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By Dale Shelabarger, Updated:
This week, the nation’s biggest Wetherspoon’s pub, The Royal Victoria Pavilion in Ramsgate, opened its doors to the public. After a weekend of ticketed launch events over the bank holiday, this former Victorian concert hall and Grosvenor Casino has overcome a century of tumult and a decade of disuse and disrepair. At Inside Casino, we pay tribute to this Ramsgate icon and it’s journey from seaside casino to Britain’s biggest boozer.
Ramsgate, like many South East seaside towns, developed a reputation as a faded glory in the latter half of the 20th Century, thanks to the boom in cheap, accessible foreign travel. Yet it was once a fashionable Victorian beach resort.
In the 1840s, the town became a desirable holiday location for well-to-do Londoners after the development of widespread railway networks. Daytrippers piled out of the city on commercial steam trains. The railway democratised leisure travel for the first time.
William Frith’s Ramsgate Sands, painted between 1851-1854, brings to life a day on the crowded crystal sands. The oil on canvas work shows people of all ages in frilly, fashionable London dress. Rather than bikini-clad, buff bodies showing skin, women wore crinoline enhanced dresses shaded by bonnets and tasselled parasols while men adorned full-length frock coats, breeches and top hats. Needless to say, no sunscreen is necessary.
William Frith Ramsgate Sands (Life at the Seaside) 1851-54 (Source)
Frith, an artist who up until that point had only limited commercial success, spent the summer of 1851 conceptualising the piece and making preliminary sketches from the shallows of the clear water. This was his first great success. It was put on display at the Royal Academy in 1854 and Queen Victoria was so taken with the seaside depiction, that she wanted to buy it for herself. Victoria, herself, had visited Ramsgate many times with her mother, often staying at Albion House, which functions today as a hotel.
The painting was excellently received by critics also, who lauded the artist’s perspective on the world around him. This focus on modern life preempted a shift to Impressionism in the latter part of the 19th Century. The Art Journal wrote in 1854, that “Ramsgate Sands” would become “a memento of the habits and manners of the English at the seaside in the middle of the nineteenth century.” And so that proved. Yet the Sands were not always so tranquil.
In late November 1897, a furious gale battered the coasts of Britain. Tens died at sea as ships sank and sailors perished. The storm was so wicked, that news even made it to America.
The Chicago Tribune emblazoned the headline “Death in the Gale” across its front page on November 29.
“In many places,” the Midwestern paper wrote, “it was almost cyclonic in its violence and the long list of disasters includes a large loss of life… with serious damage to property ashore at many important towns.”
The article spoke of surging tidal waters invading Margate, a nearby seaside resort, “wrecking the parades and buildings” while debris floated, aimlessly through the streets.
In Ramsgate, the great Colonnade was destroyed as its roof collapsed in the relentless wind. The seafront was decimated. The pristine Sands were tainted.
In the aftermath, a replacement attraction was pondered. But not immediately forthcoming.
It wasn’t until the early months of 1903, that work truly began to reclaim paradise again.
According to lore, the Royal Victoria Pavilion, a structure that 115 years later has come to be the nation’s largest pub, was designed in a week and built in a mere six, in preparation for the influx of Summer season daytrippers.
This new magnificent building, erected plum on the Ramsgate seafront, was designed by Stanley Davenport Adshead. A town planner and architect, he would garner further accolades after reconstructing the interiors of Haymarket Theatre and the Liverpool Playhouse in 1905 and 1911 respectively.
The Pavilion was designed in the Robert Adam neo-classical style, incorporating ancient Roman and Grecian aesthetics without being beholden to their architectural rules, like Palladianism.
This was obvious in the Greek doric columns attached to the arcade and the iron columns, aping the old Colonnade, out towards the sea. The metal-clad domes and flat top but gently curving roof like a great orangery gave the building a classical European feel.
Ramsgate, The Sands & New Pavilion (Source)
Though just one storey, it was a stunning six week achievement, and the new focal point of Ramsgate Sands.
The interior was an interpretation of the Royal Opera of Versailles designed by Ange-Jacques Gabriel in the late 18th Century. Yet the capacity was even greater.
The Pavilion sat up to 2,000 people in its primary auditorium. There were also a variety of assembly rooms and an enormous sun terrace overlooking the beach that made it the resort’s primary cultural and leisure attraction.
As Ramsgate declined in the post-war boom of package holidays and affordable flights, so too did its frock-filled beaches. With interest and revenues dwindling, the Pavilion sought a new owner and a new epoch.
Between 1969-76, the building came into new hands. Pleasurama Plc. acquired the Pavilion and began its transformation into a pleasure dome.
The first Pleasurama complex was built in Southsea, Portsmouth in the 1920’s. By the 1970’s, they had greatly expanded their entertainment empire. After a brief period as Peggy Sue’s nightclub, then Fifth Avenue, the Pavilion became the Club Tiberius casino.
In a BBC Domesday Reloaded post, based upon William the Conqueror’s original national survey, a contributor remembers Ramsgate’s Club Tiberius in 1986.
This area has several establishments where people can gamble. The Pleasurama company owns some of these, such as the Club Tiberius Casino, Cash Bingo… and slot machine arcades. The Casino has roulette and blackjack tables. Locals gamble small amounts but the high-stake players are usually visiting Chinese and people from the Middle East. The Cash Bingo has about 300 players on a good night who spend about £5 each and whose average age is about 50. The slot machine arcades, once the magnet for visitors, are now open all year because they are the meeting places of many local teenagers.
This snapshot illuminates a moment in place and time. The Pavilion was no longer a cultural tour-de-force. With already modest local interest dwindling and tourist tender replaced by teenage rutting and awkward conversation, the town’s industry had become reliant on a singular stream of foreign interest. Ramsgate was no longer the jewel on the Kentish coast that it was in Victorian Britain. It was only a matter of time until the high rollers skated elsewhere.
