows, featuring Krao the Missing Link, The Tiger Lady and The Bear Boy catered to those with more venal tastes. However, enthusiasm for the Aquarium did not last and, by the turn of the century, it was in financial difficulties. In October 1901, the building and business were purchased by the corporation for just £30,000, and Brighton Aquarium was henceforth managed as a municipal enterprise, apart from a brief private letting in 1905 and 1906. The Aquarium’s popularity then rose again, as Brighton’s fortunes in general revived. From 1907 until 1918, a municipal orchestra played in the conservatory, which was renamed the Winter Garden. There were also occasional film shows (from before 1900) and, during WWI, the Winter Garden was briefly known as the Aquarium Kinema; film shows continued until 1939. In 1920, ‘Airship Flights’, promising views from 3,000 feet up, were on offer. In July 1922, Brighton Council gave the Southdown Bus Company permission to convert the building into a bus and coach station, but the plan was unexpectedly withdrawn at a public inquiry.
In 1927, the Aquarium closed for a £117,000 modernisation, designed by Borough Engineer, David Edwards. When it was reopened by the Duke of York on June 12 1929, the exterior had been rebuilt in white Empire stonework; the entrance was replaced by two square kiosks with pagoda-style roofs; the statues representing the Four Seasons had been removed, and the distinctive clock tower had been demolished. A new entrance hall had been built with an adjoining restaurant, while the Winter Garden had been transformed into the Prince’s Hall, a modern concert hall seating some 1,250 people. A ballroom, bandstand and other small buildings were added to the Sun Terrace, which was extended eastwards above a colonnade and shops to meet the Madeira Terrace. A lift was also installed from Marine Parade down into the Aquarium, while the subway to the Lower Esplanade was opened in 1935. Both slipper and shower baths, which closed in about 1979, and a miniature rifle-range were also provided. During WWII, the Aquarium was requisitioned by the RAF. When it reopened, chimpanzee tea-parties and other small animal attractions were introduced but, in 1955, the building was again privately leased, to Aquarium Entertainments Ltd. The Prince’s Hall, which had been used nightly as a ballroom, later became the Florida Rooms night-club, but was transformed in 1961 into the Montagu Motor Museum. The first pair of dolphins was exhibited in a new 80 x 30 feet pool, costing £200,000, at the western end of the Aquarium in 1968 and proved so popular that the motor museum was converted into a permanent dolphin attraction. Opened at Easter 1969, the dolphinarium had seating for a 1,000 visitors around an oval pool which held 210,000 gallons of sea-water (the largest display tank in the world), at a cost of £50,000. The Aquarium was featured in the film, The Fruit Machine (1988). Its six dolphins were called Belle, Prinny, Missus, Baby, Lucky and Poppy, and the two seals were Sunshine and Yogi. However, serious concern about the effect of permanent enclosure on these intelligent mammals led to a considerable movement to close the dolphinarium, which occurred in December 1990. It was converted into a Sea Life Centre, costing £1 million, which opened at Easter 1991; it houses over 150 species of marine creatures. The Centre is involved with campaigns and education programmes on issues of conservation and marine animal welfare around the world.
The 50,000 sq ft of the Aquarium Terraces were redeveloped as a leisure complex by Compco in 2000. Nightclub giant Cream planned to open a 1,750 venue in the ground floor and basement, but this never transpired. As of February 2010, the only businesses in the available units were the Terraces restaurant, a Harvester and a Burger King. That month, Brighton Seafront Regeneration Ltd, headed by architect David Kohn (winner of the 2009 Young Architect of the Year award), announced a major revamp for the site, and submitted a planning application for a large restaurant in unit five of the building, on the lower terrace. The pavilion was removed from the upper terrace and the disabled not-very-accessible access ramp replaced with a lift.