The Winter Gardens was opened on 3rd August 1911 by the then Mayor of Margate, Alderman W. B. Reeve
The history of municipal entertainments in this country can be traced back to Margate. Margate blazed the trail that others were to follow. It was realised that the entertainment offered by the town to the visitor via private enterprise was generally inadequate. To remedy the situation the Council in conjunction with the Chamber of Commerce, formed a Fetes Committee in 1900. The objective was to provide high-class entertainment in Margate for visitors and residents alike. When the committee was given power to directly run and own places of entertainment, the ball was rolling and the high point was the building of the Winter Gardens.
The site of the Winter Gardens took the committee years to find. By the end of the season in 1910, they had found the central site that was required – Fort Green. The main reason for the proposed Pavilion and Winter Gardens being situated in an artificial hollow at Fort Green was that the existing buildings around Fort Green had a covenant. This did not allow the erection of any building on the green which could obscure the view or light of the ground floors of these buildings.
From the time of the plans being approved and the cutting of the first sod by the then-new Mayor of Margate Mr Booth Reeve, the Pavilion and Winter Gardens took just nine months to build at a cost of £26,000.
When completed the Pavilion and Winter Gardens consisted of: a large Concert Hall, four entrance halls, two side wings and an amphitheatre. Internally, the Pavilion and Winter Gardens was decorated in a Neo-Grecian style, which first appears in the 1830’s. Originally the stage could be viewed from both the main hall and the amphitheatre with the ability to enclose the stage in bad weather. The accommodation was for about 2,500 persons inside the building and 2,000 in the open air.
The Main Hall had been designed as a concert and dance hall. In the early 1920’s, the Margate Municipal Orchestra, consisting of 36 musicians, would perform a variety of classical and operatic works, backed by the leading vocalists of the day. Most of these were performers like Carrie Tubb and Harry Dearth, engaged from the leading London Concerts, notably Covent Garden. Others like (Prima Donna, Paris Opera), Pavlova (one of the worlds leading dancers) and Madame Melba (after whom the dessert Peach Melba is named) were engaged as part of their world tour. During the latter half of the 1920’s the entertainment offered by the Winter Gardens underwent a period of considerable change. The summer show arrived at the Winter Gardens with Ivan Kalchinsky’s Blue Slavonic Company, which presented a cabaret show for six weeks. Ivan Kalchinsky was to present a summer show right up until the outbreak of the Second World War.
The Second World War unlike the First World War was going to interrupt the normal life of the Winter Gardens, and within a short time almost end it for good. The Isle of Thanet was made a restricted area, due to invasion fears, and it was prohibited to enter it for leisure or pleasure purposes. The Winter Gardens’ first war-time role was during the evacuation from Dunkirk when it acted as a receiving station for some of the 46,000 troops landed at Margate. It also found other war-time roles such as an air raid precaution and food rationing centre. There were also concerts for the troops on Sundays and Brighten-Up Dances every Thursday and Saturday.
In January 1941 many of the windows were broken when a sea mine exploded nearby, but the main structure was undamaged. Six months later the Winter Gardens received a direct hit on 7th July 1941 causing considerable damage. The main structure of the hall remained intact and the chandeliers survived as they had been removed for storage. The plans for the reconstruction of the Winter Gardens were drawn up in 1943 but due to the war, a start on the work could not be made until February 1946. The work took only six months to complete. The building officially re-opened on 3rd August. Repairs cost £40,000 approaching double the cost of the entire building in 1911.
Many shows and stars appeared at the Winter Gardens in this Post-War period. For example in 1947: 21st July and week Webster Booth and Anne Zieglar, 17th August Kay Cavendish ‘Itma’, 18th August and week Stan Laurel and Oliver Hardy, 24th August Vera Lynne.
The programmes of this period continue to read as a who’s who of the Entertainment World. In the 1960’s the style of entertainment offered by the Winter Gardens saw many successful visits of many pop artistes like Helen Shapiro, Billy J Kramer and the Dakotas. However, the most famous visitors appeared at the Winter Gardens in July 1963; they were the Beatles, destined to become a legend in their own lifetimes.
Television was also making a big impact during the early 1960’s. The new stars appearing were from the television, not the radio, although many had just transferred from one medium to the other. Stage versions of T.V. shows were like the radio shows of the 40’s and 50’s very popular with Hughie Green’s ‘Double Your Money’ and ‘Opportunity Knocks’. ‘Double you Money’ was the first Summer Season to appear at the Winter Gardens since 1939, it played for ten weeks during the peak of the season in 1962.
In 1974 with the formation of Thanet District Council, the Winter Gardens found itself with a new owner and a new man in charge, Mr Peter Roberts, Thanet’s Entertainments and Arts Officer. He instigated several changes in direction for the time that he was at the Winter Gardens. In 1978, the Winter Gardens was completely re-seated, re-furbished and re-carpeted at a cost of £125,000 and a new entrance provided on the seaward side of the Main Hall. The effect of these changes was to make the Winter Gardens more up-market and increase its flexibility of use. For example, motor shows can be staged quite easily, whereas before the alteration this would have been impossible.
The Winter Gardens has never just been a venue for the various art forms. It has been a major conference and exhibition centre for most of its life. Over the years it has seen many conferences held by various political parties and around the 1950’s was considered to be one of the top conference venues in the country. Also, the Winter Gardens has become renowned for its top-class catering. Top chefs can cater for up to 900 persons at any one function.
Bringing the Winter Gardens into the 21st century has seen many changes. The Winter Gardens is now part of an Industrial and Provident Society in partnership with Thanet District Council. The Company is called Your Leisure Kent Limited and brings together not only the Entertainment/Hospitality side of the industry but also the leisure and fitness industry in Thanet and Dover Districts of East Kent. Your Leisure is making a huge difference not only in Thanet but across the county in the entertainment world bringing much-needed change to keep one of England’s finest theatres going into the 21st Century.
The Winter Gardens is still a magnificent building and bills some of the top entertainment ranging from Status Quo, Blur, Graham Norton and David Essex to name but a few. Major investment to improve and modernise the seating and staging area is underway and will encourage these top acts to use the Theatre in the future.
It is not possible to conclude the history of the Winter Gardens without mentioning Mr John Saxby, Margate’s first Entertainment Manager. His name is synonymous with the development of the Winter Gardens and Margate’s rise to fame as the innovator of entertainment fashion.
It all started way back in 1901, when John Saxby, then a young man working in an accountancy office, answered an advertisement for a secretary to the Fetes Committee of a seaside town, Margate. He was accepted, and so started on the road to becoming the first Municipal Entertainments Manager. He became the driving force behind the construction of the Winter Gardens, and for the next forty years provided Margate with the very best in live Entertainment money could buy. John Saxby retired in 1941 and passed away in 1951, a true pioneer of seaside entertainment.
Adapted from ‘A History of Margate’s Winter Gardens’ by John Williams and Andy Savage.