Skydeck – the precursor to the i360

The Skydeck was to be located on Brighton’s seafront between the Palace and West Piers

A team of entrepreneurs present an ambition plan to the burghers of Brighton for a massive observation tower on the seafront; the local authority positively welcomes the plan and voluminous correspondence ensues; but within a couple of years the partnership is severed amid an acrimonious row about money.

No, this is not a potted history of the i360. It all happened more than 50 years earlier.

In April 1964, a Toronto-based company, calling itself Skydeck International, wrote to officers at Brighton Borough Council outlining is proposal for an observation tower, 700 feet high, between the Palace Pier and the West Pier. A concrete access bridge 300 feet long would connect the tower to the promenade and the base was to include a “Marine Land” feature where “porpoises, seals, etc” would perform.

“This will not in any way compete with the corporation’s Aquarium,” the plan stated. “It will be in the open air.” Hmm.

Three concrete shafts would contain lifts to transport the estimated 1,500 visitors an hour up to the observation deck. Each deck would feature separate catering facilities, revolving at the rate of 360 degrees an hour. Each would hold about 500 people at a time and would also feature shops (“At least one of these will specialise in the sale of Canadian products.”) while field glasses would be provided to help people spot the English Channel and, no doubt, the activities of residents in Sussex Heights, then under construction along the road. Above the decks a slim mast would rise to 1,000 feet to provide improved TV and radio reception to the area.

“It is the intention of the company that both the interior and exterior of Skydeck will be architecturally modern, interesting, and dramatic and also that the highest standards of both catering and cleanliness will be maintained throughout,” the plan’s author’s concluded.

The scheme was the brainchild of Captain Raymond Phillips, Charles Smith-Bingham and John Bickford-Smith. A Pathe newsreel shows the three men gathered in one of their homes to discuss the project. The attraction was estimated to cost around £1.5 million in 1964 – that’s around £30 million in today’s prices.

What could possibly go wrong?

The stumbling block was, as ever, money. The corporation did not want to put a ceiling on the amount of rent it could charge. The developers thought it should.

Mr Harman Hunt, the chartered surveyor acting for Skydeck International, wrote to the authority in 1964 to say: “On your proposals, our clients are to be liable for a rental of £4,000 per annum, even though the enterprise might be making a loss. In other words, your council wish to share in the prosperity to a substantial extent and are not prepared to share in the burden in bad times.”

The council told the developer it could “take it or leave it”. By 1968, the proposal was dormant.

Customers aboard the i360 may think they can spot a large slice of deja vu from their vantage point – unaided by field glasses.

(About the illustration: It is copyright of Brighton and Hove City Council, having been originally commissioned by the Brighton Corporation. It is reproduced with kind permission of The Keep where it can be viewed: East Sussex Record Office/Ref ACC 11213/193.)

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