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22 February 2016

The King Alfred Site, Hove

Judy Middleton 2002 revised 2018

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
The King Alfred site c1950

The Nineteenth Century

The Ordnance Survey Map of 1861 reveals that on part of this site there stood a camera obscura, an observatory and a flagstaff. Charles Howell was responsible for the erection of these structures and he lived on Hove seafront. (For more details, see under ‘Memorials’ St Andrew’s Old Church Hove). On the north side there was a Fives Court where the old-time game was played in a walled court.

By the time the Ordnance Survey Map of 1876 was prepared, the site had become a playing field used by a boys’ school opposite in what was then known as Hove Terrace. According to A. Fraser Taylor the field was around 100 yards long and from 50 to 60 yards in breadth. A low brick wall topped with rounded bricks separated the playing field from the coast road.

The 1930s

 copyright © J.Middleton
In the left background of this postcard predating the Great War there is a space where later the King Alfred was built. The elegant house on the east corner of the site was called Casa Amonena (pleasant house) and the Duchess of Sutherland lived there for a few years. The building in the centre background is St Aubyn’s Mansions. Note the wide expanse of sand in the foreground.

By the 1930s the school and playing field had gone and the site was an ugly place known as the Beach Pit from whence gravel was extracted. Hove Council decided it was the ideal spot on which to build the borough’s new swimming baths. The old Medina Baths in King’s Esplanade had been in operation since the 1890s and were considered somewhat old fashioned by the 1930s.

On 18 April 1935 the idea for new swimming baths was placed before the Works and Improvement Committee. The Sussex Daily News (12 September 1936) had this to say.

‘If the Hove Council wants to celebrate Coronation Year in a really worthwhile way, they cannot do better than resolve to deal once and for all with the unsightly gravel pit at the foot of Hove Street. It is a blot on the fair face of the town of which it ought to be thoroughly ashamed. The idea was put forward some time ago to build a new swimming bath and a concert hall – but nothing has been heard of this proposal for some months past. Something of the sort ought to be done; it would be a magnificent opportunity.’

In fact the delay was entirely understandable because there were several schemes under consideration and in February 1937 Hove Council eventually approved one. Then in June 1937 there was a Public Enquiry into the proposals and the Ministry of Health subsequently sanctioned the scheme. Finally, there were restrictive covenants on the site, which needed to be resolved before any work could begin.

 copyright © Royal Pavilion & Museums, Brighton & Hove
Excavations for the King Alfred building in 1938

It was not until March 1938 that building work finally got under way on the three-acre site next door to the RNVR depot. Messrs G. Percy Trentham Ltd, were the builders, Peterson Engineering Company was awarded the sub-contract for water purification and filtration work, while Messrs Haden & Sons were responsible for heating and ventilation.

 copyright © Brighton & Hove City Libraries
The new swimming baths at Hove were constructed in 1938 and this photograph shows the work in progress. Note how Trentham, the contractors, have taken the liberty of placing a large advertisement on the wall of Casa Amonena. The building in the background is St Aubyn’s Mansions.

Tom Humble, Borough Surveyor of Hove from 1929 to 1960, was the architect who designed the swimming baths. Mr Humble lived to the age of 85 and died in the 1980s. The building was to be called Hove Marina.

But there were further delays before the baths were completed because of the Munich crisis, which meant some men working on the site were drafted away to undertake work of national importance.

Building Costs

General building work £132,000
Heating and ventilation £23,000
Filtration plant £4,000
Electrical installations £6,000
Furnishings and equipment £6,000

The total cost came to £170,000

Second World War

By August 1939 the local Press stated a formal opening was unlikely to take place before 1940. Meanwhile, two indoor bowling greens in the western section of the underground car park were open. It was hoped the Small Bath might be ready by September 1939.

Instead war was declared on 3 September 1939 and on 11 September 1939 the Admiralty requisitioned the new building, which together with the next-door RNVR depot became an important shore-based training ship known as HMS King Alfred.  

 copyright © I. Hennell.
When Ian Hennell went on leave from HMS King Alfred 
 he had to make sure he had the relevant Leave Ticket.

The final handing out of commissions took place at Hove in December 1945. After that HMS King Alfred moved to Exbury House, the home of the late Lionel de Rothschild.

By the time the war ended, some 2,300 King Alfred-trained officers had been decorated and 600 of them had died.

On 5 September 1945 Admiral of the Fleet Sir Andrew B. Cunningham Bart KT GCB DSO First Sea Lord and Chief of Naval Staff unveiled a plaque at the swimming baths – it read:

‘During the Second World War this building was used as a Naval Officers’ Training Establishment and commissioned as HMS King Alfred – 22,500 Naval Officers of the Royal Naval Volunteer Reserve received their training here.’

Unfortunately, since then this historic plaque has vanished and those in a position of authority do not seem to be the least bothered about its whereabouts.

 copyright © J.Middleton
This replica ship’s bell reminds people of the King Alfred’s wartime use.

After the building was handed back to Hove Council, it seemed pointless to change the name to Hove Marina when everyone had been calling it the King Alfred for years. The relevant permission was sought from the Admiralty and the King Alfred it remained.

In August 1946 Admiral Sir G. Layton formally re-opened the building for public use.

copyright © J.Middleton

The Cunningham Hall was a well-used venue during the winter months with dancing on Saturday nights and light orchestral concerts. For this concert on 26 November 1950 the well-known local band leader Sydney Sharpe conducted an augmented Brighton Hippodrome Orchestra. Rosemary Ward, contralto, sang four songs. Rosemary Ward was undoubtedly a busy lady because at Christmas time 1949 she directed a programme of entertainment for guests at Courtlands Hotel, The Drive, Hove, where she also sang on Christmas Eve and was billed as a mezzo-contralto; for Boxing Day she and Harold Cox provided ‘Songs from the Shows’.  

Special events were held at the restaurant too. The bill of fare for this Ladies Night in 1948 would sound very ordinary to our tastes but then war-time food restrictions were still in place. The meal started with tomato soup, then there was roast chicken, roast and creamed potatoes and peas, followed by Devonshire trifle and ice cream – there was no choice.

copyright © J.Middleton

The King Alfred Swimming Baths

(Hove Borough’s Coronation Souvenir Programme (1953)
There was plenty of activity when this photograph 
was taken early in the 1950s.
The main entrance was from Kingsway and led to a spacious hall where tickets were purchased. The building contained two swimming pools.

