The Origins of the Blue Grotto Aquarium
The Eastbourne Redoubt
During the Napoleonic wars, the British constructed a circular coastal fortification in Eastbourne, East Sussex, never expecting it to be the one-day home of the Blue Grotto Aquarium. By the time it was armed and manned, there seemed very little chance that it would see action. In 1812, the 10 large cannon fired exactly two shots upon a French warship in the channel. Both missed. Then, over the next 100 years, the fort saw continual improvement – and no action. Finally, during the Great War, the fort saw its first action – as a Military Police HQ and temporary jail. It boasted two holding cells in a repurposed casemate.
After the war, the fortification had become outmoded. Thus, the Eastbourne Borough Council bought the redoubt for £150. While they had planned to turn it into an entertainment and leisure facility, not much came of this. Eventually, in 1934, they constructed a bandstand and colonnade over a portion of the moat. However, full development of the site never occurred. After briefly being requisitioned during the Second World War, the site was left on its own again – until the 1950s…
Enter Benjamin White
Back in 1957, a man named Benjamin White leased the land from the Council. Was he planning on building a museum or historical site? Turning the old fort into a military relic, for the appreciation of schoolchildren? Heck no! As it turns out, according to White’s grandson Paul:
[Benjamin White] was a Master Builder…asked to make some models for an attraction in Ramsgate. This went down very well and he was asked to make more models… in Hastings. Then, he was asked if he would open a Model Village in Eastbourne. He leased the Redoubt from the council…-Excerpt from an interview with Paul White on Maximal Space
And build a model village he did! There is a great collection of images online, and it was also featured in VistaScreen Series C.82. I think you know where we’re heading with this, but we’ll get back to the Amazing Adventures of Stanley Long presently. For now, let’s continue with our story – largely aided by a wonderful blog post on Maximal Space. This blog post also contains some color images of the Blue Grotto Aquarium.
The Model Village and the Blue Grotto Aquarium
Benjamin White, along with his wife, started construction in earnest. The first model constructed in the Eastbourne Model Village featured Fountains Abbey. The growth was exponential – eventually filling the entire ground encircled by the fort. White and his wife created each model with loving care, with real glass windows and all. But then there were the casemates… what to do with the casemates? Five of them would become the Blue Grotto Aquarium – and White had some ideas here too.
Because White simply enjoyed the challenge, he decided to build an aquarium – with parts styled after Greek temple architecture. Thus, there would be statuary! Columns! Fountains! False stalagmites and stalactites! And the whole shebang lit with dramatic angular colored lighting! This wouldn’t just be an aquarium – it would be an experience. And as it was to be an experience, the shoppers in the Blue Grotto Aquarium gift shop ought to be able to purchase souvenirs, right? Well here is an example of one souvenir on offer – in a style that could only be offered by a certain stereographer from a certain Very British Stereography Outfit:
Stanley Long’s Trip to Eastbourne Redoubt
A Two-for-One Kinda Deal
The Eastbourne Redoubt is but 78 miles by motor from London – and being home to not one, but two bizarre British subjects (the Blue Grotto Aquarium and the Eastbourne Model Village, not the Whites), how could the most prominent single photographer on Brooklyn Stereography not visit? Yes, you’ve guessed it – we’re talking about Stanley Long, principal photographer for VistaScreen. And he must have been thrilled.
We already know that Long loved model villages – in fact, he’d already photographed White’s works at Ramsgate (C.151) and Hastings (C.83). And we know that he loved zoos – which he had the ability to photograph decently well or rather shabbily. Also, caves and caverns were always in his crosshairs – although White’s fake stalagmites aren’t entirely believable. Nevertheless, the Blue Grotto Aquarium must have been quite a find!
Towards the end of Long’s tenure with VistaScreen, Series C.82 “Eastbourne Model Village” started appearing on VistaScreen supply lists. But this series, with its multiple titles, doesn’t appear on any list – being one of the sets exclusively sold through the venue itself. Thus only visitors to the Blue Grotto Aquarium could purchase the set, which White purchased directly from VistaScreen.
A Notation on Nomenclature
While the box and sleeve title for this series reads “The Blue Grotto Temple & Aquarium”, the cards do not. Instead, they read “The Blue Temple Grotto and Aquarium”. The latter seems highly dubious, and there are exactly zero results for the former in online searches. However, there are results for “The Blue Grotto Aquarium” – a number of them – and thus I’ve chosen to blog about it under that title. In any case, it wouldn’t be the only error in the packaging. The subtitle on the sleeve reads “The Reboubt [sic] Tower Eastbourne”. It’s likely that less effort went into the production of these venue-only souvenirs, as evidenced by their shoddier printing and the simple typeset for the intertitles – common to all such sets I’ve come across.
