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

Esplanade lighting scheme – November 2019

Nearly 2 years ago, meetings were held to develop and consult on a new Esplanade lighting scheme, to be designed by consultants Tonkin Liu. From about 13 candidate proposals, the plan devolved to a system of pc-controlled LED strips, mounted in highly corrosion-resistant aluminium alloy fixing shrouds, vertically on street furniture (principally streetlamps).

Originally, it was hoped there would be up to 80 lighting strips installed but the finished project has only 28(?) The new Weymouth Town Council has been charged with operating and maintaining the system following by “gifting” from the merged Dorset County Council (after they subsumed most of the Town’s assets).

Although the new lighting is less bright than neon displays, streetlamps and vehicle headlights, they make a gentle backdrop in the dark and a few more would have highlighted the sweep of the Beach as the old fairy lights did. On the other hand, the reduced numbers has probably diminsihed the perceived impact – contrast the brilliant displays illuminating the Pavilion Theatre.

The old fairy lights, from about 10 years ago.