Seafront scheme was greatest act of faith in future

The Weston-super-Mare Sea Front scheme, carried through in the 1880s by the Town Commissioners, was the most far-sighted

The Weston-super-Mare Sea Front scheme, carried through in the 1880s by the Town Commissioners, was the most far-sighted, bold, self-sacrificing scheme in the local authority's history. Nothing done before or since for the improvement of Weston compares with it.It gave the resort a strong sea wall, beautifully following the curve of the bay, built of clean, local stone. It provided a promenade of magnificent width running from the Royal Hospital to the Old Pier, and a wide Sea Front carriageway of the same length. The cost was £30,000, big money in those days. There was a heavy charge on the rates for it because there was no direct income - no charge for using the shelters or public seats. But it was a magnificent gesture of faith in the future, has been the making of Weston, and has paid for itself over and over again.It is an achievement that is little pondered today. The local authority of modern times has played havoc with its symmetry, swept away the railings that enclosed it from the road, thrust non-matching selling points into its shelters, and added other Sea Front excrescences which, whatever useful commercial or public service they may provide, have detracted from it.Edwin Knight, chairman of the Weston Town Commissioners, was the great fighter for Weston's Sea Front scheme. And it was a great fight, for it must not be imagined that all the Weston ratepayers of those days were filled with zeal to accept rates rises to do something for the future, any more than they are today.Enthusiastically backing his scheme, Mr. Knight told his fellow members of the Commissioners that they would "feel pleased when within a few years they see our magnificent parade crowded with visitors and, he supposed, illuminated at night by electric light".Rising opposition resulted in the formation of a Ratepayers' Association to fight the scheme. There was an election, but since all the commissioners who were in favour of the scheme were returned, the Board was encouraged to carry on.Over 500 people attended a Ratepayers' Association meeting held at the Town Hall, over which Capt. Battiscombe presided. The original scheme went far beyond what was eventually approved, and Capt. Battiscombe made scathing comments on the plan the commissioners were then supporting "with its lakes, kiosks, fountains, cascades, flowering shrubs, shady walks, and goodness knows what else. Certainly it would be a pretty picture on paper."Condemning the scheme, Mr. Harvey said that to lay out the sand wastes as a flower garden with fountains and kiosks - he did not know whether a fruit garden was included (laughter) - simply meant an enormous expenditure to keep the place free from sand.Ideas were floating around in Weston at the time for two other major projects, enclosing Glentworth Bay at a cost of £41,000, and putting a wall across Knightstone Bay for the sum of £41,000.Anticipating something that was to get done nearly fifty years later Mr. Harvey went on to say "let them turn their attention to providing a central park, and what better site could be selected than Mr. Rogers' field? (applause) Would it not be better to secure this land, and lay it out with walks and a pavilion - thereby forming a central attraction - than to expend a fortune in endeavouring to reclaim sand wastes, which must prove a failure?" We have this feature today at the spot he indicated - in the Winter Gardens.General Hailes, who seconded a motion that the Ratepayers Association should form a committee to organise opposition at the public inquiry into the scheme declared that it was all very well to speak of Scarborough and other watering-places that have their extensive sea fronts, but most of them had doubtless heard of the frog that attempted to enlarge itself to the dimension of the ox (laughter). If in Weston they had a new Sea Front, would the Local Board give them a clear blue sea? He thought not and, therefore they must be content with what some facetious persons had designated 'Weston-on-the-Mud' (laughter).The public enquiry was presided over by a local Government Board inspector, Mr. S. J. Smith.Presenting the opposition of the Ratepayers Association Capt. Battiscombe maintained that the idea of extending the esplanade three-quarters of a mile further south and creating a string of ornamental shrubberies on the sand tots adjacent to it was unjustifiable. Visitors preferred the open sand hills to walk upon. Colonel Turner, JP, said that as magistrates they found that the advent of excursionists was very undesirable, and he thought that if carried out the scheme would only draw more excursionists, and not the class of people it was desired to attract to the town.The Rev. T. Birkett wished to draw attention to the proposed carriageway along the Sea Front. If constructed there were few carriages in the town to use it, and he feared the result would be that the drive would be frequented by