By Jodie Nesling
Cliftonville’s Oval Bandstand and Lawns is set for a new chapter in its illustrious history after Thanet council confirmed the transfer of its lands to a local community group.
The authority placed the land, on Ethelbert Crescent, up for disposal in January 2019 with the method of sale via Community Asset Transfer. This means the land would remain in public hands and be safeguarded against development.
Several groups submitted bids but it was residents group Gordon Road Area Street Scheme (GRASS) that proved successful. The group serves the Oval’s surrounding streets and has already hosted free events at the site including the Cliftonville Games and Outdoor Cinema screenings.
GRASS secretary Stephen Darrer says they were thrilled to hear the news: “I speak on behalf of everybody here at GRASS when I say we are thrilled and humbled to have been awarded the Oval site via Community Asset Transfer. We’ve worked very hard for almost a year to reach this stage and are overwhelmed with excitement.”
The bid was backed by the Cliftonville Residents Association, headed up by June Chadband, which still holds regular farmers’ markets at the site and also organised numerous concerts on the bandstand until three years ago.
The historic site has welcomed an array of entertainers and visitors over the years, from wrestlers to royalty, and was also the view TS Eliot enjoyed from his room at the Albermarle Hotel when he was about to write the literary epic, The Wasteland.
But today, despite the presence of the lively Cliftonville Farmers Market, the Oval is in a state of decline with the bandstand in need of restoration and fresh ideas to once again create a thriving events and community space.
Stephen says the group is aware of the cultural importance of the land. He said: “The council has placed its faith in GRASS to be suitable custodians of the land which has such a rich history within Thanet and wider UK seaside culture. The news allows us to initiate a number of new projects and to start building on existing ones – there is much to do but we are determined as an organisation firmly rooted in our community that this amazing space will be a truly inclusive community-first area that celebrates our beautiful, vibrant coastline and diverse demographic.
“We’d like to thank Thanet council for their co-operation. We are looking forward to engaging with the community on all our future plans.”
The Oval Bandstand and Lawns – A 130 years of British seaside culture
Thanks to Suzannah Foad of Margate Local & Family History
For more than a century the Cliftonville site in Queen’s Gardens, Ethelbert Crescent has enjoyed all the eccentricities of seaside culture.
This sunken area that houses the bandstand in Queen’s Gardens, Ethelbert Crescent, was home to model villages, donkeys, cricket players and even a side-kick of legendary comic, Benny Hill.
Previously owned by school headmaster Charles Schimmellmann the land was sold to Jacob Lewis in 1890 who first allowed the construction of a temporary bandstand. In 1897 this was replaced with an ornate wrought-iron structure complete with landscaped amphitheatre with the capacity for 2,000 deckchairs.
The surrounding grass was kept short due to local donkey-keeper Benjamin Baker grazed his animals on the area,
For the next 30 years, The Oval was the centre of Cliftonville entertainment. In 1926, improvements were made and an impressive opening ceremony was staged when the Prince of Wales, later the Duke of Windsor, opened the Prince’s Walk promenade.
Between the wars, many vocalists and comedians who played at The Oval, went on to fame and fortune. In 1926/27, Arthur Askey was the star attraction with The Oval Concert Party.
After World War Two, bandshows at The Oval restarted. Each year the shows were entitled “Frederick Hargreaves presents Bandshow of (year) starring Johnny O’Rourke, his Trumpet and Orchestra – see the board for programmes and posters”. Bands that played at The Oval included a number of local musicians over the years. Pianists included Alex Inman in 1959 and trombonist Jackie Wright in 1960 – who later found fame in The Benny Hill Show. Do you remember the little fellow who Benny Hill would pat on the head? Vocalists Carole Hayes and Dennis Stewart also appeared in the 1950s.
In the late 1960s and ’70s, a more sophisticated public wanted a different type of seaside entertainment, and The Oval never went back to the old-style seaside concert parties. Instead, it experimented with all-in wrestling with the likes of wrestlers Pat Roach and Big Daddy and to sing songs around an electric organ with Tony Savage.
The Cliftonville Residents Association, with June and husband Keith, organised bandstand concerts at the site for some 20 years.