The Dreamland Story
Just before Christmas 1919, and only 13 months after the end of the Great War, John Henry Iles purchased Margate’s The Hall By The Sea, thus initiating the history of what would become Dreamland. Iles had a vision for turning the dance and music hall, previously run by the colourful showman ‘Lord’ George Sanger (whose ostentatious tomb can be seen in Margate Cemetery), into an American-style amusement park. This vision would come to shape culture, employment, architecture, politics and entertainment in Margate for most of the next century.
Iles bought the site for £40,000 but spent £500,000 developing his vision, which is the equivalent of about £15million today. As a mark of intent, he built the now iconic Scenic Railway amidst the pleasure gardens and amusements. The wooden roller coaster was a unique addition to the town and 500,000 visitors sampled its climbs, drops and bumps in the first three months of opening in 1921.
The ride became both a favourite of visitors and locals, with its mile-long wooden frame being visible from vantage points around Margate. A ride to the first hill drop afforded thrill seekers a panoramic view of the sea front, with their screams on the way down being audible in the High Street in the peak season.
The Scenic Railway is very much at the centre of the new Dreamland. It was badly damaged in a fire in 2008, but came back from a similar disaster in 1949. The ride is Grade-II* listed and has now been restored to its original glory for new riders to experience.
Give someone a pencil, ask them to draw a Margate building and the chances are that they will come up with an interpretation of the wonderful Art Deco-style cinema on the sea front. Cutting edge at the time and still looking modern today, the 80-foot fin atop the 2200-seater cinema was part architectural statement and part advert for the amusement park to which it was linked . The neon signage lit up the night sky, bringing much-needed glamour to the era of the Great Depression, which also happened to be cinema’s boom years.
The Dreamland cinema was opened in 1935 and replaced a smaller cinema on the site. The building is considered to be a modernist masterpiece. The ‘super-cinema’, designed by architects Julian Leathart and WF Granger, was a tourist attraction in itself, with fans of modernist architecture willing to travel to just stop and stare at the exterior. The cinema’s design would be hugely influential on the development of modern cinema chains across the UK.
The interior was as grand as the exterior (signified by the building later being afforded Grade II* listing), with the cinema boasting lounges and bars, as well as air conditioning, which was vital in those times when 75% of the audience would have smoked their way through the main feature.
The cinema, whose Compton cinema organ is still intact, is very much a part of the Dreamland project. Restoration will create a 3000-seater venue for performance and conferences, as well as providing a centre for celebrating popular culture.
The first half of Dreamland’s 1940s was, of course, dominated by the war effort on the home front and overseas. The cinema and ballroom initially remained open at the outbreak of World War II, though any prospects for anything like a normal summer season in 1940 were abandoned, when the entire Dreamland site was requisitioned by the Government. This June 1940 order was made on the back of the Dunkirk evacuation, where thousands of British and Allied soldiers were rescued from the beaches after being cut off by the German army.
The restaurants served as treatment centres for the wounded and the ballroom was converted to a makeshift dormitory for troops. Meanwhile, the Garden Café was used as an interrogation centre to root out possible spies and informers. 2000 troops were later stationed at Dreamland, including many from the Entertainment National Service Association (better known as ENSA), including actor Jack Warner of Dixon of Dock Green fame and Ralph Reader, creator of The Gang Show.
The presence of ENSA meant that some film and stage shows continued at Dreamland throughout the war years, though it was not until 1946 that the amusement park was up and running again. Rides, dancing and film all returned in earnest in the summer, as Britons sought to kick back and seek relief from the years of war.
More risqué sideshows started to appear on site, as did one larger than life entertainment giant, Billy Butlin. He invested £160,000 into the site in 1947, as well as bringing his hotels to Cliftonville.
The arrival of the 1950s marked a new era of hope and of leisure after the austerity of the war years. The Festival of Britain inspired the nation with modern design and the optimism of a coming space age, though the most important part of this decade, as far as Dreamland and Margate were concerned, was the birth of the teenager.
Rock ‘n’ roll music, the ending of rationing and availability of fabrics in colours other than army uniform green provided for a perfect storm of inspiration for a new generation of young people. Dreamland was the ideal stomping ground for this generation, who wanted to draw a firm line between them and their parents in looks, tastes and attitude. The noise, the smells and the chance to eye up girls/boys was a great draw, and the park became as much a place to promenade in your finery as a place to ride the dodgems.
Lindsay Anderson’s 1953 film O Dreamland captures this era of change perfectly, with most teens and children dressing like their parents, but the odd proto-Teddy Boy appearing in shot.
By the mid-1950s, the Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls had forged Dreamland’s unbreakable links with youth culture, and you were as likely to find members of the working class youth cult making out in the recently built Magic Garden as you were to find a couple wandering around it with their young children. Music and fashion had come to Dreamland and, for some, was every bit as big a draw as the Scenic Railway or the zoo.
