A postcard from Weymouth Town

Postcard Series

Weymouth has a long and distinguished history

The town we presently know as Weymouth was originally two towns. Melcombe lay to the North of the shared Harbour and “old” Weymouth was across the water, to the South. The Harbour came to prominence in the 13th Century, mainly trading wool.

Cove Row (on the Weymouth side), from the Town Bridge
Cove Row (on the Weymouth side), from the Town Bridge

The two rival towns united in 1571, by Act of Parliament. This did not succeed in averting hostilities in the English Civil War. A cannonball can still be seen, embedded into a wall in Maiden Street. The resulting “double-borough” may be the reason why there were more councillors than in most UK townships, until recent reorganisations. Later, the Harbour became a busy fishing port.

Middle Harbour, looking towards the 1930's Bascule Town Bridge and St Joseph's
Middle Harbour, looking towards the 1930’s Bascule Town Bridge and St Joseph’s

Some historical events

Previous posts in this “Postcard” series highlight some of our local history. Developments include The Esplanade, contributions to the response to the Spanish Armada, smuggling, piracy and founding of the American Colonies.

Baptist Chapel (1513) on The Esplanade
Baptist Chapel (1513) on The Esplanade

Along the way, the “Black Death” entered Weymouth in 1348. Also, King George III effectively put Weymouth on the map as a seaside resort. Stacie’s was the first purpose-built hotel in Weymouth Town, from 1773. The site is currently the Royal Hotel (1899). During the Second World War, over 450,000 troops and 100,000 military vehicles paraded down The Esplanade to embark for Operation Overlord (D-Day).

Parts of the White Hart Pub date from the 15th Century
Parts of the White Hart Pub date from the 15th Century

Weymouth Town Centre

In Medieval times, the burgs of Weymouth and Melcombe Regis were little more than clusters of dwellings, either side of the trading and fishing port. In the 16th Century, a Dominican Friary, dating from 1418, built a jetty from the mainland on the Melcombe side to the approximate site of the current Alexandra Gardens.

The Golden Lion (1721)
The Golden Lion (1721)

Origin of Weymouth’s main thoroughfares

A succession of piers and embankments led to the extension of these lands and the population grew. The present-day St Mary and St Edmund streets were no more than pathways between grassy slopes.

The 17th Century Duke of Cornwall inn, next to the Old Guildhall
The 17th Century Duke of Cornwall inn, next to the Old Guildhall

Accommodation in the new tourist spot

By the 18th Century, houses in the growing “Weymouth Town” were a mix of ancient timber frame buildings and stone constructions, with mullion windows. The 1776 Improvement Act resulted in removal of thatch roofs by about 1784. The development of Weymouth as a tourist resort began with the visits by King George III, from 1750 to 1805. During this period, many more visitors, particularly wealthy patrons and gentry, chose to come to the Town but suitable accommodation was scarce.

St Mary's Church (1817), built by the architect Hamilton
St Mary’s Church (1817), built by the architect Hamilton

By the mid-nineteenth century, the Royal Baths, coffee salons, assembly and reading rooms were in regular use and some commercial buildings, such as banks, appeared.

The former Eliot, Pierce and Co Bank, which failed in 1897
The former Eliot, Pierce and Co Bank, which failed in 1897

Theatres, banks and open spaces

The Theatre Royal was, in 1771, one of the first purpose-built theatres outside London. Alexandra Gardens became public gardens in 1867, with a bandstand in 1891. In 1924, a concert hall replaced the bandstand.

Before HSBC, we do not know who occupied this 19th Century building
Before HSBC, we do not know who occupied this 19th Century building

Roller-skating rinks provided adventurous entertainment at the Burdon Hotel and Grange Road. The coming of affordable rail travel for all in the 1850’s saw rapid development in Weymouth. Trade routes from the Channel Islands added greatly to the wealth of the area. New Town Centre dwellings, shops and inns opened, with many now offering modest rooms for travelers. Weymouth Town had arrived!

A postcard from Weymouth Esplanade

Postcard Series

Weymouth Esplanade is a broad street sweeping around the Bay towards the Pavilion Theatre

The old fairy lights along the Esplanade
The old fairy lights along the Esplanade

A brief history of Weymouth Esplanade

In the late 16th century, there was no sign of what was to become the Esplanade. There was a grassy strip, separating the small town of Melcombe Regis from the Beach. The only “construction” possibly marking the line of the future Esplanade was a defence platform. This guarded against French attacks. By the 1750’s, several bathing “buses” were in use. These allowed visitors to enjoy the health benefits of sea-bathing while protecting from the clay-like sea bed. Prince William Henry, Duke of Gloucester, built the first notable house along the shore-line (Gloucester Lodge). He urged his brother, KIng George III, to visit and the grand social life of Weymouth took off. The germ of Weymouth Esplanade began.

