Brighton Aquarium

Starting work at 14 years old in 1954

By Ron Burtenshaw

 
Photo:Brighton Aquarium late 1950s

Brighton Aquarium late 1950s

From the private collection of Sue Loveridge

Help to support my family

My mother was made a war widow during WWII and just about managed to bring up her two children on her meagre pension. Having found myself the man of the house at a very young age, I really needed to find a part time job to help the family weekly budget. I had turned 14 and still at the Building School in Hanover Terrace.  I was desperate to find some part time work; although I had a paper round, that did not pay enough.

Passed my interview

Speaking to a couple of older boys, I was told that there was always work going at the Brighton Aquarium. My first reaction was “what do I know about fish?” but they soon put my mind at rest. Any work for young boys would only be cleaning and washing floors, flushing out drains & cleaning windows. Not exactly what I had in mind, but worth a try so I applied for a job and passed the interview with the Curator. The work was for the summer season, from Easter to the end of September, weekends and school holidays. Wages would be thirty shillings (£1.50) per week, which was not a lot, but just what I needed.

Entering the aquarium

The main entrance to the Aquarium was by a long flight of shallow steps from the bottom of Marine Parade by the Aquarium roundabout. There were beautiful flower beds in tiers which followed on either side of the steps. At the bottom on the right was a tunnel which led to the beach, either side of which would be Bill Axcell the Glass Animal man, and Eva Petulengro the Palmist, this was a little bit later, probably about 1956. In front was a café, and to the left were the toilet facilities and ‘Slipper Baths’. I shuddered at the thought that I may be asked to clean out the drains for that lot.

My first day

On my first day of work I was shown around the establishment by a lady, Miss Williams who I was told was once a primate trainer for a large circus, Chipperfields (I think). Why a primate trainer in the Aquarium? I soon found out. Not only were there tanks of marine life and tropical fish, there were monkeys, chimpanzees, sea lions, penguins, tropical birds and parrots; there were even two alligators. This place was like an underground zoo rather than an aquarium.

One long arcade

The whole place was basically one long, wide arcade with highly decorated columns and arches throughout. Either sides of this arcade were the glass tanks and cages, the cages had daylight filtering from the lantern lights above. At the end of the arcade was a pair of doors which led to a lobby and access to the walkway above the tank/cages. There was another set of doors from the lobby which led directly to the Ballroom, but these were normally locked.

In my element

After my first day’s work of slopping floors, cleaning glass and generally keeping the place tidy, I found I was in my element. I was working among wild animals, the like of which I would never see unless my mother could take me to a Zoo.

 

This page was added on 22/04/2011.

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