The Major Bath was 110 feet long and 42 feet in width; the depth of the pool was 3 feet 6 inches at the east end while the depth was 10 feet at the west end where there was a diving board.

The Major Bath was cleverly designed to be dual-purpose. During the winter the water was drained away and a removable maple floor covered the area in order that dances and concerts might be held there. In this guise it was known as the Cunningham Hall. It also served as a sports venue where badminton was played.

The Minor Bath was 75 feet in length and 30 feet in width. The depth of water at the north end was 3 feet 6 inches and at the south end it was 6 feet deep. The walls of both baths were covered in cream tiles embellished with a narrow band of green. Bathers were obliged to walk through a shallow foot-bath before entering either pool.

The water used in the swimming pools was drawn from the sea by a pump capable of lifting 46,375 gallons per hour into a settling tank of 100,000 gallons capacity. The water then passed through the filtration and ozone plant.
copyright © J.Middleton
A 1950s advert for the Cunningham Hall and various sporting activities

The restaurant was at the west end of the building and it was 91 feet long and 45 feet wide and could seat 250 diners. The room was panelled in quilted maple and weathered sycamore and there were french windows opening out onto a sun terrace. In the summer the roof above the restaurant was used as a roof garden.

The northern part of the building fronting Kingsway contained the private and Zotofoam baths. On the ground floor there were 24 second-class private bathrooms – twelve for the ladies on the east side and twelve for the men on the west side.

On the first floor there were 28 first-class private bathrooms. In all 52 bathrooms there was a choice of hot or cold fresh water, hot or cold sea water, or Zotofoam.

Underground Car Park

The King Alfred was ahead of its time in making car parking an integral part of its design. The underground car park could accommodate 450 cars. There were also underground bowling greens. The roof of the car park, on the east and west sides, was laid out as a putting green.

On 26 November 1954 during a period of stormy weather and high seas, the parapet wall was breached in three places and sea water flooded the bowling greens and car park.    

In June 1976 the Mayor of Hove, Councillor Derek Ireland, opened a portable ice-skating rink measuring 18 feet by 60 feet in the underground car park. Valerie Moon, the Brighton ice-skating star, and Bill Burns owned the rink. Unfortunately, it was a short-lived venture because the ice-making equipment was not functioning properly and the rink closed in June 1977.

Leopold Kemp

  copyright © J.Middleton
This remarkably clear view was posted on 1 August 1907 and shows Medina Baths & House in its heyday.

The Baths Superintendent occupied a flat on the second floor. Leopold Kemp was the first man to fill this role and he had previously been Superintendent of the old Medina Baths. Mr Kemp was born on 8 November 1884 and he retired in November 1949, having completed 51 years of public service, first at Deptford and then at Hove. It is said he taught thousands of people to swim during his years at Hove. He died at Hove Hospital aged 67 on 11 June 1951.

Various Managers

After Leopold Kemp retired, Major John Buckley was appointed manager. He was a jovial man, well known in the sporting world and particularly amongst swimmers. During his time as manager, indoor golf and indoor football were introduced at the King Alfred. He was also a keen bandsman, having played the cornet in his native Manchester. It was largely due to his influence that band concerts were re-introduced at Hove. It was a shock when he died suddenly at the age of 50 on 24 January 1961.

Sidney Richards, who had been deputy superintendent since 1946, was appointed manager in Major Buckley’s place. During his time at the King Alfred there was a 25-yard rifle range and Hove and Portslade Rifle Club used to practice there during the winter months. Mr Richards retired in 1968.

Joseph Nuttridge was the next manager of the King Alfred.

Tom Hallett joined the King Alfred team in 1961 as deputy manager and twelve years later he became manager. He enjoyed a longer tenure of office than his predecessors because he was still there in the 1980s.

In 1985 Mr S. Muir became the new manager.

Sea Water Baths

Surprisingly enough, the privilege of enjoying a sea-water bath lasted until 1977 but the service was suspended from 17 August that year.

In September 1977 Tom Hallett, manager of the King Alfred, presented a report to the Recreation and Amenities Committee of Hove Council. He stated that there were four leaks in the sea water piping and indeed the whole system was corroded. Added to this dismal picture was the fact that the general public were not so keen on sea water baths as they had been and there had been a decided drop in use. For example, some 4,878 people had enjoyed a sea water bath in 1973 whereas by 1976 there were only around 3,000 patrons.

New Swimming Pool

It was not only the sea water baths that were heading for their sell-by date but also the swimming pools. In 1977 the cost of constructing a new pool was put at £1.2 million. This figure rapidly spiralled and in May 1980 councillors were informed that the cost would be £3,72 million while by June 1980 it was put at £4 million.

In August 1980 work started on the new pool on the south side of the King Alfred; in December 1980 a giant crane lifted the first roof trusses into place. There were eleven roof trusses in all, weighing 3.8 tonnes and being 100 feet in length.

Redpath Engineering Ltd. made the roof trusses; Scott, Brownrigg & Turner of Guildford were the architects; and Campbell Reith & Partners from Croydon were the structural engineers with James Longley & Co. as the main contractors.

In July 1982 it was stated that the roof had been completed and 80 workmen were busily finishing the interior.

There was a leisure pool joined to a 25-metre competition pool by a narrow neck of water spanned by a bridge. There were also a teaching pool, bar, café, solarium, first aid room, and enough seating for 240 spectators. When this new part of the King Alfred had been completed, work could start on the second phase costing some £300,000 that meant updating the old building. The pools would be filled in and two new sports halls would occupy the space instead. The indoor bowls area would be extended too.

Interlude with Dolphins

 copyright © Photo Precision Ltd., St Ives
Dolphins at Brighton Dolphinarium.

In January 1983 three dolphins from the Brighton Dolphinarium at the Aquarium took up residence in the old swimming pool for a month while their usual home was being refurbished. The dolphins were called Baby, Silver and Poppy and they were insured for £250,000 for the move.