Conclusions: White, Long & Blue Grotto Aquarium
Stanley Long was capable of great stereography, but often too lazy
Perhaps this subsection should have gone under the heading “foregone conclusions”, but it seemed too much bother to make such a heading. This attitude mirrors Stanley Long’s photography. All four of the views into the tank enclosures are quite wonderful. Even the image of a lone crab on the rocks (Stanley apparently didn’t want to wait for a fish to swim by) is nicely composed and well-lit. It’s good work!
The first three stereoviews are passable as well. But the three in the middle – the architectural shots – they just irk me. When architecture is the subject, it’s paramount to get the angles right – and especially important to get the verticals straight. Long never seemed to bother much with this. Perhaps it just wasn’t part of his RAF training. But he generally tends to hit the mark with subjects like nude models or circus performers. And it’s really not so hard to shoot architecture. I do it professionally; here are eight quickies from all different angles over the last 20 years – notice the lack of camera tilt:
Nor would it have been hard for him to correct the column photos before they went to final print. With a Heidoscop 6×13 cm camera, the information on his negatives could be cropped such that new, vertically-unchallenged stereo pairs could be created. But perhaps the “temple” section of the Blue Grotto Aquarium didn’t interest Long enough – or perhaps a series that wouldn’t be making a huge profit didn’t justify the effort. In any case, the architectural bits of this series are just… not… good.
Benjamin White was an visionary with imagination – albeit a bizarre one
Not many people would see a historic Napoleonic-era coastal fortification and say, “this looks like a great place to build a model village and an underground aquarium!” But Benjamin White was one such person. And not only did he have this wacky idea – but he made it a reality. Through dedication, and with haste. White acquired the lease to the fort in 1957 – by mid-1959, the model village was built and the Blue Grotto Aquarium was open! In his grandson Paul’s words:
My Grandad made the models and my Nan helped to paint them. Once many of the them were built, my Grandad dug out a trench to make a river, which went all around the models and had real fish living in it. Because the river ran all around, my Grandad had to build bridges so people could cross over.-Excerpt from an interview with Paul White on Maximal Space
Most people lack the drive and ambition to achieve any sort of unique greatness. But I would argue – vehemently, if necessary – that Benjamin White was not among them. He had a dream: to turn a nearly-200-year-old military fortress into a quirky tourist attraction. This is a much more difficult task than simply installing some dummies dressed in period garb, a museum of military relics, a reproduction cannon or two – and boom, instant military museum.
And a military museum could, theoretically, have been financially advantageous – one isn’t going to reel in dozens of admissions from schoolchildren on a field trip to see a model village and a weird Greek-temple-cave-themed aquarium. One might, however, with an educational docent and a few tatty old uniforms. But Benjamin White wanted to create the Eastbourne Model Village and the Blue Grotto Aquarium. And that makes him… well, pretty damn awesome in my book!
The Blue Grotto Aquarium had to be amazingly fun before its sad demise
Time travel is impossible – both forwards and backwards. This has essentially been proven by our best science so far. But I wish it weren’t – because there are a great many things, now nonexistent, that I’d quite like to see. The Blue Grotto Aquarium is definitely on that list. How much fun would it be to poke around the model village for a spell, before heading into the dark, weirdly lit “cave” entrance? To be met with “classical” statuary, fish swimming about amongst homemade pirate ships, and weird fountains in moody, blue-lit chambers? I’d certainly pay the price of admission. I hope that, having read this post, you would too.
Sadly, Benjamin White passed away in 1975. A heated debate began over whether to preserve or raze the model village. Then, during this debate, the question settled itself when vandals (conveniently) smashed up the entire installation. The Eastbourne Borough Council razed what remained, and took over administration of the grounds – including the Blue Grotto Aquarium. While most of the Eastbourne Redoubt repurposed itself into exactly what most unimaginative people would assume – a history museum – the Aquarium kept going until 1996, when it finally shut down. The five casemates it occupied are now storage for the museum – though behind the piles of junk, one can still make out the glass and placards and self-designed bits and bobs that were the brainchild of Benjamin White.