A Splendid Promenade Pier

On July 10th, 1869, the Penny Illustrated Paper describes the opening of:

…a splendid promenade pier on the North Sands…which commands the whole of the rugged and bold scenery of the castle headland, hitherto unseen, except from the water…

Apparently Scarborough’s then new North Bay Promenade Pier, designed by Eugenius Birch, attracted scores of excursionists by rail, who were treated to two grand military prom concerts in the afternoon and evening.

North Bay Pier

Above: The North Bay Promenade Pier (source)

In the British Newspaper Archive, it’s possible to find a number of flattering accounts of the pier – its elegant design, splendid views and the excitement surrounding its early years of operation.

North Bay Pier

Above: The pier can be seen in the distance, to the left of Clarence Gardens (source)

Nearly forty years later, however, the pier became popular for a very differenct kind of reason, as described in the London Daily News on January 9th, 1905.

The beginning of the year had been a time of turmoil for much of Britain, the paper describes a church flooded in Great Yarmouth, sea walls overwhelmed at Cleethorpes and an unusually high water level for the River Thames in London. A huge storm had caused extensive flooding and misery for many across the country. Indeed, the destruction of Scarborough’s pier was not an isolated incident.

The London Daily News describes eight hundred feet of the pier as washed away, having been recently purchased by the Mayor of Scarborough for £3500.

Iron railings on the foreshore were snapped like matchwood and thousands of tons of water were thrown over Marine Drive, pouring down the roadway into the houses in proximity…

Indeed, parts Marine Drive were also severely damaged. The road, designed to connect the two sides of the town via its picturesque coastline, had, in the main part apparently been completed in 1904. However, this and other damages inflicted by stormy weather, delayed the official opening until 1908, to account for repairs being made.

North Bay Pier

Above: The storm caused widespread destruction beyond the pier (source)

The destruction of the pier had an unintended advantage for Scarborough – crowds flocked to the town to survey the remains of the pier and the damaged section of Marine Drive. Tramcars even carried a sign in their windows to advertise their routes towards the disaster.

North Bay Pier

Above: Crowds survey the damage (source)

The story was a less pleasant one for local workers – builders on the Marine Drive project spent their working hours knee deep in water, making the necessary repairs, and presumably, someone had to clear up the wreckage of the damaged pier, all under the curious gaze of onlookers.


Above: Stormy seas at Scarborough (from the author’s collection)

Homeowners too were affected.

Those living close to the site at the time reportedly suffered severe loss. Costs of repairs to homes, Marine Drive and other affected areas were apparently unprecedented within the town, having faced one of the most destructive storms to date.

The pier too, had cost around £250000 to build, although it had struggled commercially for decades. Needless to say, it was not rebuilt.


All of the above information was sourced via newspaper articles from the British Newspaper Archive, located at the British Library in London.

The Tragic Tale of the North Bay Pier

Piers were once built solely as functional structures, enabling access to boats for passengers and cargo. The idea of a so-called ‘pleasure pier’ is a relatively recent one, emerging in the 19th century alongside the rising popularity of the British seaside holiday. Not only did the pleasure pier enable tourists to enjoy proximity to the sea, but these interesting structures often featured amusements and theatrical entertainment, as well as benches from which the fresh air and seaside ambience could be enjoyed.

For Scarborough, building a pier on the South Side (construction began in 1863) was largely a practical endeavour, linked to harbour activities.

Ideas for a pier on the North Side, however, represented recreational possibilities. Before the days of Marine Drive, Peasholm Park and the North Bay Bathing Pool, this part of Scarborough was, compared to the South Side, far less developed. Nonetheless, the idea of a pier close to the North Bay was presumably a way of capitalising on Scarborough’s expanding tourist empire and a complementary addition to the sea view offered by nearby Clarence Gardens.

Clarence Gardens and North Bay Pier

Above: The pier as viewed from Clarence Gardens (source)

Construction began in 1866. The structure was designed by Britain’s foremost seaside architect, Eugenius Birch, who also designed the town’s new aquarium, this opened over a decade later, in 1877.

Birch is now renowned for designing, amongst other things, Brighton Aquarium and piers at Blackpool, Hastings, Margate and more.