In December 1990 the Dolphinarium closed for good and the site became part of the refurbished Sealife Centre. Public opinion had turned against the idea of dolphins performing tricks with concerns that such intelligent creatures should no longer be kept in captivity. The two dolphins then remaining at the Dolphinarium called Missie and Silver, were transported abroad and eventually returned to the wild in the Caribbean in an experiment called Into the Blue. It is not known whether or not this enterprise was successful.

Official Opening

 copyright © J.Middleton
The exterior of the new swimming pool was photographed in May 2009.

The new swimming pools were open to the public in November 1982 and customers flocked to try them out. By the end of March 1983 there had been 145,000 swimmers and nearly 27,000 spectators.

On 14 April 1983 Neil Macfarlane, Sports Minister, officially opened the new swimming pools. Mrs Violet Curtis of Salisbury Road made sure she was there for the event because she also been present at the opening of the King Alfred in 1946. Her husband Councillor Cecil Curtis was a member of the Working Party for that building. The family tradition was continuing because her grandson, Tony Curtis, was project manager for the new pools.

In November 1983 the Mayor of Hove greeted the 500,000th customer; meanwhile, additional staff were employed to cope with the workload.

In 1985 a new slide was installed manufactured by a Newhaven company. The 112-foot long slide had some 400 gallons of water pouring down it and was the largest in the area although there was one similar in the Prince Regent Pool, Brighton.

In November 1986 a new slide was opened in the leisure pool; American Express donated it as part of their community involvement programme. The colour was bright orange and there were two fountains cascading in an archway at the top; the steps had non-slip treads. 

New Sports Hall

copyright © J.Middleton
This photograph taken in July 2012 shows the east frontage of 
the King Alfred.

The refurbished major hall was re-opened on 2 April 1984 and provided facilities for basketball, volleyball, five-a-side football and there was enough space for five badminton courts.

The minor hall was re-opened in November 1984 and catered for gymnastics, aerobics, judo and table tennis.

The final cost of the work on the two halls was only a little more than the original estimate, and came to £540,000.

Tom Hallett, manager, said ‘I believe the King Alfred is becoming one of the premier sports centres in the south of England.’


In September 1960 the King Alfred Lanes were opened and became only the third civilian bowling centre in Britain.

In August 1963 Bowline Bowling acquired the lease. In November 1982 Hove Council gave Bowline Bowling a year’s notice to quit. In November 1983 Bowline Bowling’s lease expired and Hove Council refused to grant a new one. This was because the cost of repairs would be uneconomic seeing as there was a plan to re-develop the old RNVR site on the west side. The council took the decision despite a petition bearing 5,000 signatures requesting that the bowling alley should be allowed to remain open.

By 1984 Bowline Bowling had taken Hove Council to court in a bid to win a new lease. The developers Paradice alleged that Bowline stood in the way of building a skating rink on the RNVR site. In return Bowline asserted that Paradice had misled the council by maintaining the bowling alley was the only obstacle.

In January 1985 the judge at Brighton County Court found in Bowline’s favour. It was expected that Hove Council would be obliged to grant the firm a new lease. But then came the surprising news that Hove Council had acquired Bowline Bowling. The deal cost in the region of £400,000 and Hove Council spent a further £200,000 on repairs and improvements. On 8 January 1986 the Mayor of Hove, Councillor Bob Allen, officially re-opened the bowling alley.

The bowling alley finally closed in July 1989 because it was losing money, a brand new bowling alley having opened at Brighton Marina.

Controversial Water Slides

On 26 November 1985 Hove Council gave its permission for the construction of some water slides. Some 450 angry residents signed a petition against the slides and presented it to the Department of the Environment whose permission was needed before the project could go ahead.

Hove Council did not have to fork out for the waterslides because Waterslides plc paid for the work. The bonus was that the council would receive 30% of the income and after seven and a half years, the council would own the slides.

The slides consisted of three brightly coloured glass-fibre tunes called flumes that twisted and turned until swimmers emerged into a covered 3-foot plunge pool. The flumes were nearly 100 yards long, 3 foot in diameter, and started around 36 feet above ground level from an enclosed bright yellow tower that was higher than the roof level of the rest of the King Alfred. The flumes were graded in order of difficulty. The Black Hole was the fastest flume with the steepest drops while the blue Aqua-jet had a sudden drop and the yellow slide, called the Twister, was designed for beginners.

Some 240,000 gallons of water an hour were pumped through the flumes and the water was maintained at a constant temperature. Estimates as to how much the water slides actually cost varied; one estimate was in the region of £250,000 while the Evening Argus (18 August 1986) put the figure at £600,000.

The tickets were not cheap either. It cost £3-50 for an adult’s 30-minute session and £3 for a child. The flumes were able to carry 340 swimmers an hour.

On 15 August 1986 the Mayor of Hove, Councillor Edward Cruickshank-Robb, officially opened the water slides. He sportingly decided to honour the occasion by sliding down one of the flumes. Before his descent, he handed his spectacles to the Mayoral Secretary. But they somehow slipped into the water and were later retrieved undamaged from the filtration system. 

In September 1986 retrospective planning permission was granted for the flumes to be floodlit at night because of safety considerations. It must be said that from the exterior, the flumes provided something of an eyesore.

Unfortunately, there were teething problems. The day following the official opening, a faulty pump caused a breakdown and on 26 August the complex was closed after another pump went out of action. All the pumps had to be replaced.

But accidents were a more worrying problem. On the first day four people suffered minor injuries and one boy was knocked unconscious. By September 1986 Dr Carlos Perez-Avila, accident and emergency consultant at the Royal Sussex County Hospital, said he was tired of treating accident victims of the flumes. By January 1987 he was writing a detailed report on the injuries sustained, which was to be published in a medical journal.

By the end of 1986 there had been a total of 188 accidents reported at the King Alfred, an increase of 51 over the previous year and it was attributed mainly to the water slides. In March 1987 it was reported that some of the victims were going to sue including a young lady who had a front tooth knocked out while using the black slide. In March 1988 seven people received £10,000 in compensation. The settlement was reached without a court hearing and only after it was accepted that Hove Council did not admit liability.

In April 1991 it was stated Hove Council had spent more than £60,000 on updating the three water slides. But by November 2000 the water slides were closed indefinitely because of safety fears.

  copyright © J.Middleton
These two photographs were taken on 8 January 2009 when a giant crane was in place to remove the controversial water slides.