Seen by many as the golden era for Dreamland, the 1960s were very much a classic time for the site, with youth culture booming, the economy on the up and growing numbers of daytrippers from London bringing fashion from across the capital. The outfits would often be copied and on sale on Margate’s market stalls the following week. The traditional seaside holiday would start to decline by the end of the decade and television would affect the numbers of bums on seats at the cinema, but Margate was an exciting place to be and Dreamland was its epicentre.
The 1960s are largely remembered as the era of the Mods and Rockers and these groups flocked to Dreamland, which was by then one of the premier music venues outside of London. The Rolling Stones, The Who, The Yardbirds, Manfred Mann, Lulu, Desmond Dekker, and Gerry and the Pacemakers all graced the stage at Dreamland, and you can bet that there was the odd dust up in the aisles. Margate Magistrates’ Court made the front pages of the press in 1964, with fighting Mods and Rockers being described as ‘sawdust Caesars’ by magistrate George Simpson, as he handed down sentences.
By the end of the 1960s, hippies, skinheads and London’s post-Windrush black teenagers also found their way to Dreamland, bringing with them a whole new set of styles for local market traders to interpret. This interpretation continues in the new Dreamland, using art, design, fashion and music to give a sense of time and place. There is also a supporting programme of music events, concerts and festivals to continue the youth culture legacy.
Dreamland began the 1970s under new ownership, in the shape of the rather uninspiring-sounding Associated Leisure Entertainments Ltd. The new owners did, however, promise to bring renewal and excitement to their new asset, with new rides, new attractions and a revamp of the cinema.
Iconic giant slide the Astroglide arrived at the park in 1973, and there was also the 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea ride and the Cyclone for visitors to enjoy by the middle of the decade, when a small zoo was also reintroduced.
The popular Water Chute made its first appearance in 1977 and would soon play host to safety-pinned punk rockers, as the cult made its way from London to the seaside. At least their drainpipe trousers needed less wringing out than the flares of the disco fans.
Away from the amusement park there were a lot of changes in the cinema building, with the main auditorium being divided to make two smaller cinemas and a theatre. This new venue played host to risqué comedies, from the stable of legendary soft porn magnate Paul Raymond, though music was still more of a draw for the locals, especially in the ballroom, which was refurbished and rebranded as Topspot.
Bill Haley and the Comets opened the venue as part of a revival tour, playing to Teddy Boys and Teddy Girls old and new. Slade, Alvin Stardust and The Drifters also graced the stage at the Topspot, with local girl Tracey Emin being a regular on its dance floor.
Dreamland gave Margate yet another iconic structure in 1980, in the shape of the new Big Wheel, which stood proud of the clock tower at 180-feet high. In the days before the London Eye, this was very much a structure that had people come to look at from miles around. It felt like the start of a new era for Dreamland, but it would prove to be the end of one, as the whole site was sold to Dutch amusement park operators Bembom in 1981.
Another move that proved unpopular with the public was re-naming Dreamland as Bembom Brothers Theme Park. However, this initial disappointment was more than made up for by the arrival of a slew of new rides, including the white knuckle looping coaster the Looping Star. There was also a Pirate Ship, the Ladybird children’s coaster and Cinema 2000, which was an early 3-D cinema. Bembom’s new approach meant that all the park’s bars were closed to create a more family-friendly environment. This new move attracted more Muslim visitors, with the brothers setting aside a grassed prayer area facing Mecca to accommodate them.
The major change for most was the introduction of an admission charge. Once you were in, all the rides were free, though the charge meant that many local youths, who may go for one or two rides, were priced out of a visit. This didn’t deter all of them, though, as many came up with schemes for sneaking in for free or sharing one paid-for hand stamp with a number of friends.
The park started and ended the decade as the star of television, with 1989 seeing it providing a backdrop for part of the Only Fools and Horses Christmas special The Jolly Boys Outing. In 1981 it had been the setting for BBC children’s’ drama A Break in the Sun, with the tense finale filmed on the Astroglide.
Dreamland got its rightful name back in 1990, when the Bembom Brothers decided that a minor revamp would be best promoted by the name that most still recognised and used to describe the park. More greenery was added to the landscape around the rides and the cinema was renovated. Free admission to the site also returned in 1995, though it was not long before the Bemboms were moving on, as Dreamland was sold on to Jimmy Godden, owner of the Rotunda amusement park in Folkestone.
Godden wanted to move the park in an even more family-friendly direction, dispensing with larger white-knuckle rides in favour of more traditional fairground favourites, such as dodgems and waltzers. Some of the extensive renovation work was delayed when workmen reported ghostly goings on in a new version of the former Dreamland favourite the River Caves. A clairvoyant, called into to resolve the matter, said that the disturbance was down to the spirit of a murdered young woman, who had been accused of immoral activities and was now keen to clear her name.
The iconic Big Wheel was dismantled and sold to Mexican buyers, though the double Log Flume, Wild Mouse and the Space Station rides in place at least meant that the skyline of Margate retained some visible rides to tantalise potential visitors. They could not, however, halt the decline of Dreamland as the new millennium approached.
