There’s a fine old print of Brighton & Hove’s elegant sea front design from West to East, which shows off Hove’s grandeur at its very best. The Brighton end of the print has substantially altered but Hove has retained its Georgian crescents in all their glory. Along on the far Western end of the print, there is a vast glass dome which catches the eye. It was called the Anthaeum and had it survived through to today, it would be regarded as one of the finest examples of architecture of its age.
The Anthaeum was constructed between 1832 and 1833, following a design by Amon Henry Wilds, the architect of Brunswick Town. Funded by Isaac Lyon Goldsmid, the project was the brain child of the notable botanist Henry Phillips. His idea was to create a glazed dome conservatory capable of showing off the wonders of botany. It was built on a frame of cast iron ribs and girders, which contained approximately 40,000 unique panes of glass. With a ground diameter, a circumference of 492 feet and a full height of 64 feet, it would have been the largest dome in the world at the time. The iron sections were delivered to Shoreham Harbour and then dragged by teams of 20 horses per cart to what is now Palmeira Square.
Inside the Anthaeum, the visitor would have found an exotic garden, with gravel paths, arbours and recesses amongst the cedar, palms and various other rare trees. There were tropical and oriental shrubs and all sorts of flowers. There was a rockery, a lake populated with fish and aquatic plant life. Birds would fly between the trees. There was even seating for 800 people! The whole thing was heated using coke supplied by Brighton gasworks.
Having derived its name from the ancient Greek word for flower, the Anthaeum was expected to blossom as a commercial enterprise. Admission was expected to be set at one shilling or two guineas for an annual season ticket. The grand opening was scheduled for 1st September 1833 and a band of Lancers booked to play the first visitors in.
The design included a central pillar, which would support the massive weight of the dome with purlins and diagonal braces. A dispute about the design blew up. The lead contractor, Mr English, appears to have taken increasing responsibility for the finished building. Somewhere down the line, Mr Wilds quit the project. Whether he was sacked or resigned is unclear. What is clear is that he considered the central pillar to be crucial to the dome’s design and Mr English thought not.
Mr English got his way and ordered that the central pillar be removed. Whilst it had been under construction, the whole edifice was supported by temporary scaffolding. On the morning of 30th August 1833, the builders began to remove this scaffolding. Within hours the enormous iron ribs began to crack. Then they snapped. The entire thing came crashing to the ground, the day before it was due to open to the public.
With the exception of Mr English’s reputation, no-body was hurt. Only one person was inside the Antheam when it collapsed: the head gardener Mr Wyatt – he made a narrow escape. Much like the remnants of the West Pier today, the ruins lay in a tangled heap of iron for years afterwards. They remained there for twenty years. A contemporaneous newspaper report said:
‘The destruction of this great edifice is accounted for only by the immense weight of iron at the top, which then unsupported by the scaffolding, folded in, and forced its way to the ground. The ruins were visited yesterday by several hundreds of persons. It was situated at the western extremity of the town, and would have formed one of the most splendid ornaments in the world.’