Intersected by a main road and blighted by an open air car park, Cecil Square today seems little more than a busy traffic hub. While there are clearly some interesting heritage buildings on one side, the eye is drawn to the ghastly post war concrete library structure on another other. If they aren’t here to borrow a book, most people probably just pass on by.
But this little corner of Margate deserves further exploration as Cecil Square was the first planned square to be built in a seaside resort. Landowners and businessmen collaborated in 1769 on a scale and form that had previously only occurred in London. It was a turning point for Margate and a significant milestone in the development of the English seaside resort for the country as a whole.
While visitors had been coming to the town for some time, entertainment and other amenities had for many years been limited. Cecil Square, which moved development away from the historic high street for the first time, set to change that with the building of large houses, new shops, Assembly Rooms and a circulating library. This gave those visiting from the capital a home away from home.
It ushered in a construction boom in the town. Following Cecil Square came nearby Hawley Square in the 1770s and 1780s which included a library (one of the first and best to be built in a seaside resort) and theatre (the still operating Theatre Royal), as well as family homes and boarding houses. Unlike its predecessor, Hawley Square is today a pleasant place to while away time as it was laid out with gardens in the centre.
New Georgian terraces also sprung up on a patch work of streets by the coast, many of which remain standing, although are sadly not all in the best of conditions. The properties’ appearances would have seemed familiar to many Londoners in that from looking at the designs you could easily think you were in Islington. And Edward Hasted wrote in 1810 that Ramsgate: “was so well adapted to bathing, being an entire level and covered with the finest sand, which extends for several miles on either side of the harbour…”
But it wasn’t just affluent visitors who came to Margate in the 18th century. The Royal Sea Bathing Hospital was opened in 1796 to treat poor people suffering from a scrofula (a form of tuberculosis) by a philanthropic London doctor, Dr John Coakley Lettsom.
The vast complex, lying about ten minutes walk from the Margate’s old town and currently looking in a sorry state as the disused buildings await conversion into luxury apartments, grew rapidly in the 19th century. They were in use until 1996, having being amalgamated into the NHS at its formation in 1948. Until 1910 bathing in water was the main means of curing patients.
It had been the perceived therapeutic properties of sea water bathing in the 18th century that had truly put Margate on the map in the first place. Physicians saw immersion in baths as a cure for a range of diseases including rheumatism, rickets, leprosy and scurvy. Given that Margate was less than a day’s carriage ride from London – and that it could also be reached by boat on the Thames – visitors started to arrive in droves, hence the need to expand facilities.
Margate was the first costal town to in the 1730s be able to boast a purpose-built sea water bath. And it also pioneered the bathing machine – a mobile changing room – that took bathers right out to sea, often with a ‘guide’. Zechariah Brazier even invented a ‘modesty hood’ which provided even more privacy, consisting of a canopy which could be lowered by the driver. They were described in 1805 as:
“four-wheeled carriages, covered with canvas, and having at one end of them an umbrella of the same materials which is let down to the surface of the water, so that the bather descending from the machine by a few steps is concealed from the public view, whereby the most refined female is enabled to enjoy the advantages of the sea with the strictest delicacy.”
Such was the demand for bathing machines that waiting rooms were created on the High Street. Bathers could read newspapers, drink sea water and be entertained with music as they waited for their ride.
While Margate was initially predominantly a place for the upper classes, it soon became enjoyed by wider tranches of society. The town was in fact the first resort to be popularised by middle and lower middle class holiday makers visiting from London. George Keate described the social diversity that existed in Margate from as early as the 1760s:
“The decent tradesman slips from town for his half crown, and strolls up and down the Parade as much at ease as he treads his own shop. His wife, who perhaps never eloped so far from the metropolis before, stares with wonder at the many new objects which surround her… The farmer’s rosy-cheeked daughter crosses the island on her pillion, impatient to peek at the London females…. The Londoner views with a disdainful surprise, the awkward straw hat, and exposed ruddy countenance of the rustic nymph; who in turn scrutinizes the inexplicable coiffure of her criticiser, unable to conceive what can have befallen the features of a face of which the nose is the only visible sign.”
Improvements in transport were of course instrumental in making Margate accessible for the masses. Visitors could get cheap rides on hoys, single-masted ships steamers that had initially carried goods such as coal, timber and grain but over time had focused on passenger services. And then in 1846 the first railway arrived in Margate providing another option for getting to the town.
Over the course of the 19th century Margate grew dramatically beyond its historic centre, expanding westwards to create Westbrook and eastwards to Cliftonville, the latter home to many of the first class enjoyed by holiday makers.
Today, Walpole Bay Hotel (built 1914) is the only one that survives in that area. Indeed most hotels have disappeared in Margate since the decline that set in from the 1960s. In recent years surviving b&bs are most likely to have found their primary customers to be recovering drug users or alcoholics. Many other hotels have been turned into retirement flats.
But things are starting to look up for Margate. The opening of the Turner Contemporary gallery has brought a much needed boost for the town and complements an already thriving artistic quarter in the old town. It’s now a pleasant place to with lots of independent coffee shops. Dreamland, with the oldest roller coaster in Britain, is due to re-open next year as the “world’s first heritage amusement park” with rides and other attractions. Even Premier Inn is being extended.