Wednesday, 6 February 2013

The Kursaal.

In 1894 by father and son Alfred and Bernard Wiltshire Tollhurst opened 4 acres of land (purchased the previous year), as the 'Marine Park and Gardens'. In 1901, they opened a grand entrance pavilion, called the Kursaal, designed by Campbell Sherrin, containing a circus, ballroom, arcade, dining hall and billiard room.

On 24th July 1901, the Kursaal Funfair in Southend-On-Sea. 27 acres of wasteland had been turned into what is believed to be the world's first theme park, even pre-dating New York's Coney Island. The funfair comprised various rides and sideshows such as a man known as "Togo, the Arizona snake handler", and even had a Freak Show. Some years later a small zoo was added. It boasted the world's first ever female Wall Of Death motorbike rider. During the 1930s George "Tornado" Smith rode around the Wall Of Death, with a lioness accompanying him on his motorbike. 

Part of the Kursaal was under cover, and the roof was crowned by a large and very distinctive silver dome; this dome quickly and affectionately earned the Kursaal the nickname of "By The Dome It's Known", or "the Dome". Inside the was a huge ballroom where regular dances were held and bands would play live. Off to the side of the silver dome was the Kursaal arcade, in which were a couple of rides and lots of side stalls, such as rifle ranges, skittles games, fortune tellers. 

During World War II, the fairground part of the Kursaal was closed to the public and used to temporarily house soldiers returning from battle, though the dome remained open so that the visiting big bands could still provide the entertainment for dances. Once the war had ended, the Kursaal was then re-opened to the public, and entered into what for most local people and day trippers from East London, was its absolute heyday - the 1940s, through to the early 1960s. 

There was a large variety of rides in the Kursaal:
Harton Scenic Railway
Switchback Railway 1st Water Chute
2nd Water Chute
Toboggan Slide
The Mont Blanc
Laff In The Dark
Aerial Flight
Figure Eight
River Caves Joy Wheel Bowl Slide Airsport
Miniature Railway The Whip
The Tumblers
Never Stop Railway
Wall Of Death
Midget Mansion
Caterpillar Jolly Tubes
Dive Bomber
Noahs Ark
Ghost Train
Mountain Dipper
The Whirlwind Racer
There were also plenty of other features such as the above-mentioned rifle ranges, coconut shies. 

The Kursaal even had its own train, known as the Kursaal Flyer, and this was used every year in the Southend carnival as one of the floats. 

During the 1950's the the ball room, each Friday and Saturday night was open till late with either a night of dancing or roller skating. The roof was filled with balloons and during the night the ballon net was released on to the dance floor. At the end of the night there would be a row of coaches and cars outside to take people home, weather it be to London or chelmsford.

In the late 1950s an accident accrued on the tubs which resulted in the death of a man, and the one of the tubs being derailed and another being trapped. 

As the 1960s progressed, the Kursaal began to fall into decline in popularity. Instead of spending their holidays at British seaside resorts, people began to go on Mediterranean package holidays in their droves. Though the Kursaal still did have visitors, fewer people thought of a day trip to Southend as a good thing to do; therefore, more use was made of the ballroom inside of the dome - wrestling matches would be held on a weekly basis, and a small piece of filming for the 1960s cult TV programme "The Prisoner" was made inside of the fairground. As we moved into the late 1960s and all through the 1970s, the Kursaal became a popular venue for rock bands to perform live concerts - Status Quo there in 1970s for three days. 

The decline continued though, and by the time the 1980s were upon us, the visitors had dwindled down to a level where it was no longer considered profitable to keep the fairground open - so, very sadly it closed. 

A decision was made to turn the fairground part of the Kursaal into a housing estate, and the bulldozers moved in. The dome of the Kursaal remains though, and back in the 1990s an attempt was made to revamp the inside and once again make it one of Southend's major attractions. Nowadays, the inside of the Kursaal dome boasts the Rendezvous casino, a restaurant, a bowling alley and a couple of bars. 

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