Replica of the type of bathing machine King George III would have used between about 1780 and 1805
Replica of the type of bathing machine King George III would have used between about 1780 and 1805, while staying at his brother’s residence, Gloucester Lodge
Statue commemorating King George III
Statue commemorating King George III, erected in 1801 at the meeting of Saint Thomas Street, Saint Mary Street and The Esplanade

Georgian Architecture on Weymouth Esplanade

Early on, it became apparent there was not enough accommodation of sufficient standard for visiting gentry. “Promenades” along the sea front became popular as crowds followed the King on his daily walks. Unfortunately, the sea front at that time consisted mostly of rear gardens and a long, thin rubbish dump of sorts. Consequently, visitors stayed in rather poor housing in the Town Centre. Andrew Sproule built the original Royal Hotel. The architect, Hamilton, designed new Georgian terraces, in sections, forming a broad curve along the sea front.

James Hamilton, Architect

The relatively unknown architect, James Hamilton developed the broad sweeping style of the Georgian Terraces. These have become a main characteristic of the Weymouth frontage. From repairs to the inner Harbour in 1797, through to design of the Osmington Hillside Carving in 1802 and George III commemorative statue in 1810, Hamilton gradually came to prominence.

Adapting to tourism

Because of increasing tourist numbers, owners used the terraces to provide lodgings for relatively wealthy guests and the Esplanade was “born”. To maintain consistent appearance, later infills generally matched the standard form of the main Georgian Terraces. Due to these efforts, by 1836, 184 of these buildings offered “superior” acommodation for guests.

Listed building Terraces

Hamilton designed the York buildings in the 1780’s, then Gloucester Row in the 1790’s and, to the South, Devonshire Buildings (1805) and Pulteney Buildings (1810), followed by Johnstone Row. His last work was Saint Mary’s Church in the Town. To match the rounded termination at Johnstone Row, in 1845, the Roundhouse, on the end of the Devonshire buildings, has a distinctive “lighthouse” appearance. The later Beach House on Brunswick Terrace is also in semi-circular form. English Heritage listed most of these terraces. Thus, they require to be of more or less uniform appearance and decoration.

General view of Weymouth sea front from the Peninsula Pier
General view of Weymouth sea front from the Peninsula Pier

Later developments

The Great Tempest of 1824 destroyed much of the new Esplanade, but rebuilding and further development quickly restarted. The retaining wall appeared in 1834. In 1887, the Victorians built the Jubilee Clocktower, to celebrate the Queen’s Jubilee. Two libraries flourished, along with Assembly Rooms and a Theatre near the present-day Bond Street. The Theatre closed in 1859. Around then, the arrival of railway services to Weymouth saw the advent of seaside holidays for the masses. Goerge Stevenson gifted an area of land (previously used as a communal midden) to the Town and this became known Alexandra Gardens. By 1924, it added a Theatre and then turned into an amusement arcade in the 1960’s.

In 1889, the Victorian shelters appeared along the Esplanade. By 1908, there was a new Theatre, The Pavilion, later The Ritz, sited at the Southern end of The Esplanade. A fire destroyed The Ritz in 1954 and the New Weymouth Pavilion was built on the same site in 1960.

The Esplanade in Wartime

During the Second World War, The Esplanade saw plenty of action, mainly leading up to the Normandy Landings. About 517,000 Allied Troops and over 100,000 vehicles travelled down the Esplanade to reach their embarkation points in the Harbour. A number of the sea front hotels were converted into military headquarters, with interconnecting doors still visible in some cases. In more recent times, the beach retaining wall was realigned and raised, along with broadening of the Esplanade itself.

The modern Esplanade

Currently, the Esplanade is a broad, sweeping road, stretching from Brunswick Terrace for over 800 metres to Weymouth Pavilion, on the Peninsula. There are only about 85 guesthouses and hotels operating currently. However, these are supplemented by various amusement arcades, shops and cafes. Rossi’s Ice Cream Parlour has been operating since 1934. Although the traffic is busy, it is still a splendid walk to enjoy the Georgian architecture on one side and the glorious sea view on the other. Modern additions include illuminated planters, flower beds and the old Lifeguard/Tourist Centre building is being renovated to become a “superloo” for visitors. New art-installation lighting coruscates with innumerable changing light patterns at night. A feast for the eyes!

One of the new illuminated flower beds along the Esplanade