The 1980s

In 1980 Alfonso Francis Forte’s company Solarium Restaurants leased the restaurant at the King Alfred and in 1982 leased the cafeteria too.

In 1986 the environmental health officer was so shocked at the state of the kitchen that he closed it down immediately. Hove Council then took responsibility for the large room and catering facilities. The council spent £20,000 on refurbishment, including a new floor, and in July 1987 it re-opened as the King Alfred Suite. 

In September 1985 staff at the King Alfred stopped wearing their red uniforms in favour of a new blue one sponsored by British Telecom complete with logo advertising a sports information line.

In November 1985 it was stated that the King Alfred’s heating source was to be switched from oil to gas.

In January 1987 a new play session for under-eights accompanied by adults was introduced. It included a mini-trampoline and an inflatable full of plastic bubbles and soft balls.

In 1987 it was decided that it would no longer be possible for swimmers to hire towels – indeed it was surprising the tradition lasted as long as it did. The perk was becoming too expensive and the laundry bill for towels cost £950 a year.

HMS King Alfred Re-union

 (Hove Council)
Hove Council organised the lavish celebrations for the Golden Jubilee Reunion.

The 50th anniversary of the establishment of HMS King Alfred was celebrated with some style in 1989. The event ran from 31 August to 3 September and in these times of austerity it is incredible to look back and remember the trouble, time and expense expended by Hove Council on organising such an enjoyable celebration. Old Salts had a wonderful time and they were full of reminiscences. Hove Council had also undertaken to print a special edition of the booklet on the history of HMS King Alfred and each guest was presented with a free copy.

The 1990s

In October 1991 police and fire officers ordered the manager of the King Alfred Suite to make some changes in the running of the venue. The authorities were alarmed because some parties admitted more people than the numbers permitted; it was also a matter of grave concern that fire exits were blocked and the illuminated exit sign was switched off.

In December 1991 nine-year old Samantha Kinlock became the youngest British female black belt in Kwa Do (Korean Martial Arts). She trained at the King Alfred Club.

In July 1992 the premises wee evacuated when there was a chemical blaze alert. It seems some armchairs were moved outside while a room was being cleaned and these were deliberately set on fire. While the fire was being extinguished, firemen noticed that two 25kg drums of sodium bisulphate were apparently leaking. But what had actually happened was that an employee had placed harmless silica gel into the empty containers. Again, fire officers were not happy.

In November 1992 David Fisher, director, said one million people visited the King Alfred every year and it was one of the most cost effective centres in the country. There were only two other busier centres.

In April 1993 the Mayor of Hove, Councillor Arlene Rowe, opened Megazone, a sophisticated laser centre with hi-tech equipment including guns. It was the first in Sussex.

In July 1993 the main water tank on the roof sprang a leak and around 8,000 gallons escaped. Two inches of water covered the floor of the foyer and cafeteria and staff and firemen worked for two hours to clear it up.

In May 1994 sporting stars arrived to open Fitness Works, a new fitness centre at the King Alfred that boasted the latest in exercise equipment. Amongst the sporting stars present were Karen Pickering (swimming champion) Lyn Davis (former Olympic long-jump champion) Nigel Gates (lightweight bodybuilding champion) and Alan Weeks (veteran sports commentator).

In September 1994 it was stated that the recession was starting to bite and in 1993 the fees fell by £20,000 to £820,000.

In January 1996 it was stated Hove Council had spent £125,000 on re-furbishing and re-designing the 13-year old changing rooms. The firm of Braybons carried out the work.

Golden Jubilee

On 2 August 1996 the King Alfred celebrated its Golden Jubilee. A programme of special events was organised and swimmer Karen Pickering and boxer Chris Eubank were on hand to help with the celebrations because they had both trained at the King Alfred.

George Carpenter was also celebrating because he was the longest-serving employee having worked there for 33 years. He met his wife Ellen at the King Alfred and they both still taught swimming and life-saving.

Maintenance Problems

In March 1997 it was revealed that urgent repairs costing £170,000 were needed. The salt-laden air had broken down the concrete and corroded the metal reinforcement. Work was supposed to start in February 1998.

It should be noted that on 1 April 1997 Hove Borough Council ceased to be a separate entity and although the majority of Hove residents were firmly against the idea, the Government seemed determined it should be amalgamated with Brighton and thus was born Brighton & Hove City Council. 

In November 1999 the King Alfred was shut for two weeks for routine maintenance. It transpired the pool had not been emptied since 1985 although ideally it should be emptied every two years because it was the only way to check the condition of the tiles. It was discovered that the sealant between the tiles had deteriorated, allowing water to seep through. By December 1999 it had become clear that around 25 square metres of the pool base needed attention and new tiles were ordered from Germany.

To make matters worse, on 11 December 1999 a faulty ball valve in the main water tank caused water to flood through three floors and Hove Fire Brigade had to be summoned to pump the water out.

It was hoped the King Alfred would be open again for business in mid-January 2000 but it did not happen until 17 April 2000. The cost of repairs was put at £35,000 and the loss of revenue due to closure was put at £120,000.

  copyright © J.Middleton
The north frontage of the King Alfred was photographed on 26 July 2012.

Into a New Century

In January 2001 Ian Shurrock was appointed to run the King Alfred, having formerly been sports manager for Dumfries and Galloway Council. In December 2001 Kerry Batten, badminton manager, became deputy manager, having previously been assistant manager of the Triangle Centre, Burgess Hill and before that she worked at Portslade Community College Leisure Centre.

A major rumpus ensued when the Argus (23 November 2001) reported that disabled parking bays at the King Alfred car park were to be scrapped. The matter had arisen because Alexander Dodd, retired solicitor of Shirley Drive, wrote to the council to request that the potholes be filled in because the area was dangerous to use. He was told that the council could not afford the £6,000 cost of repairs and they had also decided to scrap the fifteen disabled parking bays. There was such a storm of protest that by 3 December Sarah Tanburn, Director of Culture and Regeneration, had ordered the potholes to be attended to and the council would worry about finding the necessary money afterwards. It was stated that Brighton & Hove City Council were heading for a deficit of some £5 million.

