Of all 10,400 or
so lighthouses in
the world, which
can boast
the loveliest...?

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Whitley Bay Guide 2008 Archive

Born in Heaton, Newcastle where he has worked as a community development worker, poet, librarian and publisher, Keith Armstrong, now residing in Whitley Bay, is co-ordinator of the Northern Voices creative writing and community publishing project, specialising in recording the experiences of people in North East England.

Keep up to date with Keith via his online blog which you can view here...
Like the Spanish City...
by Keith Armstrong
In 1909, the Whitley Pleasure Gardens Company began work on building the Empress Theatre and the central dome of the Spanish City. The architects were the both-splendidly-named James T. Cackett and R. Burns Dick, and the dome was one of the first in Britain to be constructed with three new Hennebeque ferro-concrete cantilevers, designed by G. Mouchel & Partners, with contractors Samuel F. Davidson & Miller. The dome measured 73 feet in height with a 52 feet diameter. The complex with Rotunda and a 1400 seat theatre, restaurant, roof garden and promenade was opened on 4th May 1910.

One of the managing directors of the Pleasure Gardens Company was Charles Elderton. Elderton, originally from Hebburn's Theatre Royal, had previously used the playing field of the Rockcliffe Rugby Football Club and the grounds of the local Park Hotel for performances by his concert party 'The Toreadors' and they became a popular part of the summer season. Whitley Amusements began to build a fairground around them and their shows were performed with canvas and wood boundaries painted to resemble a Spanish City. Whitley Amusements were taken over by the Whitley Pleasure Gardens Company Ltd in 1909.

Early attractions at the Spanish City were the Social Whirl (giving way to the Water Chute), Rainbow Pleasure Wheel (imported from the United States and completed in June 1914, when thousands rode around at up to 40mph), Figure 8 Railway (1909-1974), River Caves, The House That Jack Built, the Joy Wheel, the Great Aerial Flight, the Virginia Reel (1925 to 1950s replacing the Water Chute), Hall of Laughter and Ye Olde Mill, featuring a tunnel where boats floated through scenes including a Swiss valley, a fairy castle and an Indian jungle, and converted in 1912 to offer an experience of the South Pole, the year of Scott's expedition there.

In the Empress Theatre appeared acts such as Miss Federica's Performing Terriers, The Lizelle Troupe of Lady Acrobats, Fame and Fortune (comedy and burlesque boxing), Claremont and Victor (acrobatic comedians) and The Blue Hungarian Band. In the Rotunda gallery was the Orchestrian, an automatic orchestral band. 11,000 people passed through the turnstiles in one afternoon! On October 8th 1920, the theatre became the Empress Ballroom with a main floor for 750 dancers, with a further 150 in a side hall.

The Spanish City closed for the duration of the Second World War but began to boom in the Fifties when paid holidays became common and hordes of Scottish workers and their families descended on Whitley Bay during Glasgow Fairs Week with factories closed for the annual holidays. Hundreds of coaches arrived and Station Road was a solid mass of people with trains running very frequently.

By the Seventies, factories no longer closed down for annual holidays and cheap packages to Spain came in. The changing fashions saw the ballroom going over to bingo with the Rotunda used as an overflow area for players. The Rotunda was also used as the Starlight function room and Fast Eddie's skateboard venue.

Other fairground features were at one time the Corkscrew, which was later moved to Flamingo Land in Malton and still operates there, and the Bo-Bo Coaster ride. The Spanish City Amusement Park in its latter years featured the Cyclone Rollercoaster, Spooky Hotel, Laser Quest and Brand New Waltzer. The Park was finally demolished in May 2001.

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