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Dreamland Theme Park, in Margate, celebrates 100-year birthday


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Today marks a century since a beloved coastal theme park opened its doors to the public.

Dreamland Theme Park, in Margate, has been welcoming families, holiday-makers, and pleasure seekers for the past 100 years, leaving an indelible mark on Thanet for generations of people.

Crowds at Dreamland in the 1920s. Picture: Loaned by Nick Evans and Dreamland Trust
Crowds at Dreamland in the 1920s. Picture: Loaned by Nick Evans and Dreamland Trust

Celebrations were due to be marked at the weekend with a two-day festival, featuring the likes of big beat icon Fatboy Slim and ska legends Madness.

But the coronavirus pandemic forced the park to close and all events to be cancelled, leading bosses to confirm that rides would not reopen again in 2020.

Instead Dreamland will be welcoming customers back into the premises this August with a socially-distanced drive-in cinema.

This is not the first time the ancient pleasure park has weathered difficult times.

In fact, over its 100-year life span it has died and been resurrected over and over, surviving everything from economic disaster to a suspected arson attack.

Watch Dreamland's history of peaks and troughs

Dreamland’s lengthy history goes back to 1863, when catering company Spiers and Pond opened The Hall by the Sea.

Years later, owner George Sanger decided to add to the dance hall and restaurant, building a pleasure garden complete with a lake and circus animals to attract more visitors.

In 1911 Sanger died under mysterious circumstances, which led John Iles to purchase the site in 1919.

Iles named it Dreamland and began the construction of a number of rides including the Scenic Railway, world-famous for being the oldest rollercoaster in the UK.

A packed Margate beach with Dreamland in the background. Date unknown. Picture: Thanet council
A packed Margate beach with Dreamland in the background. Date unknown. Picture: Thanet council
Staff photo at Dreamland from the 1920s
Staff photo at Dreamland from the 1920s
Dreamland entrance in 1923
Dreamland entrance in 1923

In 1920, the first year the park opened under the new name, the wooden ride is thought to have carried half a million passengers on its mile-long tracks.

Something of a magnet for fires, the railway survived blazes in 1949 and 1957, but in 2008 a suspected arson attack destroyed almost half of the structure.

But the legacy of the ride lived on, being rebuilt before the park's grand re-opening in 2015.

Iles' vision to create an attraction in line with the huge American amusement parks, which cost him a pretty penny at half a million pounds.

After the Second World War, which saw the park station thousands of British and Allied troops after Dunkirk, Dreamland opened once again in the 1950s.

Teddy Boys in 1954 at Dreamland. Picture: Loaned by Nick Evans and Dreamland Trust
Teddy Boys in 1954 at Dreamland. Picture: Loaned by Nick Evans and Dreamland Trust
People enjoying one of the many rides at Dreamland in 1983
People enjoying one of the many rides at Dreamland in 1983
Aerial view of the giant Ferris wheel at Dreamland. Picture from September 1988
Aerial view of the giant Ferris wheel at Dreamland. Picture from September 1988

The ballroom was a particular draw for people in the 60s and 70s, partying the night away as famous DJs and musicians hosted huge dance evenings.

The success of the theme park was spurred on by the continuing love for Margate as a sunny seaside resort, with people travelling from all over the country with friends and family during the summer months.

But as the decade flipped and air travel became much more affordable, the park experienced a significant decline in footfall in the 1980s.

The declining interest from visitors resulted in new ownership, and Jimmy Godden set upon a revamp in the 1990s to keep the park moving with the times.

Despite his efforts, the park struggled to stay open in the early 2000s and eventually closed in 2005.

The Dreamland River Caves. Picture: John Hutchinson Collection courtesy of the Dreamland Trust
The Dreamland River Caves. Picture: John Hutchinson Collection courtesy of the Dreamland Trust
The 'Bembom Brothers' logo is seen at Dreamland. Date unknown. Picture courtesy of Cinema Treasures
The 'Bembom Brothers' logo is seen at Dreamland. Date unknown. Picture courtesy of Cinema Treasures
The paratrooper ride, from the 1970s. Picture: John Hutchinson Collection courtesy of the Dreamland Trust
The paratrooper ride, from the 1970s. Picture: John Hutchinson Collection courtesy of the Dreamland Trust

After the closure the Save Dreamland Campaign and the Dreamland Trust were formed, in the hopes of once again resurrecting the site and protecting its historical significance.

Dreamland opened its doors once again in June 2015, after a huge £28m renovation and restoration of the historic Scenic Railway.

But the troubles were not quite over.

Sands Heritage Limited, the company in charge of the restoration, had to apply to the High Court to arrange the payment of £2.9 million in debt in December 2015.

This was after Thanet Council announced that capital overspend on the new revamped theme park had reached £2m.

The Scenic Railway blaze in 2008
The Scenic Railway blaze in 2008
David Sanger cutting the ribbon at the Dreamland opening in 2015
David Sanger cutting the ribbon at the Dreamland opening in 2015
Dreamland had 700,000 visitors in 2019. Picture credit: Dreamland
Dreamland had 700,000 visitors in 2019. Picture credit: Dreamland

In its first year of reopening more than 300,000 people visited Dreamland, and 40 bands performed.

Big-name acts such as Gorillaz, The Libertines, and The Happy Mondays have sinced played at the site, attracting music fans from across the country.

Despite the big numbers, the park entered into administration in 2016.

Administrators Duff and Phelps were confident of a bright future for the park, and announced free entry with a new pay-per-ride scheme.

The park announced coming out of administration just six months later, after a successful summer of events.

Dreamland in 2017
Dreamland in 2017

Last year the theme park celebrated its most successful period since reopening, welcoming more than 700,000 visitors.

But the future of the site has been thrown into uncertainty once again by the ongoing coronavirus pandemic.

In May 2020, park bosses announced they had made 52 staff redundant as a result of the drastic fall in revenue.

Chief executive Eddie Kemsley said: "Our business planning remains fluid and when we have a clearer picture of how leisure venues will be operated, we hope to be in a position to rehire staff.

"We are determined to survive, and we will return to entertain the thousands of families and fans who have supported us over the years."

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