Published: 00:01, 12 October 2016
| Updated: 11:35, 12 October 2016
Staff have reportedly been left in tears following the sudden closure of a tourist attraction.
Employees at Dickens World were told on Wednesday that they were being made redundant. One customer visited the centre at Chatham Maritime this morning and was told it was shut.
Stock was seen being loaded into vans and the doors to the premises were locked. Visitors to the Dickens World website are being told the online booking process is closed. The phone booking line goes to an answer phone.
It is understood that the Britannia Theatre and Porters Bar and Grill have also been closed, but this is unconfirmed, and customers can still book tickets for upcoming shows online, and over the phone.
Lisa Sullivan, 49, was due to take a group of 45 schoolchildren from Holland to Dickens World tomorrow.
She tried to call them this morning to change the time of the tour but was unable to get through on the phone.
She decided to go down and check with the office, but when Miss Sullivan got there she found staff in tears.
Miss Sullivan paid more than £350 for the tickets, but it is unclear whether she will get her money back.
“They said they couldn’t give me a refund there,” she said. “They told me to call their head office, which I did, and they asked me to send them a copy of my invoice and they’d try and sort it for me.
“The tourism people at the council told me some months ago that they might be closing so I always ask if they are still going to be open if I book a trip.”
Miss Sullivan said she only booked the trip last week and that she will be taken the students to Chatham’s Historic Dockyard instead.
She added: “I always try to take groups out in Medway, rather than London, like other groups. You’re trying to say Medway is a great place to be and this happens.”
One member of staff said they had been told by a Facebook message they had lost their jobs.
Jonathan Sadler, interim chief executive of Chatham Maritime Trust, said: “It is very much breaking news. We are putting out feelers to see what exactly is happening. I understand it is only Dickens World that is affected.”
A former staff member, who did not want to be named, said: "I am absolutely disgusted with the way loyal staff have been treated.
"We ran this business when no-one else could be bothered. We aren't getting any redundancy money, we work a week in hand so they're paying us what they owe us.
"They're not transferring us to any other businesses."
She added that a number of schools and oversees visitors were due to visit the attraction in the next few weeks, but that now had no way of contacting them.
She said: "They said we would have jobs until January, or Christmas, as we close for a month, and now we've been told we have no job, with no warning. I'm bewildered.
"There's been no management for months and now they're throwing us out on our ear."
Several of the restaurants which are part of the same complex are temporarily closed today, reportedly due to a gas leak. There are notices in some of the windows saying they are closed due to “unforeseen circumstances”.
Medway Labour leader Cllr Vince Maple said he was concerned for staff at the attraction and that it was vital to see staff being treated properly.
He said: “I am really concerned to hear reports of staff being made redundant via social media messaging - if those reports are true then that is absolutely unacceptable.
"This time will be a difficult, upsetting and challenging time for staff and their families and I would hope that Dickens World have treated their staff correctly, appropriately and with respect.
“It goes without saying that Charles Dickens represents much of Medway’s proud history, for example the only house he lived in in Medway is in the ward I represent and it is important that we celebrate him.
"However the reality is many people have said the concept of Dickens World was not one which was suitable for recognising the great author.”
It follows months of uncertainty about the future of Dickens World. The previous owners did not renew their lease, which expired on December 31 last year, and KentOnline's sister paper the Medway Messenger understood talks were being held with Medway Council about a possible change of use for the venue.
On October 3, the Messenger was contacted by a representative from a Dartford-based company Bull Essex which said it had taken on Dickens World, its theatre and bar. Several gigs have been booked for the rest of the year.
Dickens World has had a chequered history. The £62 million venue, which recreates the novels of Charles Dickens, finally opened its doors in May 2007 after several delays.
It was billed as one of the county’s top attractions, and set out to lure the thousands of tourists who flock to Rochester’s Dickens festivals each year.
When it first opened, it included a Great Expectations-themed boat ride, a haunted house, a 4D movie at Peggoty’s boathouse, an interactive Victorian schoolhouse and a Fagin’s den play area.
But the original company, Dickens World Ltd, placed itself in administration when it was unable to meet a £6 million tax bill, with investors losing £32 million.
The attraction was losing £500,000 to £1 million each year, and it was only its ownership of the neighbouring Odeon cinema and restaurant that kept it afloat.
Under the new ownership of Britannia Entertainment Ltd, admission prices were cut and the boat ride was scrapped.
After Dickens World Ltd went bust, its company director, Ed De Lucy, became a director of Britannia Entertainments but he resigned in 2013 after unveiling the scale of the losses.
He passed on his role to former general manager Lenny Andreou.
Under Britannia Entertainments, a lot of work was done to try to establish the theatre as a separate venue with high-profile gigs and party nights.
But earlier this year, according to the business’s website, a number of events have already been cancelled, including appearances by comic Jenny Eclair and singer Joe Longthorne.
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