Compared to more elaborate affairs in Brighton and Blackpool, for instance, Scarborough’s North Bay Pier was a small, simple structure. Reports suggest that visitors were unwilling to pay to use it in significant numbers, nor were they particularly eager to venture out over the choppy waters of the North Sea. The venture was not a commercial success.

North Bay Pier

Above: Another view of the pier (source)

In January 1905, a tremendous gale destroyed it. Large crowds gathered to view the desolate aftermath, which left the end of the pier severed from the shore – a lonely building at the mercy of the waves.

North Bay Pier

Above: Crowds examine the wrecked pier (source)

The structure was never rebuilt.

North Bay Pier

Above: The remains of the structure in 1905 (source)

Visitors to the Stories From Scarborough Facebook Page have noted that it’s still possible to see the foundations of the pier during low tide.

Have you ever spotted them?


Scarborough News

Materials viewed in the Scarborough Room at Scarborough Library

Scarborough Aquarium: Whose Idea Was It?

At the National Archives, located at Kew in London, there are a number of documents relating to Scarborough Aquarium, the palatial underground complex designed by Eugenius Birch which opened in 1877 underneath the Cliff Bridge. The structure was destroyed in the 1960s to make way for the underground car park that stands on the site today. Nonetheless, stories about it are the stuff of local legend, and the attraction lived a second life as Gala Land from the mid 1920s until 1966. Tales of its impressive interiors and bizarre features beg the question: whose idea was it?

Above: Inside the National Archives – answers, or more questions? (source)

The material at the National Archives consists mainly of dull contractual documents and legal jargon; a series of folders testify a succession of failed business plans, and multiple attempts to resurrect what was ultimately a perpetually struggling attraction. Even as far back as 1871, there was apparently great optimism regarding the prospect of an aquarium in Scarborough, evidenced by the establishment of the Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd.

This company did not actually build the aquarium, but a sea life attraction was possibly part of its future plans. Furthermore, due to the lack of details within the company documents, it has been impossible to establish whether or not this title refers to the Scarborough Aquarium that Stories From Scarborough is investigating. Perhaps there was another aquarium?

Above: Ramsdale Valley would soon see the introduction of an aquarium beneath its pathways (source)

The Scarborough Sub Tramway Aquarium & Improvement Company Ltd, consisted of a small team of local investors, including William Rooke (a doctor of medicine), James Kirby (a lumber merchant) and William Harris (another merchant). Also in their number was a Mr John Leckenby, who, unlike his fellow shareholders, decided to join forces with yet another fledgeling company. The Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Limited was larger, seemingly better funded, and its supporters came from across the UK. It was with this company that Leckenby and his new colleagues founded the Scarborough Aquarium.


Above: Papers relating to the Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Limited (source)

Mr Leckenby, a bank manager and keen fossil collector, was born in 1814. He originally resided in Ripon, but a job with the York City and County Bank brought him to Scarborough in 1837, where he quickly became one of Yorkshire’s most prolific collectors of natural history specimens. These included a large collection of shells, and his carefully selected fossils were later exhibited in Cambridge. Leckenby contributed to various journals, evidently wishing to share his passion for geology and natural history, and it seems like that his involvement with the various aquarium groups was part of this. Sadly, he died in 1877 after a short illness (you can read his obituary here), so was unable to see the aquarium dream fully realised.

Above: Inside the Woodwardian (now Sedgwick) Museum in Cambridge, where Leckenby’s samples were displayed (source)

The Marine Aquarium Company Scarborough Ltd,  was first registered in 1874, under the watchful eyes of two solicitors’ firms: Moody, Turnbull & Graham (Scarborough) and Peake, England & Snow (Sleaford). The company address was given as 73 Thomas Street, Scarborough, where Moody, Turnbull & Graham had their offices, and by this point John Leckenby, at sixty years old, was described in the documents as a gentleman out of business. His fellow shareholders, on the other hand, were apparently thriving in their chosen fields.