excursionists who in hired carriages would drive to and fro at a rapid rate, to the danger of children and others.He was obviously anticipating the carriages, the brakes, donkey chairs, tram, taxis, buses, and cars of later years.The inspector held a second inquiry at which the commissioners modified their scheme and withdrew the plan for including ornamental gardens on the Beach lawns area. The loan was approved, plans passed, and the designer, Mr. Scones, CE, of Bristol, proceeded to put them into effect. Mr. Krauss was the contractor engaged to carry out the first £18,000 phase.There was a foundation stone laying ceremony at Glentworth Bay on March 15th, 1883, when Mr. Cecil Smyth-Pigott, lord of the manor, performed the ceremony in the presence of a vast crowd.Mr. T. J. Scoones, the engineer, explained the scheme and said there had been added to the plan a new level road from Claremont - through a portion of the Prince Consort Gardens - to Kewstoke toll bar, which would thus provide the town with a beautiful marine drive three miles in length from Kewstoke village to the West of England SanatoriumThe two-ton foundation stone was quarried at Weston, and in a cavity beneath it was placed a bottle containing coins, documents and the latest news from Weston. Afterwards we are told, "about sixty gentlemen partook of a recherche repast at the Royal Pier Hotel"The work went ahead, but on 17 October 1883 a high tide accompanied by a gale broke down a large portion of the masonry. Waves were coming fifty feet high over the wall, and the damage was started by a huge tree trunk and a buoy being dashed against the wall. In all a quarter of a mile of the new walling was carried away, and waves and debris one kind and another swept down Regent Street and West Street. But the scheme continued and was completed in under three years.In his review the engineer, Mr. Scoones, said that in the first contract the esplanade and drive from the Sanatorium (now the Royal Sands) to Anchor Head were each planned to be about 40 feet wide, and separated by a neat iron railing. The total length of the esplanade was about a mile and three quarters, and it was to be protected by a dwarf parapet wall. The contour of the walling was broken by projections thrown out from its face, shelter kiosks being erected in the centre. There were eight kiosks on the stretch from the Sanatorium to Glentworth Bay.The sea-wall was also broken about every 250 feet by niche projections from the face of the wall provided with lounge seats and with a parapet raised at the back to provide shelter form wind and drifting sand. There were also accesses to the beach.The second contract was for continuing the esplanade from Anchor Head to the (Old) Pier, and included altering the Prince Consort Gardens, laying them out in terraces, and carrying a new road from the Pier Hotel to the Kewstoke road junction.Other contracts included erecting an additional shelter at Glentworth Bay, the provision of toilets at the Prince Consort Gardens, a caretaker house, and also a boating slip at Anchor Head.The "Public Opening of the Grand Sea Front Scheme" in 1885 is commemorated in a lengthy poem attributed to "Cock Robin," and published in book form. It is poetic leg-pull, but is interesting for the glimpses it gives of the Weston scene in the long ago.It opens with the lines:From her long sleep Westonia woke, we'll say three years ago,And cried, "We must be moving on; we're too awful slow;Bright Clevedon basks in sunshine, and boasts an iron Pier,And Burham boasts the fattest shrimps at all times of the year;E'en Portishead is stirring! and they say the Berrow FlatsWill yield, if something is not done, a larger take of sprats."There were these glimpses of Weston on the opening day:The Sands were crowded; the Booths were many;You could see all there was to be seen for one penny!Giants and dwarfs and talking Bears,Learned Bulls and Pigs, in pairs; Hairy Fishes and Mermaids bright,Which Coles had caught in his nets last night.The Flymen too, they had brush'd their hats,Clean'd their chins, and oil'd their hair,Brush'd their clothes with the greatest care.And for this day only had vow'd a vow,That they would use no bad language or kick up a row!Oh', wonders will surely never ceaseWhen cabmen combine to keep the peace!There were these glimpses, too:The Bathing machines were painted blue,Crimson and green, and all quite new ...And the Bathing Horse, all shod in bootsWere paraded by women in bathing suits.The Town Crier on his Gee-Gee sat,The wonder of the Town in his gold-lac'd hat!Stiff was his new embroidered coat with gold,He looked "all round" a Paladin of old.Condemned from morn to dewy eve to strollThis day through all the festive streets, poor soulAnd cry "Oyez! Friends! Neighbours all! Oyez!I do proclaim this day a holiday."Truly a great day in Weston's history, marking an achievement on which the resort can look back with pride and gratitude.* This article, edited by Jill Bailey, was originally published on March 15, 1968

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