Re-development Schemes Come and Go

 copyright © J.Middleton
 copyright © J.Middleton
These two illustrations show how much the west part of the King Alfred site has changed over the years. The lovely old postcard view is completely different from the modern view taken in 2009 and the only constant between the two is the iron railing on the right.

Originally, the King Alfred and its next-door neighbour, the RNVR site, were separate entities except during the Second World War. The situation changed in 1968 when Hove Council purchased the site from the Admiralty but it has remained empty ever since except for car parking. 

From that date there have been various schemes to develop the area up to the present day and the fate of the two sites has become inextricably entwined. It therefore seemed logical to group all the plans under the King Alfred Site heading although to be absolutely correct some of them should fall under the banner of the RNVR site.

First Airing of a Multi-Flat Plan

In 1971 Hove Council came up with the idea of a ten-storey block of 70 flats and four penthouses. A few sporting activities were included in the scheme such as a table tennis room, squash courts and an indoor bowling rink. There was a Public Enquiry after which the plans were thrown out. The Secretary of State declared that any building on the site should not exceed the height of the King Alfred; he also considered the height of the building would ruin the sea views from the north.

Perhaps a Hotel?

In 1981 there were plans for a hotel some 200 feet in height, together with a health club, restaurant, nightclub, shops and a pub. The plans never became public because the scheme was still at the discussion stage when the recession intervened and nothing became of it.       

Why Not a Private Hospital?

In 1983 an ambitious plan was mooted for a private hospital. Hove architect Christopher Dodd designed it for Bill Skinner, owner of a rest home in Sackville Gardens. The £5 million scheme envisaged a seven-storey high building boasting a raked design in order that every bedroom could enjoy a sea view. There would be 119 beds and an underground car park for more than 100 vehicles.

But Bowline Bowling Ltd. who ran the ten-pin bowling alley and would be affected by the building plans, vowed to fight the scheme.

The Hove Labour Party attacked the plans asserting it was ‘totally immoral to use public land for a private hospital’.

In April 1983 Hove Planning Committee threw out the scheme.

A Paradice Plan

In 1984 a new plan was aired. Paradice put it forward with Roger Pell-Stevens being the architect. An international-sized skating rink was envisaged with the structure being steel and glass arranged in a series of pyramids to allow adjacent flats to keep their sea views.

A Planning Brief

In July 1986 Hove Council produced a Development Brief in which they stated they were prepared to accept a tall building on the site providing it was slim and elegant. But the following month it became clear prospective developers were deterred by the obligation of having to provide a car park with at least 250 spaces.

In their desperation to see the site properly developed Hove Council even went so far as to consider the use of number 1 Western Lawns on the west side of Lower Hove Street as a possible car park.

In April 1988 Hove Planning Committee voted 5-4 in favour of a new scheme going ahead that involved an eight-screen cinema, a restaurant and a nightclub.

Citygrove 1

In April 1989 Hove Council granted a three-month option to Citygrove Developments in order for them to work up full details of their project; this included a leisure ice-rink, a 30-lane ten-pin bowling centre, a family restaurant, a themed café and a car park for more than 400 vehicles.

The plans were unveiled in November 1989. But neither the Fine Arts Commission nor Hove councillors liked the proposed skyline details that included replicas of Olympic torches; disgruntled councillors thought they looked more like giant ice-cream cones.

Alternative designs were considered in light of the criticism. The development was due to start being implemented in February 1990 but in the previous month Citygrove decided to pull out because the recession meant there was a slump in the institutional funding market.

Citygrove 2

In August 1998 Citygrove unveiled a different plan to develop the King Alfred and RNVR sites with the exception of the swimming pools and underground bowling, which would remain council property.

The scheme included restaurants, a casino, and nightclub and a 13-screen cinema complex. There would be 550 car parking spaces on two levels below the centre. A family entertainment centre was also envisaged with children’s activities and virtual reality attractions.

Some sporting activities would be displaced and transferred to the proposed new community leisure centre next to Blatchington Mill School.

The scheme was expected to cost £30 million. But there was widespread opposition. Councillors feared it would generate too much traffic while residents of Viceroy Lodge and other neighbouring properties were against it too. People were so angry the council only proposed to give the public three weeks in which to air their views that the consultation period had to be extended.

If the scheme went ahead, six badminton courts would be lost and there would be no more table tennis, snooker or pool while the ten-pin bowling alley would close. Hove Boxing Club might have to shut and Cheetah’s Gym wondered what would happen to them. Then there were Olga and Philip Millard who ran Olga’s Dance Club and did not know where they would be able to find a comparable ballroom.

However, Ivor Caplin, Hove’s MP, supported the scheme because ‘it would breathe new life into a part of Hove seafront, which has suffered from under-investment for too long’. The brothers, David and Martin Collinson who ran Megazone, were also in favour because they thought the King Alfred had been an eyesore for some twenty years.

But the Royal Fine Arts Commission, English Heritage, and the council’s own architects all had their reservations. Citygrove was asked to reconsider their plans.

Citygrove 3

In April 1999 new plans were produced. The cinema complex was cut from 3,400 seats to 2,650 and there would be six screens run by Virgin. Lord Bassam made a memorable statement in which he said he found the project very exciting and Hove would have its first-ever cinema. This provided ample fuel for the letters page of the Argus from people who could remember Hove’s five cinemas perfectly well.

The family entertainment centre, amusement arcade and nightclub were all dropped from the new scheme. But the Casino remained and the Grosvenor Club from Fourth Avenue would occupy it.

The existing swimming pool would be re-vamped and the council would build a new sports hall at a cost of £6 million. The hall would have enough space for six badminton courts and would be equipped to provide basketball, volleyball, five-a-side football, trampolines, table tennis, gymnastics, judo, karate, archery, cricket, fencing and roller skating. In addition there would be a health and fitness studio. The ten-pin bowling alley would be retained.

The height of the buildings was reduced and the number of parking spaces lowered from 550 to 492. The frontage to Kingsway was re-designed and a restaurant was included.  

But Paula Jones, spokeswoman for the King Alfred Action Group, said the complex was still far too large. On 24 May 1999 there was a three-hour public meeting at Hove Town Hall. Henry Hertzberg of architects Chapman Taylor said they had tried to take public concerns into account but angry residents labelled the plans as ‘a catastrophe waiting to happen’.