As interest in the great building’s architectural heritage declined, the interior went through various modifications. Original features like balconies, crests and artwork were stripped to make way for more tawdry pieces of the time.
The Victorian Society, who long championed a Pavilion restoration project, wrote; “Its open arcade has been infilled and much insensitive modernisation has taken place.”
By 1989, Pleasurama plc was on the market before being engorged by the Mecca Leisure Group monolith that included bingo halls, theatres, and the Hard Rock Cafe franchise. In turn, Mecca was bought by behemoth, the Rank Organisation, for a fee of over half a billion pounds.
And so the Royal Victoria Pavilion became a Grosvenor Casino, Rank’s premier bricks and mortar casino franchise.
For a decade and a half, the Grade II listed British treasure, housed another thoroughbred British Institution. Locals fluttered their pocket money on roulette spins and blackjack hands, and the Asian high rollers perhaps continued to dribble in. But the Pavilion was a century old. Built in six weeks, the architects may have never dreamed of such longevity. The exterior had looked drawn and frayed for some time. The interior was a mess of cracks, seaside damp, and tat. Every day the casino was in operation, the more expensive a renovation project would be to undertake. Every day, it was a less appealing prospect for the expansion-minded Rank group.
Ramsgate’s diamond was no longer even a diamante imitation of its former glory; the only sparkle left a reflection of the sun against the sometime gleaming Ramsgate sands.
In 2008, Rank abandoned the Pavilion in favour of a new commercial development called Westwood Cross in Thanet.
Built only three years prior, the shopping centre attracted criticism from all areas. Small businesses on the high streets of Ramsgate bemoaned their dwindling profits. Margate reported that 25% of all shops now lay vacant. A figure that rose to over 35% by 2011.
Even the church weighed in, denouncing the addition of a casino at Westwood as an act of moral turpitude.
Regardless of any ecclesiastical hyperbole, a great shame had taken place. A building of great historical significance was abandoned for a soulless structure of disbursement. The pavilion stood boarded, a canvas for graffiti artists. The lights behind the Grosvenor Casino were permanently switched off.
Grosvenor Casino, Ramsgate Pavilion (Source)
In the aftermath, a one “Walter of Ramsgate” petitioned the Thanet Council for answers on a Freedom of Information request. The council replied:
A lease was granted by Ramsgate Borough Borough in 1969 for a term of 75 years on a fully repairing and insuring basis… The Council, as landlord, is aware of current disrepair and a full schedule of dilapidations has been prepared. The Council is looking to the tenant to address these in accordance with the terms of the lease and provisions of the relevant Acts.
Rank may have shut the doors, but they were still the Pavilion’s leaseholder. And you can bet they weren’t going to renovate with no business to serve. With asbestos found in the roof in 2010, and a fire breaking out in 2011, that decision did not get any harder. Rank began to look for a buyer.
It was a nervous wait. The Victorian Society became so tetchy that they added the Pavilion to their Top 10 most endangered Victorian and Edwardian buildings. Rank, back in 2013, claimed to have had over 40 expressions of interest. This included a plan put forward by Emma Irvine, an architect who had renovated Queen Victoria’s favourite lodgings, Albion House. Irvine wanted to regenerate the Pavilion in the mould of London’s Borough Market; a long-term, community project with restaurants and food stalls.
However, it soon became clear that both the council and Rank sought a more robust investor. And there was just one name at the top of their lists.
The finest purveyors of affordable pints, bar fights, and pallid breakfasts. The saviors of grade listed buildings the nation over.
The Royal Victoria Pavilion would be their largest and most expensive project to date.
The £4 million works began in October 2016 with aspirations of regaining some of the building's much deserted historical splendour.
“We knew how important the building was to the community,” the pub’s manager, Chris Whitbourn, told the press. “So we have tried to keep it as original as possible. We plan to have local ales on tap and are very keen to host events.”
In the construction process, Wetherspoon’s proved good on their word. The renovation remained faithful to earlier drafts of the building and replica features like banisters and columns were installed. The company even commissioned local artists to create locally inspired artwork for the pub’s interior.
Then, there is the sheer scale of the pub, which comfortably eclipses Wetherspoon’s Velvet Coast in Blackpool, previously their largest pub. There is over 16,000 square footage of space, 347 tables, over 70 beers and ciders on tap at any one time, over 150 staff, and a capacity of up to 1,400 customers. It’s not just big, it’s uuuge.
Over the bank holiday, the company disseminated thousands of tickets to locals to sample food and drink at the venue over the bank holiday weekend. Now, fully open to the public, the establishment has received a mixed welcome.
For Emma Irvine, the architect who was sceptical of Wetherspoon’s plan, she offered an open-minded prognosis, albeit with a hint of foreshadowing.
“The building has been refurbished,” she told the Guardian. “And providing something affordable and more family-friendly on the seafront is a good thing. It’s hard to know if there are going to be negative aspects until it’s open.”
Other local businesses have been less optimistic. Miles Wisemen, a fellow publican at the Arch Bar in Ramsgate, fears that the new establishment could decimate independent business in the area, as the lure of cut-price pints funnels customers away.
“It’s too big,” he said. “It’s a shark in a minnow pond.”
The Victorian Society, perhaps the most ardent champions of restoration, pleaded: “It needs a sensitive refurbishment and a suitable long term use so that generations of locals and visitors can continue to enjoy it.”
As we reflect on a remarkable building’s history, there is no doubt that the Wetherspoon’s regeneration has filled every single one of those criteria.
Even if it is in the letter, and not the spirit intended.
Title Image Source: https://www.allourlives.co.uk/ramsgate-connection/