History of Sport in Brighton

Brighton's Sports Stadium in West Street was the top entertainment centre on the south coast during its 30 years which ended sadly in 1965 when it was torn down for the Churchill Square development. During those years numerous stars of ice skating, boxing, wrestling, ice shows, ice hockey, swimming and countless other sports graced its art deco entrance. There was even room for the annual conferences of the political parties.

The SS Brighton, as it was always known, actually began life as a swimming pool. Opening in June 1934, it was billed as the world's largest covered seawater swimming pool. One of the first swimmers to dive from the 10-metre board was Johnny Weismuller, the Olympic world champion, who went on to Hollywood film fame as Tarzan.

Due to the very hot summers of 1934 and 1935, however, when locals and visitors alike preferred the sea or open air baths, the owners decided to turn the pool into an ice rink, and in October 1935 the Swimming Stadium Brighton was reborn as the Sports Stadium Brighton.

The rink - on a site now occupied by the Comfort Hotel - was an instant success, due in large part to the formation of the Brighton Tigers ice hockey team. Clad in their black and gold strip, Tigers packed in the crowds every winter week, winning every trophy on offer and becoming as famous as football's Albion.



While the Tigers produced a substantial income for the Sports Stadium, its financial future was secured by regular ice spectaculars, the first of which was staged in 1936. "Marina" was the brainchild of Claude Langdon, then managing director of the stadium and Denis Mitchell, the general manager.

In the days before television, the show quickly captured the imagination of the public and was the start of the rink's fame as the best ice show venue outside London. Among the skating stars who graced the Brighton ice were Cecilia Colledge, the 1937 World, European and British figure skating champion, and American bill-topper Gloria Nord, both household names of the time.

Brighton supplied their own famous duo with Dennis and Winnie Silverthorne, the skating pairs champions who owned Wisden's in Duke Street, which for years was the town's only sports shop.

One of the shows' biggest hits was Red McCarthy, an Irish-American who thrilled visitors nightly with his barrel-jumping feats while painted all over in silver nitrate and powdered glass whose reflective power almost lit up the entire SS Brighton! His record was 15 barrels and he was reputed to spend as much time in the hospital as in the rink.


After the war, the famous impresario Tom Arnold produced more ice spectaculars with his co-producer Gerald Palmer.

The front of house was presided over by managing director, Benny Lee, who took on the role in 1951. Ever present to greet the stars, Benny was the epitome of the best-dressed man in town and was rarely seen without his trademark, a large Havana cigar. Lee was the finest spokesman for the myriad entertainments seen at the Sports Stadium. His comment on the building's demolition struck a chord with the hundreds of thousands of local people who had enjoyed the events staged there - "the day the SS Brighton was demolished," he declared, "they tore the sporting heart out of the town". (Trevor Chepstow, Archivist, Sports Stadium, Brighton).



The Brighton Tigers, who called the Sports Stadium their home for 30 years, were one of Britain's and Europe's leading ice hockey teams. Under the guidance of the legendary Bobby Lee, Tigers won the grand slam of domestic honours and later pulled off one of the biggest upsets in British ice hockey history, a 6-3 defeat of the mighty Soviet Union.



The team was formed in 1935 when London promoter Claude Langdon took over the newly converted ice rink and entered Tigers in the professional English National League alongside six teams from the London area. Tigers won only three league matches that season but the new, exciting game - billed as 'the world's fastest sport' - captivated Brightonians who filled the Sports Stadium for every home game.

Lee, a Canadian from Montreal, made his first appearance with the team in 1936 and quickly became a fan favourite, scoring 32 goals in 40 games, good enough for seventh place in the highly competitive league. When he returned after World War Two he took on the triple role of player, coach and manager and launched Tigers into a golden era. They won the league in the first two post-war seasons and cleaned up with three major trophies in 1946-47 - league, National Tournament and Autumn Cup. Lee stayed with the team until 1954 and was its greatest ambassador. The smoothest of centremen, a superb stickhandler, with a hard shot of pinpoint accuracy, he was the first player to score 400 goals in the league. He came close to 500 before he retired, aged 42. There was a huge gathering at his funeral in 1975, ten years after his old team's demise.

The 'Tigers' most famous game was played on 5 December 1957, a date that will always live in the memories of fans. The Red Army squad had amazed the world only 18 months earlier by carrying off the ice hockey gold medal at their first Winter Olympics.

The Big Red Machine, as it was dubbed, couldn't have expected much opposition in Brighton as they had already beaten a couple of other National League sides on their whirlwind tour of the country. But those games were on full size ice pads. The Sports Stadium's surface was the proverbial postage stamp, only 175 by 75 feet. Not for nothing was it known as the Goaltenders' Graveyard. Skippered by Red Kurz, Tigers made a dreadful start going behind 3-0, dismaying the 4,000 fans packing the West Street arena. But as the Soviets relaxed, Tigers fought back and, remarkably, scored six goals without reply.