In June 1999 Citygrove stated that from the 14,500 questionnaires sent out, residents had voted 3-1 in favour of the development. A council survey of the four seafront wards showed people were in favour 2-1.

But the protesters continued with their campaign. They feared that a site that belonged to the people might be sold off to some get-rich merchant and in July 1999 the council refused to reveal details of the lease.

The council again deferred a decision and called upon Citygrove to produce leisure impact and traffic reports.

Meanwhile, in July 1999 it transpired that over the previous five years the number of people using sports hall and gym had fallen from 67,000 to 59,000.

Citygrove 4

By August 1999 the plans had been revised yet again. The west end of the structure would now be two-storey instead of three-storey; the exterior would have a lighter feel because it was proposed to use steel and glass instead of a rendered surface. There would be a single entrance to the sports hall and the main entrance to the cinema would be at pavement level, thus improving disabled access. There would be a café and terraces overlooking the sea on the west and south sides. Car parking would only be on one floor. A new green bowls centre was also proposed plus a re-vamped swimming pool.

The council approved the scheme on 30 September 1999 after a two-hour debate with a vote of 7-5. Citygrove agreed to a £40,000 package to assist local traffic schemes and they were prepared to sign up for a two-year agreement with Brighton & Hove Bus Company to extend their services to King Alfred.

In November 1999 the Government approved the scheme after John Prescott, Environment Secretary, decided not to intervene. The scheme received 474 letters of approval and 369 letters of objection.

Then the whole outcome was thrown into confusion when Rank Leisure and their development partners, Gallaghers, decided to apply for a judicial review. Rank Leisure owns Odeon cinemas and they planned to spend £10 million on a ten-screen multiplex at West Street, Brighton, and naturally it would be financially sensible for them not to have rivals in the vicinity. Rank’s principal argument was the council had not paid enough attention to a Government planning guidance note laying down that major leisure centres should be located in town centres wherever possible. The council were obliged to take legal advice and it was recommended the scheme should go back to the planning committee. Meanwhile, the judicial review proceedings were halted.

Citygrove 5

Brighton & Hove City Council approved new plans in June 2000. But there was still some opposition and the following month Tory councillors asked John Prescott to hold a Planning Enquiry but he refused to do so. In July 2000 Citygrove signed a deal with UGC (formerly Virgin) to run the multiplex cinemas and Toby Baines, Citygrove director, said he hoped work would begin in January 2001.

Meanwhile, doubts were being raised about Citygrove’s viability. Tory councillors discovered Citygrove had donated £2,500 to the Labour Party every year since 1995. There was also the fact that Citygrove had an exclusivity agreement with Labour-run Brighton and Hove City Council. Then it transpired that Citygrove had not filed a full set of company accounts since June 1998. Adam Millward from Grand Avenue, Hove, pointed out that Citygrove only had five employees, zero credit rating, and two companies in receivership.

By November 2000 the whole scheme had collapsed like a pack of cards. A crucial factor was Grosvenor Club’s decision to withdraw from running the planned casino.

Citygrove had to produce revised plans just for cinemas and restaurants on the RNVR site while making a token money gesture towards the re-development of King Alfred. The council turned down the proposals because they felt the venture was far too risky. Thus, after five years of numerous discussions, meetings, revised plan after revised plan, the council had precisely nothing to show for it.

What Next?

On 20 November 2001 there was a crowded meeting at Hove Town Hall where Ken Burlton, sports consultant, outlined his ideas for a new development at King Alfred. They included improving the existing swimming pools, building a new sports hall, providing amenities for children, and re-building an indoor bowls centre. There was a possibility of a new gymnastics centre too.

The scheme would cost at least £15 million and while there might be £2 million forthcoming from the National Lottery, there was little prospect of additional grants. There would have to be some commercial development to make the scheme viable. The number of people using the facilities at the whole of King Alfred had fallen from 900,000 in 1992 to 300,000 in 2000.

In January 2002 the council stated they were considering three options; to build from scratch, to re-furbish the existing building, or a combination of the two. But by the following month it was obvious it would not be that simple. It would need at least £16 million to regenerate the area and the best way to acquire money would be to allow developers to build homes on part of the site. But there was a drawback because the council had a policy of ensuring that 40% of a new development would be affordable housing.

By May 2002 the council stated a new sports centre would cost £20 million. A consultation leaflet presented the public with three options for them to consider but all of them included the provision of flats.

Option one – 300-400 flats
Option two – 300-350 flats
Option three – 275-325 flats

‘Some choice!’ as critics remarked. The buildings would rise to four or eight stories. Needless to say immediate neighbours were appalled.

In July 2002 Brighton and Hove Policy Committee agreed in principle to rebuild King Alfred and to allow up to 400 homes to be built on part of the site. But for this to happen the Local Plan would have to be altered because the site was earmarked for sport.

Liberal Democrat councillors challenged the committee’s decision and leader Paul Elgood said ‘ We believe the Policy Committee acted illegally by setting off the process for changing the Local Plan without the consent of full council. The council’s constitution does not give the committee the power to do this… (The King Alfred) is a relatively small site and every inch of it is needed for the kind of sporting development Brighton and Hove has long been lacking.’

Then Brighton & Hove City Council brought out its own planning brief and admitted the 1995 Hove Borough Local Plan still technically covered the site. Therefore, a new Brighton and Hove Local Plan was necessary, which was currently at the second deposit planning stage. There would be a Public Inquiry into the new plan starting in September 2002 that would probably run into 2003. However, neither of the plans recorded a specific policy for the King Alfred site, only for the RNVR site.

The Gehry Towers

This most controversial of schemes was also known as the ‘Four Maidens’ or if you could not stand the design ‘Tin Can Towers’. The plans also had the bonus of being designed by an internationally known architect and it was to be his first major building project in England although he had designed the Maggie Centre in Dundee. Frank Gehry’s most notable works are the titanium-covered Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao, Spain and the Disney Concert Hall in Los Angeles. But his National Building in Prague with its ‘wonky’ towers design does bear some resemblance to his Hove design.