A little history was revived in the shape of four carousels on site to celebrate the Year of the Carousel, but the future did not look bright for the park, especially with rumours circulating that the site would be turned into a supermarket and/or housing.
Rumours of closure, demolition and a potential change of owners were all rife as the new millennium was ushered in, with empty spaces on site prompting further speculation about the park’s future. One item of major concern for amusement park enthusiasts and historians was the future of Dreamland’s 1920s Scenic Railway, so moves were made to have the structure declared a listed building. This campaign was successful and the ride received a Grade II listing in March 2002, which was the first time such a listing had been given to a ride.
It was thought that the listing of the Scenic Railway would ensure the future of Dreamland as an amusement park, yet owner Jimmy Godden declared that the park may still close for commercial redevelopment, prompting the formation of the Save Dreamland Campaign in 2003. The group rapidly grew in number to 13,000 supporters in the UK and around the world, gaining influence with important bodies such as English Heritage. Buyers attempted to save Dreamland as a going concern, but they were put off by the prices being quoted. In a property boom it seemed that the site was worth more levelled to the ground than as an operating tourist attraction. In 2005, the controlling ownership of the sometimes open, sometimes closed Dreamland passed to the Margate Town Centre Regeneration Company, with Jimmy Godden retaining a 40% share.
The Dreamland Cinema also suffered, closing in 2007 after a gala screening of The Smallest Show on Earth. The cinema had been used to premiere the film of the 2006 Artangel project Exodus, which was filmed in and around Margate. The filming saw a giant ‘waste man’ built on the Dreamland site by sculptor Antony Gormley. The waste man was burnt at a climactic moment in the film, while the fire brigade doused the Scenic Railway lest any stray sparks should do damage.Sadly, the fire brigade were not so close by when the Scenic Railway burnt for real in April 2008. The arson attack destroyed the middle section of the track, the station and the workshop containing the Scenic’s distinctive trains. Though the disaster did not deter the Save Dreamland Campaign, who pressed ahead with its own vision for the future of the site: to revamp it as an amusement park of historic rides, encompassing the cinema. Work on site also uncovered rare animal cages from the period when ‘Lord’ George Sanger housed his menagerie at the pre-Dreamland site of The Hall By The Sea, now listed for their historical significance.
The Dreamland Trust grew out of the campaign to achieve this aim, receiving backing from the Heritage Lottery Fund, Thanet District Council and the Sea Change Fund.
After many years of campaigning to save the Dreamland site from redevelopment, and successful funding bids to the Heritage Lottery Fund and Department for Culture Media and Sport’s Sea Change Scheme, the Dreamland restoration project went live in January 2010, appointing a professional team to deliver The Dreamland Trust’s vision for a reimagined Dreamland. However, the battle was not over.
Due to delays and complications around land transfer, the council and The Dreamland Trust entered into an extended public inquiry, followed by a lengthy legal challenge in the High Court and Court of Appeal, for the council’s Compulsory Purchase Order of the Dreamland site.
The Dreamland Trust appointed multi-disciplinary designer, Wayne Hemingway MBE and the HemingwayDesign team to bring forward the branding and design scheme creating the look, feel, sound and taste of Dreamland.
In September 2013, Dreamland transferred into the council’s ownership, securing the future of the park. Over 2300 members of the public celebrated this significant milestone by attending an open day in November 2013, which included raising £25,000 at a celebrity art auction. These funds were used to open the Visitor & Learning Arcade and Dreamland Expo: a past, present and future, in May 2014, which welcomed more than 30,000 visitors in its first four months.
On 19 June 2015, the reimagined Dreamland Amusement Park reopened, operated by Sands Heritage Ltd. This pivotal moment demonstrated how effective a passionate group of volunteers can be in really making things happen – in this case, bringing back an iconic attraction from dereliction.
The Dreamland restoration project is ongoing, with work having been carried out on the Scenic Railway, Historic Rides Collection, internal spaces, archiving, learning and engagement programmes. There is a bright future ahead for the reimagined Dreamland and the community of Margate.
In May 2016, Dreamland’s operators – Sands Heritage Limited (SHL) - went into administration. The park, however, remained open, while the administrators, Duff & Phelps, who had turned around the fortunes of Fantasy Island in Skegness, took over and, working alongside the existing management team, worked hard to secure a positive and sustainable future for Dreamland.
Following a £25 million investment from Arrowgrass Capital Partners, secured by SHL, the park opened in May 2017 with a completely updated and re-landscaped space that brings together historic rides, set against a backdrop of interactive art installations, adventurous street food and an eclectic programme of live events. The Dreamland restoration project is ongoing, with work having been carried out on the Scenic Railway, Historic Rides Collection, internal spaces, archiving, learning and engagement programmes.
There is a bright future ahead for the reimagined Dreamland and the community of the Isle of Thanet.