For once BBC commentator Alan Weeks, Tigers' publicity man, was lost for words. "I've got nothing to say," he told reporters afterwards. "I'd only blubber. I'm excited, exhausted and stunned."

Alan Weeks had joined the club after the war as secretary, public relations officer and announcer. He credited Tigers with giving him his 'big break' with the BBC in the early 1950s. Right up until his death in 1996, he fought valiantly for a building to replace the Sports Stadium.

Alan's boss for many years was Benny Lee (no relation of Bobby's), a showman of the old school, who was always on hand with trademark cigar to greet the fans in the foyer of the SS. A superb entrepreneur, Lee was responsible for arranging Tigers' games against continental opponents like the Soviet Union thus making Tigers' name and its players - especially Bobby Lee - as widely known in Europe as they were in Britain, bringing Brighton much useful free publicity. The team attracted some of its biggest crowds in the Sports Stadium's final years when most of the Canadians who had formed the early Tigers' sides had been succeeded by British internationals like Mike O'Brien, John Cook, Roy Shepherd, Red Imrie, Les Lovell and Jack Dryburgh.

Lee also ensured that local businesses had an interest in the team through sponsorships, which were something of a novelty in those days. Appropriately, given Benny's reputation as Brighton's best-dressed man, Cobleys, the men's outfitters, put up the most famous trophy. The Cobley Cup was competed for by almost every British team.

After the closure of the SS, the Tigers took a lap of honour around the country for a couple of seasons, again supported by local businessmen.

Footnotes

The Sports Stadium was replaced by the Top Rank Centre but the eccentric design of the ice rink - with no seats for spectators and no protective barrier - made it impossible to stage ice hockey or shows and it closed after only five years.

While Alan Weeks continued to lead the crusade for a rink worthy of the old Sports Stadium a mini-rink was created in the leisure centre in Queen Square Far too small for shows, let alone ice hockey, the fact that it is still there today proves the pulling power of ice.

Holiday on Ice has presented a Christmas show at the Brighton Centre every year which has played to packed houses - but this is staged on a portable tank which Holiday on Ice has to transport to venues like Brighton which don't have their own rink.

Olympic figure skating champion Robin Cousins, who is also involved with Holiday on Ice, has twice allowed the portable rink in the Brighton Centre to be used for public skating with considerable success. This Christmas he is involved with a similar project at the Marina, along the lines of the popular outdoor rink at Somerset House in London.

(This potted history of the SS Brighton was compiled by Stewart Roberts, Editor, The Ice Hockey Annual).

Stewart Roberts

A freelance sports journalist, Stewart has followed ice hockey for 40 years, first falling in love with the game in the last days of the Tigers. While contributing articles on the sport to national and overseas newspapers and specialist magazines, his main occupation is the writing, editing and compiling of The Ice Hockey Annual, which is now in its 27th year.

The Annual is known to fans as 'the bible of British ice hockey' as it covers every major team in this country - there were 26 of them last season, from the Guildford Flames and the London Knights to the Fife Flyers and the Dundee Stars. Stewart, who lives near Preston Park, is secretary of the Ice Hockey Players Benevolent Fund and is a founder member of the British Ice Hockey Writers' Association. He was publicity officer of the governing British Ice Hockey Association in the 1980s.

We should remember the British skating stars that were Brighton based,
.
1. Jennifer & John Nicks (Brighton)
2. Winifred & Dennis Silverthorne (Brighton)
3. Daphne Walker (Brighton)
4. Jeanette Altwegg
5. Beryl Bailey (Brighton)
6. Marion Davies Brighton)
7. Valda Osborn (Brighton)
8. Valerie Moon-Barnes

The SS Brighton years have been kept alive by local historians and writers, in particular the late Alan Weeks. Alan strenuously promoted the return of a much needed ice rink facility. The Sussex Square ice rink, albeit no more than postage stamp size, has kept an important heritage asset alive when past schemes on the King Alfred and Jubilee Street sites have failed to become reality.

Alan was a director of Brighton Ice Rink Ltd (BIRL) until his death but even today his vision provides an inspiration to those who are now promoting this current scheme.

Skating is very much part of the City's and the Regional sporting strategy and the proposed facility fulfils the demand for serious ice sports, community use and entertainment and conference and meeting facilities.

Importantly, the Arena compliments both existing and proposed leisure activity at the Brighton Marina as well as the leisure activity within the city centre.

 

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