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The greens along the seafront, between the road and the beach, had been used for seasonal fairgrounds for many years throughout the second half of the 19th Century. Among these was Pawley's Green, at the junction of Marine Parade and Eastern Esplanade. Here were steam roundabouts, shooting galleries, coconut shies, etc. The greens were named after their tenants or owners; there was also Fairhead’s green and Darlow's green and another green opposite the Ship Hotel.
In 1893 the local father and son partnership of Alfred and Bernard Wiltshire Tollhurst, solicitors, had decided to buy up land at the east end of the town for the creation of a new park, for both residents and trippers. This was to be the Marine Park and Gardens. A small, four acre, annexe was to reserved for amusements, such as a scenic railway and dancing platform. The Marine Park was opened in August 1894. The amusements soon outgrew their four acre spot, and a number of companies were formed to build a grand entrance to the Marine Park. The last of these companies was called the Margate and Southend Kursaals Company.
Their building was completed in 1901, with a great silver dome over the entrance. The word Kursaal is German, meaning a "Cure Hall" or spa, and it seems to have been adapted to mean a place of healthy amusement.
The Kursaal was the world's first ever theme park, pre-dating Coney Island in America. Designed by the architect Campbell Sherrin, also responsible for amongst other things, the Brompton Oratory, the Kursaal building and its Dome were at the cutting edge of architectural design.
The “Kursaal” included a circus, ballroom, arcade with amusements, dining hall and billiard room.There were many firsts at the Kursaal. The world's first Lady Lion Tamer, the world's first Lady Wall of death Rider performed here, it was the first venue in England for the display of Al Capone's personal car from Chicago, and Eric the sixty ton stuffed whale!
The catch-phrases "By the Dome its Known" and "One Bright Spot" were recognized around the country as the Kursaal became famous for its shows, attractions and amusements.
From the world's heaviest man Dick Harrow to the Sacco the fasting man, the Kursaal's variety of entertainments was renowned. This was complemented by the rides. The Cyclone, Water chute, Caterpillar ride and the Wall of Death, with the famous "Tornado" Smith, all featured at the Kursaal over the years to maintain its reputation as a house of fun.
The Kursaal ballroom had perhaps the finest dance floor in England, and was graced by some of the most famous bands and orchestras in the country. Ted Heath, Johnny Dankworth, Cleo Lane and all graced the stage. Vera Lynn also began her singing career in the Kursaal Ballroom with the resident bandleader Howard Baker. Fanny and Johnny Craddock demonstrated cookery - badminton matches, boxing and indoor golf all took place in the Kursaal as well.
The 1930's saw the Kursaal Zoo (Bostock's Zoo) open and in the 1950's the Kursaal Circus was revived with acts converging from all over Europe. The 1950's and 1960's were the Kursaal's heyday, with broadcasts from radio and television a regular feature.
Originally intended as an entertainment venue and gardens, the twenty-six acre site rapidly included the latest attractions and rides as they were developed. Famous in the 1920's and 1930's as the fairground of the East End of London, the Kursaal was at its peak at the advent of World War II.
The Kursaal was closed from June 1940. The water chute basin was prepared as a reserve water supply for the fire brigade. The old cinema building was converted to a factory for the manufacture of waterproof clothing for the troops (Swallow raincoat factory). The ballroom appears to have been used as a storeroom for the NAAFI for the South East.
At the end of hostilities the Kursaal reverted to its original identity of fun and entertainment and continued to grow.
Despite all these best endeavors the Kursaal sadly declined in the 1970's, believed to be due to the advent of continental holidays.The land was sold off for building development ,and in 1973 the Kursaal amusement park was closed down. The decline was irrepressible and in the 1986 the building finally closed.
Although the amusement park has been redeveloped for housing, in 1998 saw the reopen of the Kursaal building after a multi-million pound redevelopment and restoration, following many years of dereliction. The tower, with its glazed interior, and the frontage to Southchurch Avenue are well detailed in red brick and stone, and are prominent features of the seafront townscape. It is now a listed building. forming part of the Kursaal conservation area.