Above: The signatures of the shareholders (source)

William Locke, for instance, was a colliery owner – alongside business partner John Warrington, he had opened St. John’s Colliery in Newland (near Wakefield, Yorkshire) only years earlier in 1870, and owned nearby Newland Hall. Like Locke, Warrington was also on the board of shareholders for the new aquarium company.

Above: Newland Hall in 1900 – the 54 roomed property once owned by Locke and Warrington (source)

Charles Kirk, on the other hand, was an architect – he ran a successful family firm based in Sleaford, Lincolnshire. His family, originally from Leicestershire, had long been associated with the building trade – father William was a surveyor and monumental mason, whereas Charles’ own son, also named Charles, later took over the family firm and was also on the list of Aquarium backers. This might also explain why Sleaford solicitors were involved with the company.

Above: Sleaford is a market town in Lincolnshire, where Charles Kirk was based (source)

Kirk first came to Sleaford on a commission during the 1820s, staying to design many of its buildings, which are now Grade II listed. These include Carre’s Grammar School in Tudor Gothic style (1834) and Westholme, a large house in Chateau Gothic style (1849). He also designed Boston Sessions House, now a Grade II listed building.

Above: Boston Sessions House, one of Kirk’s designs (source)

So how did Charles Kirk become involved with Scarborough Aquarium? It seems likely that his firm may have helped with the building of the attraction, especially given his son’s involvement, although by the 1870s Charles would have been an old man. Interestingly enough a Charles Kirk is listed as the promoter of Scarborough Aquarium and Theatre Company (one of many later reincarnations of the aquarium’s governing body) when this organisation was liquidated in 1886. More likely son than father, although both the Kirks seemingly made an incredible investment in the aquarium.

Another dedicated member of the board was Walter Marr Brydone. Like aquarium designer Eugenius Birch, he is listed as a civil engineer in the 1874 documents.


Above: Part of the company agreement (source)

Brydone was Chief Engineer for the Great Northern Railway between 1855 and 1861, and during his career designed and patented a number of signalling systems. During the early years of the Scarborough Aquarium, he was listed as a gentleman who lived in London. His father James was a Scottish surgeon who rose to fame whilst serving at the Battle of Trafalger. He was reportedly the first to sight the Franco-Spanish fleet without any visual aids – the transmission of this information to the HMS Victory was crucial to Britain’s success.

Although Walter did not follow in his father’s footsteps, his achievements in civil engineering were much celebrated, and coincidentally, he also lived in Lincolnshire, although resided in Boston, rather than Kirk’s Sleaford. It seems more than likely that the two men were well acquainted, but still the question remains: why did two successful professionals from Lincolnshire decide to put their money behind an aquarium in Scarborough?

Above: Boston, Lincolnshire – Walter Marr Brydone’s home town (source)

Eugenius Birch, the final board member. was a Londoner and also a legendary seaside architect. His talents were put to good use in places such as Margate, Brighton and Blackpool, and his aquarium involvement came after the architect turned his attention away from railways, bridges and viaducts to piers and the British seaside from the 1850s onwards. Perhaps it was Birch who knew Brydone or Kirk, or both – after all, these men were involved in similar industries. Either way, most of the shareholders were entering their later years, and none lived to witness the slow demise of their aquarium dream. Most likely they would have been relieved to see it rescued and revived by the Scarborough Corporation in the 1920s, but would arguably be horrified to see the dismal car park that took its place in the later 1960s.

Above: Eugenius Birch designed many beautiful structures, such as this pier in Eastbourne (source)

As for the aquarium idea – this seemed inevitable. The 1871 venture evidenced an early appetite for such an attraction, as did Victorian obsession with collecting things, whether that be fossils or real life sea creatures and plants. Combined with the boom of the British seaside holiday and the building of aquariums elsewhere, the possibility of this attraction presented an appealing challenge for a select group of engineers, architects and moneyed men.

Later a number of interesting characters would join their ranks in a bid to save the struggling company, but that’s a story for another post.


Most of the above information was derived from files held at the National Archives in London.

Other sources include:

English Heritage: Charles Kirk

Stanley History

John Leckenby’s Obituary

Gala Land

Gala Land was an underground entertainment complex in Scarborough. Originally a public aquarium, it was built in 1877 beneath the Spa Bridge, and initially operated as The People’s Palace & Aquarium (see below).