The plans were revealed to the public in July 2003 and the ‘Four Maidens’ – supposedly inspired by the flowing dresses of Edwardian ladies promenading on Hove seafront and lawns – consisted of four 38-storey towers with the swimming pool and sports complex at the centre.

copyright © J.Middleton
Frank Gehry said he was inspired in his design for the towers
 by the flowing dresses of Edwardian ladies promenading.

Ken Fines, Brighton Borough Planning Officer 1974-1988, born, bred and resident in Hove, was so horrified at the plans that he set up campaign group HOVA – standing for Heritage Over Vandalism Actually and Hova was the Latin for Hove.

Ken Fines was not the only protesting voice of course and by January 2005 new plans were on the table. The ‘Four Maidens’ had gone in favour of two 18-storey towers plus six to eight 10-storey blocks. It still made for a very crowded and overpowering design.

The trouble with providing modern sporting facilities is always going to be the huge cost involved. In the King Alfred’s case this was to be covered by building flats for sale. But planning restrictions meant they could not all be luxury apartments and some must be for social housing. While laudable in social terms, it meant there would be less profit for the developers and therefore a finer line between triumph and disaster.  Karis Holdings were the developers behind the project. Karis Holdings was a ‘joint venture company between local developer Karis developments and ING Real Estate Development UK, the property development arm of the Dutch global financial institution.’

By August 2005 Karis was hopeful enough about the project to spend some £170,000 on a huge drill to find out the structure of the soil they would be dealing with and how much concrete would be needed. The drill was set up in the west corner of the car park and took samples to a depth of 40 metres and the experts pronounced the subsoil was fissured chalk. The towers would be supported on a 3-metre thick concrete platform. The platform in turn would be supported by up to 300 columns made of concrete measuring a metre in width and the length being up to 40 metres.

A letter from Dr Geoffrey H. Baker published in the Argus in December 2005 suggested ‘we have to live with architecture for a long time but modern architectural fashions change rapidly and some would argue Frank Gehry’s concepts are already passé.’ The Architects’ Journal (November 2008) was similarly unimpressed. It mentioned the ‘fortress-like engagement with the street’ and the ‘depressing-looking’ perimeter blocks ‘crammed full of single-aspect flats’ that were ‘cheap and nasty’. 

In September 2005 Brighton & Hove City Council voted for the scheme to go ahead. The following is a list of what the development involved:

25-metre eight-lane competition pool
20-metre teaching pool
Leisure pool for under-eights
Sports hall the size of 8 badminton courts for a range of sports including basketball, five-a-side football and volleyball
Multi-purpose sports hall suitable for table tennis, martial arts and fencing
Workout studio
Steam room
Showers and relaxation area
Consultation rooms for sports injuries, massage, complementary medicine
754 ‘unique and beautiful homes’ created in
Blocks of 8 to 11 storeys
Two towers of 21 and 25 storeys
472 apartments for sale
282 affordable homes

However, a six-rink indoor bowls centre would not be provided within the King Alfred but somewhere else within Brighton and Hove

On 11 November 2008 the dream died with the Argus headlines declaring ‘King Alfred is dead.’ The development agreement between council and developers was signed in November 2004 and expired on 9 November 2008.

The rot started in 2008 when ING withdrew their financial backing due to the recession; apparently, the fall in house prices rendered the scheme no longer financially viable. Naturally, Karis wanted to try and protect the money already invested in the scheme and struggled along hoping to save it. It is understandable when you consider they had spent six years and £13 million in trying to bring the plans to fruition. Indeed, despite the November announcement Karis still hoped the scheme might go ahead in another two or three years when the economy had recovered.           

The collapse of the Gehry Towers left Brighton & Hove City Council uncomfortably holding the baby. Nothing had been spent on maintenance at the King Alfred because its demolition was expected to be imminent. It left the council needing to spend £1.5 million just on keeping the place up and running. This was an underestimate because in June 2010 it transpired some £2.25 million had been expended.

 (Karis /ING)
This illustration was printed in a newsletter widely distributed to the local population. It shows the final amended scheme with two towers and not four.

Freedom Leisure

Freedom Leisure is a trust established in 2002 that by 2010 was responsible for running eighteen facilities in Sussex. In December 2010 Brighton & Hove City Council decided that Freedom Leisure would also run the King Alfred with a contract running from April 2011 to 2021 but with a ‘get-out’ clause in case a new development idea came over the horizon.

The Way Forward

In April 2012 it was revealed that the council was to spend some £40,000 in setting up a project team to look into future options for the site.

In August 2012 two interesting nuggets of information came to light. Rob Starr, boss of an insurance company, revealed he had a £150 million funding agreement with a large Sussex contractor to demolish the King Alfred. Starr then planned to build a performing arts venue to include 12 dance studios, 8 rehearsal rooms and 2 theatres.

Meanwhile, the Government had given permission for a new Christian Free School to be established in Brighton and Hove. The school’s backers stated that the King Alfred site was their preferred option and there should be shared leisure facilities. In the event the school, named King’s School, opened at Portslade on a site long associated with education; it used to be a Sixth Form College operated by Portslade Aldridge Community Academy, formerly, the Lower School of Portslade Community College; before that it was Portslade Boys’ School and its first use was by Windlesham House School.

Starr Trust / Crest Nicholson - King Alfred Project

In January 2013 the Argus stated it knew at least five groups who had expressed an interest in developing the King Alfred site. Bur Rob Starr said that some 75 developers were initially interested in the site.

By December 2014 two companies were on the short list. They were French-based Bouygues Development and Crest Nicholson  Regeneration in partnership with Hove businessman Rob Starr, co-founder in 2008 of the charity Starr Trust, set up to honour his late father. It seems that Rob Starr had a more personal take on the King Alfred because he had used the swimming facilities since he was an 18-month old baby.

On 8 January 2016 Brighton and Hove Independent revealed the members of the cross-party King Alfred Project Board were Councillor Warren Morgan (Labour) Councillor Robert Nemeth (Conservative) and Councillor Tom Druitt (Green).

They had been involved in discussions behind closed doors for months. But the secrecy did not go down well with the general public or some other councillors for that matter. It is such an important project expected to cost almost £400 million and ordinary folk felt there should have been much more transparency. It is also seems probable that the designs submitted by the losing bidder would never be made public.

