It all started in Birkenhead . . .
When William Simcocks left the town with his family and settled on the Isle of Man in about 1900. He took over the running of a couple of the Prospect and Glen Helen hotels but his heart was in the land of theatre and entertainment. At the Glen Helen he opened up a small pleasure garden to cater for visitors; by 1902 he was manager of the Grand and Empire theatres and had decided to use his two middle names – Charles Elderton.
Elderton assembled a travelling troupe of entertainers and called them The Toreadors. They toured the Isle of Man, appearing under makeshift tents on seafronts. Outwardly, things seemed to be going well for Elderton, who had decided to present programmes of theatre shows during the winter months when most theatres closed. It didn’t work and in 1906 he was declared bankrupt. His Isle of Man career was over.
But . . . he had somehow managed to take ownership of the Theatre Royal in Hebburn-on-Tyne, now on South Tyneside. He had made contact with the manager of the Ellison House Hotel next door to the theatre. Henry Fail and Elderton were freemasons and had spotted a business opportunity across the River Tyne in Whitley, a large village with a growing tourist industry. Elderton, whose original Toreadors were still enjoying popularity on the Isle of Man, created a North East Toreadors group to perform in the area of Whitley Park. Appearing under makeshift awnings and temporary stages in a fenced area which they decided to paint with Spanish street scenes, the area became known as the Spanish City.
In 1908 the Spanish City, which had grown substantially over the previous two years, was officially opened. A simple three-arched entrance had been built facing the seafront and the area was now completely enclosed within a boundary. In 1909, large rides appeared, including a Figure 8 rollercoaster and a Water Chute. Elderton and Fail wanted to make a statement and create a new, grand entrance to the fairground. They hired the Newcastle architects Cackett& Burns Dick to survey the site and begin drawing up plans for new Pleasure Buildings. In December 1909 readers of the Whitley Seaside Chronicle and Visitors’ Gazette viewed an architect’s vision of the Dome.
The Whitley Pleasure Gardens Co. had pencilled in a May 1910 opening, only four months away! Building began in February 1910 and the construction was completed by builders Davidson and Miller 60 days later. The use of the revolutionary reinforced concrete technique pioneered by Francois Hennebique was perfect for the job, being cheap and fast. The Dome and surrounding buildings – a theatre and two wings of shop units – opened on 14 May 1910 to great fanfare. Visitors marvelled at the great Spanish City Dome, the second largest in the country at the time after St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, which provided a spectacular meeting place with uninterrupted views from ground level to its ceiling, 75 feet above. Thousands of visitors walked through the new entrance hall before entering the theatre or the fairground.
Telegraph-wire cyclists, acrobatic comedians, singing jockeys, mermaids, they all appeared at the Spanish City during its first decade. One of the wings hosted the menagerie, where visitors could see hyenas, antelopes and tigers! This was converted into the Picture House cinema in 1916.
During the First World War, the theatre was occupied by the military who left it in a bad state when hostilities ended in 1918. The management seized the opportunity to maximise its’ money-making potential by renovating it and converting it to a ballroom in 1920. At the same time, Burns Dick’s open and spacious Dome was drastically modified when a floor was added to cater for smaller dance events, completely destroying the view up to the Dome.
Between 1920 and 1940, ballroom dancing events in the Empress became all the rage, with the space becoming one of the major dance venues in the country. Music was provided by the Atkinson brothers – Harry and Jos. Q – and their bands. Future Frank Sinatra arranger Billy Ternent was a regular at the Empress, and the BBC broadcast regularly from the hall. The Dome became known as the ‘small hall’ and was used by dance clubs and for whist drives and talks.
What could be done with this gleaming white beacon on the North East coast when the Second World War broke out? Its potential as a wayfinding landmark for enemy bombers was obvious, so in 1939 the Dome was camouflaged with paint and netting. The fairground closed and a large gate at the bottom of Watts Slope, which was closed off in the early evening, was the only way onto the available patch of beach for any visitors. Soldiers were once again billeted in the Dome, which escaped a bombing raid on Whitley when nearby Marine View and parts of Mason and Charles Avenue were destroyed.
Whitley Council wasted no time in bringing the town back to life after the War, but the Dome remained grey until about 1949. Even when it was repainted, the original whiteness could not be achieved! The fairground was brought back to life, with longstanding Spanish City patron John Hoadley returning to Whitley Bay, initially as a tenant, and introducing many new rides. In 1950 he introduced the Whitley Bay Illuminations, with the Dome festooned in glorious lights which snaked along the Promenade towards Cullercoats.
The Pleasure Gardens Co. decided to convert the ballroom yet again, and in 1961 it became a bingo hall. Where once there was theatre and classy dancing, there was now a highly lucrative bingo business. Even a fire caused by a lightning strike in 1967 could not hold the Spanish City back.
Although the company was very successful, there appears to have been a lack of investment in the Dome, which was beginning to show signs of deterioration. In 1972, the cupolas beneath the famous Dancing Girls were deemed to be unsafe and were removed, disrupting the balance that Burns Dick had created between the major Dome and its two lesser counterparts. Inside the Dome, the Penthouse Bar and then the Starlight Rooms opened, where Geordie entertainers performed for punters. Shockingly, a suspended roof was installed in the Dome which completely hid the structure. Hoadley claimed this had been done to protect punters from falling plasterwork!
Takeovers, counter-takeovers and uncertainty characterise the 1980s Spanish City. Not even the arrival of Claude Cooper’s Corkscrew was enough to rescue the site. The Coopers, the Granada Group, Whitegate Leisure, Northern Leisure, Dobson Family Leisure all promised major investment in the Spanish City. Plans for supermarkets and hotels came and went as locals attempted to protect and revive their beloved Pleasure Buildings and fairground. In 1999, locals Paul Montgomery and Paul Burrows attempted to bring music back to the Dome but in December 1999 the demolition of the fairground was announced. Carlton Bingo retained control of the old Empress. North Tyneside Council brought the Pleasure Buildings and looked for investors to develop the old fairground site. The only plan brought forward was for the construction of a new school.
Summer 2002 – the last tenant moves out of the Dome and all of the shop units are closed. Marine Park First School is built on the fairground site.
Summer 2018 – Following years of redevelopment work and a £10m investment, Spanish City reopens as a leisure venue complete with Fish & Chip restaurant and takeaway, waffle and pancake house, Champagne bar, fine-dining restaurant, traditional tearooms and an event space.
This information is taken from Mick Sharp’s ‘The Dome of Memories’