Memories of Southend's colourful past: Fainting cinema-goers, charabancs and donkey carts - and a vicar who shot at his bellringers!

By Nub News Reporter

2nd Jun 2024 | Local History

Happy Valley, Southend.
Happy Valley, Southend.

AT last month's meeting of Thurrock Local History Society, the last in the season, tour guide Georgina Phillips gave a talk on 'Victorian Escapades in Southend'.

It was named because it was at the south end of Prittlewell, a Saxon settlement. Just a line of cottages in the 1500s, oysters were discovered in the 1700s.

There were stagecoaches to Southend and in 1791 the Grand Terrace was built, renamed Royal Terrace after a royal visit in 1804. Queen Caroline and Princess Charlotte stayed for three months. However, there were indiscretions and a gentleman was found in Queen Caroline's bedroom.         

In 1806 Southend was described as a resort of note in the national press, bringing in even more visitors. Originally it was thought drinking seawater was good for the skin, but later realised it was being in the sea that gave health benefits.

Men used to bathe naked in Victorian times, ladies having long costumes, with bathing machines to change in coming into use – Southend had 200. Ladies and gentlemen bathed separately. As there were long queues to use the bathing huts some men took to changing under a mackintosh and were known as the mackintosh bathers. Ladies swooned and complained. The men were fined 3 shillings, with the by-law only being repealed in 1952.

By 1819 steamers were coming from London. As they could not get close, fishermen gave ladies piggybacks for 1 shilling to take them to the shore. The pier started to be developed in 1829/30, wooden, but later built of iron.

Early photographs show donkey chairs and goat carts used for transport in 1844.

In 1856 the railway came, the station being built far from the Royal Terrace, as the owner objected. At this time the High Street was being developed, London day trippers bringing a raucous lifestyle and leaving a mess.  In 1870 there were horse drawn trams and by 1899 they were electric, the first in England.

In 1896 the Alexandra Theatre burnt down and would have cost £25,000 to rebuild. The owner went bankrupt and committed suicide.

A Trinity Fair was held at Rayleigh, but there was much pick-pocketing, prostitution and gypsies coming from the surrounding areas. In 1899 it was abolished after complaints. However, it has now been revived.

Charabancs arrived in 1905/6, when there were donkey rides from the Castle Hotel.

Moving pictures arrived, the first film showing a horse and carriage driving towards the audience. Many fainted and had to be dragged out by their ankles.

Royal Terrace, Southend.

Nelson Street was posh, with the first individual shops. Slogans encouraged people to come; Mr Ray was a dentist and Mr Curry a hairdresser. Strawberry sellers etc. shouted their wares. There was a shrubbery area known as Happy Valley in Victorian times where bands played, later known as Never Never Land, and had wishing wells etc. 1925 saw the first buses to Grays.

Georgina also told members of some characters, including Dompa Horner, who carried out sewage disposal, dug graves, was a rat catcher and grew vegetables on his allotment. He limped and was called 'Slip Slop' after his sewage pails overspilled.

In 1840 Frederick Nolan, the vicar of St Mary's church. rang the bells at 5am. He agreed to change the times after objections from parishioners, but the bell ringers didn't agree, climbing up the bell tower, but the vicar shot at them. The bell ringers were arrested and bound over. They sang rude songs and the vicar's effigy is still burned on 5th November.

In 1933 Al Capone's car was displayed at the Kursaal, photos of it still being on display. His car was shipped back to the USA, as it contained ammunition.

This was an insight of earlier times and it is a shame that today the Kursaal lies derelict and the carnival is no more.

This was the last meeting of the season, the next taking place in September, details of which will be found on the society's website via this link.


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