Above: Entrance to the old aquarium (source)

Designed by Eugenius Birch (who also designed the Brighton Aquarium and the Blackpool North Pier Indian Pavilion), the 2.25 acre complex also included a concert hall, reading room, dining area and fernery. With an interior inspired by Hindu temples, the aquarium boasted the (then) largest tank in the world. Holding over 75,000 gallons of water, the tank was also used for swimming exhibitions.

Scarborough Art Gallery has a painting of the interior in its permanent collection.

You can view it here.

Brighton Aquarium

Above: Brighton Aquarium, also designed by Eugenius Birch (source)

Various sources refer to the impressive decoration inside the aquarium, for example:

Red, buff and black encaustic tiles with a central hawthorn blossom pattern ornamented the dados, while those used on the floor were patterned with shells, seaweed, starfish and dolphins. Amid this colourful mass of international motifs, English pastoral scenes in oils were intended to add light and interest to the concert hall…


The aquarium struggled to attract visitors, and after just nine years it was sold to William Morgan – the manager of Blackpool Winter Gardens. It was not until Morgan’s tenure that the venue became a success. By 1890 a monkey house, aviary, seal and alligator ponds had all been added, and for a number of years the attraction thrived. Later additions included a swimming pool, theatre and skating rink. However, eventually the underground complex faced financial difficulties again, prompting Scarborough Council to take it over in 1925.


Above: Another view of the Aquarium entrance (source)

The venue was renamed Gala Land by council bosses, who oversaw its running until 1966.

Former Scarborough resident Margaret Smolensky refers to the attraction in Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society’s Community Archive:

At roughly about the bottom of Vernon Road where it intersects with the Valley Road was Gala Land. An underground sort of amusement park which I can only just remember. I do vaguely recall though that there was an all girl orchestra. In that same area, at the end of the Valley Road were the swimming baths. They were underground and what seemed to me at that time a long way down. The girls walked there from the old Girls‟ High School in the valley for lessons. Those of us who had bikes cycled and waited for the others. Once in the front door there were stairs going round and round and down and down to the low level baths. Since Margaret Dean and I had to wait for the walkers we spent the time leaning over the railing at the top spitting and trying to hit one or another of the black and while tiles on the far below floor. We never did get caught!!!

(sourcewith permission from Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society)

The Gala Land buildings were demolished to make way for an underground car park in 1968, which still stands today.


Above: Demolition of the site (source)

Adrian Hanwell, a member of Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society, remembers the demolition from his schooldays, and kindly contributed the following memory:

It was closed down (to make way for the underground car park) whilst I was at school (1965 to 1969) and we were horrified to see many of the wood and glass cased Victorian amusement machines smashed and dumped into skips. We did gain from this vandalism ourselves though, because many of the machines ran on lovely little Parvalux electric motors, so many pupils rescued them for use in our own projects. Even in the 1960s, those Victorian machines would have fetched worthwhile money at auction if anyone had bothered to send them there. Today, those machines would fetch anything upwards of £350.00 each and the more desirable ones could possibly fetch over £1,000.00.

I only got one motor myself. It was a geared motor and I used it to drive a small workshop sandstone (for sharpening knives and tools). That sandstone got smaller and smaller, then wore out during the last 40 years. I still have the motor and I have another sandstone, but I have yet to couple it up to the motor.

I became an Engineer and was not interested in the puppets (automatons) and only salvaged mechanical bits myself. Others did get backcloth pictures, puppets and other bits. I do not know whether they kept them.

Just as Adrian and his schoolmates rescued and reused parts of Gala Land in new projects, Stories From Scarborough similarly aims to use the memories of old attractions to inspire new ideas and art. Scarborough has a long history of reinvention and the rise and fall of its many former attractions are a testament to this.

Galaland is a recent addition to Stories From Scarborough– if you’d like a particular attraction to be added to the list, then please leave a comment below. Likewise, if you remember Gala Land/Galaland) please share your memories!



Scarborough Theatres and Halls

Scarborough Archaeological and Historical Society

(The society’s Community Archive is an excellent resource for anyone investigating the history of Scarborough)