Everyone knows Blackpool Pleasure Beach is invariably Britain’s biggest seaside theme park. But it wasn’t always like this. One of Britain’s biggest was officially closed down 45 years ago this month – although by this time it had practically become derelict. It was affectionately known as ‘The Kursaal.’ A huge sign announced it as the Kursaal Amusement Park.
When we consider the proliferation of theme parks today, The Kursaal in Southend-on-Sea was a pioneer, being one of the world’s first ever purpose built theme parks. Unlike Blackpool’s which actually began life on the beach itself, the Kursaal had its own dedicated piece of land on the seafront. In 1894 the Kursaal’s predecessor, the Marine Park and Gardens opened.
The Marine Park circa 1900. The houses in Arnold Avenue and Beach Road were demolished to make way for the main Kursaal building.
By 1901 the Marine Gardens had acquired a new building on the seafront and was known as the Kursaal Palace. The building was designed by George Sherrin (who was also responsible for the famous dome on top of the Brompton Oratory.)
The main Kursaal building, circa 1900s.
Although the pleasure venue changed its name to Luna Park in 1910, within five years ‘Kursaal’ had made a triumphant return – in those days it was reputed to be the largest theme park in the world. With a maximum acreage of 27, it certainly was large and took a good bit of walking around to see all the rides.
The Kursaal in the 1930s looking east. Source: Buzzfeed
I suppose the problem was the Kursaal was sort away from the main ‘fun’ areas of Southend. The pier was the inevitable magnet. Its famous three foot gauge electric railway was a huge draw, not to mention the fun fair at the far end of the pier. hereabouts was the Golden Hind Galleon, minature railway and crazy golf course. (All this is now Adventure Island.) On the west side of the pier was Never Never Land, plus Peter Pan’s Playground. The latter eventually became Funland (also now part of Adventure Island.)
Kursaal advert – Coronation year 1937.
The entire area around the bottom of Pier Hill became the hottest part of town – and so things were kept somewhat up to date, including newer rides. The Kursaal, by way of being slightly out of place to the east, simply struggled in its later years to keep up.
Southend was a huge draw for Londoners and for kids like me a day trip to Southend meant the pier. The Kursaal was also a huge draw. I do remember it getting somewhat run down – some of the rides looked as if they could do with TLC.
Its often been argued the Kursaal’s closure affected Southend’s popularity as a premier seaside resort. Indeed for many of us the town’s reputation simply bombed. (The huge fire on the pier didn’t help either.) The finger of blame for the Kursaal’s ultimate decline and Southend’s woes continue to be pointed in certain directions even to this day…
In 1990 I took this (and the main picture) of the Kursaal, two decades years after the rides had closed. As the above picture shows, there was absolutely nothing left of the theme park. I found it sad.
Throughout the sixties the Kursaal gradually declined. By 1969 it had partially closed. The council claimed the Kursaal had become a ‘tatty Victorian antiquated fairground.’ The main frontage building with its amusement arcades and restaurants continued to operate. The main park remained partially open for one more year or so. By 1971 it was practically shut, its future in limbo. In December 1972 a huge fire broke out on the Scenic Railway. The structure was rendered so dangerous it was demolished in January 1973.
That calamitous event prompted a review of the Kursaal in February 1973. Ultimately it was decided to close down it completely and level the ground. This was to be sold off and made into a housing estate. These proceedings sort of dragged on. Although the amusement park had by largely gone by 1974, successive bids to develop the land failed. This perhaps was the main ‘Kursaal’ building’s saving grace. It stayed open until 1986 and in due course was made a Grade II listed building. It was eventually restored and reopened in 1998.
The 26 acres of land behind the famous Kursaal building did eventually become a housing estate.
List of videos featuring the former amusement park:
Wall of Death (1930) – You Tube
The Kursaal in 1931 – You Tube
Southend Pier and the Kursaal (1947) – You Tube
Wall of Death Girl (1949) – You Tube
Kursaal Rides (1951) – You Tube
Preparing the Kursaal for the summer season (1956) – You Tube
The Kursaal in 1962 – You Tube
The famous Kursaal Flyer (1963) – You Tube
The famous Kursaal Flyer (different film) – You Tube
Wall of Death Girl (1963) – You Tube
The Kursaal in its last full year of operation (1969) – You Tube
The famous pier (including a pre 1949 train) & the Kursaal just before its demolition – You Tube
The Kursaal Building in 2015 – You Tube