Indeed, Councillor Nemeth stated that he had been firmly in favour of public consultation before he even joined the Project Board when he was working with Mike Weatherley M.P. to get the project off the ground. He said that not consulting the public and the people who actually used the King Alfred centre was a grave mistake. It only led to negative publicity and upset after the plans were announced and it could have been so easily avoided.

On 21 January 2016 the Policy and Resources Committee stated their preference for the Crest Nicholson / Starr Project.

London-based Haworth Tompkins is the lead architect for the scheme while Lewes-base LA Architects will design the sports centre.

The sporting facilities would include

Competition pool 25m x 8m lanes
Teaching pool, 20m x 10 m
Leisure pool for under-eights, 400 square metres
Badminton – eight courts
Gym – with 120 pieces
Gymnastics centre
Martial Arts training room
Workout studio – for classes of up to 35 people
Quiet activity studio – for classes up to 12 people
One multi-purpose room – 22m x 12m
Indoor bowls – three rinks
Health and fitness changing
Sauna – for eight people
Créche for under-fives
Soft-play room for up to 72 children
Car park – 200 spaces for sport and leisure use

While all this is fine and dandy, the visual impact of the development from the outside is proving to be far more controversial. The architect also uses the old trick of portraying the development from the sea and a nice stretch of blue sea softens the starkness of the box-like towers. In reality, how many Hove residents ever have the opportunity to view the seafront from a boat? The flats are necessary to finance such a major project and there will be 560 homes. But did the towers have to be so totally uninspiring? The headlines in the Argus 4 February 2016) ran King Alfred: it has to be better than this.  

The editor of the Architects’ Journal stated ‘This is solid dependable architecture by a solid, dependable architect’. But is it relevant in its context? Fortunately, there will be public consultation and no doubt the plans will be tweaked during the course of the year before planning permission is granted.

A sense of urgency was generated on 8 February 2016 when Storm Imogen blew off parts of the rood covering the King Alfred swimming pool and the centre had to be closed.

In April 2016 the Argus published a hilarious spoof for April Fool’s Day. It was an impression of new plans for flats on the King Alfred site, which showed a structure rising up like a tumbling stack of books. One wag wrote in to say he would have the penthouse and then when he wanted to go to bed, he could just slide down the slope.

On 16 May 2016 the swimming baths were at last re-opened after storm damage earlier in the year.

Still on Track

In Brighton & Hove Independent (19 July 2016) developer Ron Starr was keen to emphasize that the King Alfred project was still on track. He had expected there would be a year of consultation starting this September and he hoped builders would be on site by October 2017.  Although the Brexit vote had caused jitters in the construction industry, Starr stated that Crest Nicholson was now rallying. Starr also provided a fascinating insight into tough business practices. Initially, he had approached French construction company Bouygues as a possible commercial partner because he had worked with  them before. Then he discovered that Bouygues was putting in a bid on their own account and without him. Perhaps it was poetic justice that Starr won the contract after all.

A Hitch 

Many people were not surprised when the Argus (27 September 2016) announced there would be a six-month delay in implementing the £166 million project. Apparently, the hitch was due to ‘legal, financial and contractual issues’.

Rob Starr, the man behind the winning bid, was very disappointed by the delay. As he pointed out the contract was awarded in January and now it was September and nothing had happened.

Robert Nemeth, Hove Conservative councillor, was also bothered by the news. He said ‘On top of the secrecy that the public has had to endure, there are now delays … The Labour administration will have a lot to answer for if progress is not made sharpish.’

The comment column of the Argus revealed a most telling comment made by Warren Morgan, council leader. He admitted the project was chosen for its affordability and not on architectural merit. 

Death Knell?

In the Argus (19 August 2017) there was a dramatic two-page article with banner headline ‘Developers want £10m more of taxpayer’s money for King Alfred’.

Brighton & Hove City Council are already committed to contributing £8 million of public money towards the scheme. Now Crest Nicholson is attempting to re-negotiate terms stating the project is unviable due to rising costs.

The scheme is already trailing behind schedule because the leisure centre was supposed to be finished and open to the public by the close of 2019. Current thinking place the completion date at a more realistic time in the years between 2022 and 2028.

But the public planning consultation has not even taken place yet although that was supposed to happen in the summer of 2016.

Robert Nemeth, Conservative Counsellor, said ‘The mistake ultimately was picking a competition winner that was unable to deliver the project and then not putting mechanisms in place, such as a deposit, that would hold Crest Nicholson to its promises.’ Mr. Nemeth added that there was nothing the Council could do to make the company start work and he doubted it would go ahead.

Valerie Paynter, SaveHove campaigner, thought the biggest problem was the housing estate and the Council is ‘just desperate to deliver that great big wodge of housing the Government is forcing down the city’s throat’.

There are many campaigners who think it would be best to ditch the whole thing and go back to square one.

On the other hand a spokesman for Crest Nicolson and the Starr Trust stated they are committed to delivering the King Alfred development.

Surprising News

On 1 February 2018 there came the unexpected revelation that the Government was prepared to pledge the sum of £15 million in order that the scheme might go ahead. This followed the belated realisation of the acute housing crisis prevalent in most parts of the country and therefore the Government pledged to build some 200,000 houses nationwide.

It was an excellent piece of news to developers Crest Nicholson, The Starr Trust, and Brighton & Hove City Council who, in November 2017, had applied for a £15.2 million grant from the Marginal Projects scheme; the developers were struggling to fill a funding gap in the £200 million project, and in particular, the money necessary to build the required level of affordable housing.

Scott Black, managing director of Crest Nicholson Regeneration, said he was delighted and stated the project could now progress quickly. Rob Starr of The Starr Trust was thrilled, and Warren Morgan, council leader, was ‘massively pleased’. (Argus 2/2/18 / Brighton & Hove Independent 2/2/18)


Brighton & Hove Independent 8 January 2016 / 15 January 2016 / 5 February 2016 / 12 February 2016 / 19 July 2016.
Encyclopaedia of Hove and Porstlade
Hove Council Minutes
Ordnance Survey Maps

See also the History of HMS King Alfred Hove

Copyright © J.Middleton 2016
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